While everyone back home in the States celebrated Easter on April 21, I opted for the local custom, which is to follow the Orthodox calendar. Orthodox Easter, or Pascha as they prefer here, was observed on April 28 this year.
I decided that Pascha, the most important day in the Orthodox calendar (superseding even Christmas), would be a good time to visit Comrat, Gagauzia. Pretty much the only thing this town has going for it is its bright yellow and very photogenic Orthodox church, so why not observe my Moldavian Easter there? Plus, it would be my first visit to the breakaway, pro-Russia region of Gagauzia, home of a Turkish-related ethnic group that wants independence but can’t really function on its own at this point, at least not as well as Transnistria.
Comrat is small, though it’s the capital and largest town in Gagauzia. And indeed, there is pretty much nothing to do there if you don’t have a local connection, other than to visit the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in the center.
I stopped by the cathedral to get some pictures while it was still light out, and while the Easter (excuse me, Pascha) crowd wasn’t around. It was then that I was reminded of something I probably already knew but hadn’t remembered–in the Orthodox tradition, Pascha is celebrated with an all-night mass, and then Pascha day itself is spent with friends and family. If I were to show up the next morning, I would find the church empty and probably locked up. I’m glad I asked the priest(?) on duty about mass times.
Speaking of the priest(?) on duty (I don’t know Orthodox titles and hierarchy, hence the question mark), we chatted for a bit, at least the best we could with his handful of English words and Google Translate. The conversation came to an end something like this:
Priest: Where are you from?
Me: The United States.
Priest: Your dollar bill has the Illuminati on it. *shakes head, crosses himself*
I decided I should sleep a bit if I planned to be at mass all night, but first I needed some dinner. I had hoped to find some authentic Gagauzian food while there, but I soon learned that there was no such restaurant. This makes sense I guess, since Comrat has little tourism and the locals would just cook the good stuff at home. In the end I had to settle for a mediocre burger–my first since leaving the States. Then I slept for a couple hours.
I arrived at the cathedral at about eleven, and already a crowd had formed. The entry to the property was lined with mostly babushkas, each parked on a stool behind a basket full of Lent-forbidden food and surrounded by candles. They were the hardcore faithful, I suppose. As the night wore on, more of the town arrived to extend the trail of baskets and candles until it circled the church and lined the sidewalks nearby. I had no idea what was going on, but it was pretty.
I went inside for a while. I love visiting Orthodox services; they somehow manage to be chaotic and reverent at the same time (kind of like life as a Christian should be). And of course every surface in the place was elaborately decorated with icons and candles and color. I stood reverently for a while, respecting the drone of the priests and the obeisance of the congregation. The service eventually reached a part where the priests led everyone out of the church, and they all marched around the building three times to represent the three days Christ spent in the tomb. From this point I remained outside with the ever-growing crowd; the church sanctuary was far too small for anyone to stay inside for more than a few minutes.
Finally, at about 3:30 Easter morning, the bells began to ring, and everyone milling about with friends and family returned to their own Easter basket, like something was about to go down. And indeed, after a few minutes I suddenly got splashed in the face with scented water, catching me entirely off guard, and then again, and again. Once I wiped my eyes clear, I saw that the various priests were passing by the crowd and sprinkling a blessing of holy water over the people and their baskets. And just like that, everyone picked up their baskets and went home to celebrate with their families (and sleep a little, I presume). All the food forbidden during Lent was now fair game.
So that was Pascha, or Orthodox Easter, from an outsider perspective. I’m glad I got to glimpse a bit of this tradition in a community small enough that bells could peal all night long and no one called in a noise complaint, because burning candles and ringing bells and joyful fellowship was just what the entire community always did together on this night.
Finally, a non-sequitur: Here is the tiniest public art in all of Chisinau. It can be found on a railing post at Valea Morilor Park.