By Father Sean Levine
Pascha takes place in the spring; the season of increasing light that comes as the world emerges from the darkness of winter. While the Feast of Nativity takes place at the darkest point of the year, the Feast of Feasts takes place within the context of increasing light after the long months of darkness. In both Feasts, we celebrate the emergence (or breaking through) of light in the midst of the dark. Nowhere have I experienced the profundity of this reality more poignantly than at Kandahar Airfield, Regional Command South, Afghanistan.
The only standing Christian “churches” in Afghanistan belong to the Romanian Orthodox Church, and they were built by Romanian military personnel with the help of other men and women belonging to various military and/or civilian organizations with whom the Romanians share bases. In Kandahar, a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant helped to supply materials and building expertise in order to construct a replica of one of Romania’s beloved monastic chapels. The Romanians have vowed to disassemble this chapel and take it home with them when their time in Afghanistan comes to a close.
Other chapel facilities exist on every base in the country, but these buildings facilitate all sorts of meetings and are not, strictly speaking, Churches. The Church in Kandahar, where I served Holy Week and Pascha in 2011, belongs to the Romanian Orthodox Church, and this temple remains dedicated to Orthodox Christian worship. On its main cupola, their stands, stretched high into the sky over the base, the Life-giving and Honorable Cross of our Lord; the only such religious symbol of its type on the base.
We started with nocturnes in the darkened Church located in southern Afghanistan, and this service spoke, with the most profound depth, of the threat of sin and death. On Holy Friday, in the center of the Church, we placed a wooden iconographic representation of the winding sheet (since it is not practical to use an actual epitaphios, which would be quickly ruined by travel and dirt). There lay the Savior, and with Him the hope of the whole world, dead and entombed on a simple foldout table covered in black cloth in one of the world’s most dangerous war zones.
Gathered around that table, people from the United States, India, Egypt, Romania, Bulgaria, and several other countries experienced two distinct types of darkness: the darkness of the Crucifixion and the darkness of war. Fighting men and women stood solemnly by the tomb of the One who gave His life without a fight in order to save the world. The irony struck my mind hard creating one of those moments of intense cognitive dissonance that one never forgets. I thought to myself, “Does this even make sense? How can we reconcile all of this? What does this irony really mean? Am I desecrating the very idea of “Life in Death through surrender” by celebrating this service for war fighters in a combat zone? Does this belong here?”
Several moments later, we extinguished all light, and then began chanting, “Thy Resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing. Enable us on earth to glorify Thee in purity of heart.” From the darkened sanctuary, through the Royal Doors, I brought forth the paschal light shining from the trikiri, and the light spread through the darkened chapel as the faithful lit their candles. We concluded our procession around the chapel and proclaimed the resurrection on the chapel steps, and then entered the brightened nave. At that moment, clarity washed over me as did the light of Holy Pascha: of course the Cross/Resurrection belongs in a combat zone; in fact, where else on this war-torn planet could such glorious realities be more aptly proclaimed?
For the Orthodox faithful celebrating these services, the true Light of the Gospel burst forth right in the midst of the heart of darkness. Outside the fence of that base existed an active and dangerous war zone; arguably one of the most dangerous and volatile places on earth. What better place could there be in which to shine the light of the reality that war will not have the last word. War remains one of the most graphic reminders that this world has not yet been fully redeemed, Cain still slays Able daily on this cosmic battlefield/cemetery, and the deceiving and destructive perpetrator of sin and human brokenness still prowls about reaping havoc. And right there, in the midst of that utter darkness, the Light of Pascha burst forth and shined with all the glory of the Life that trampled down death by death; that Life that walked out of the tomb having harrowed hell itself.
For the rest of that Paschal service, I felt very much “at home.” Thousands of miles away from the safe parishes of the United States, I sensed that I had been instrumental in bringing Pascha to exactly the place where it was the most “needed.” All of us would have preferred to celebrate this glorious Feast of Feasts in the various parishes of our native countries, for sure. Yet Pascha is Pascha wherever you celebrate it, and that night/morning of 23/24 April 2011, we raised war-torn Kandahar, Afghanistan into the realm of the reality that “Christ IS risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” We celebrated the Light of Life in the midst of the darkness of war and death, and the shadows fled.
Photos in this article are courtesy of The U.S. Army and taken by Sgt. Jennifer Spradlin, 16th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment