To the left of the door of the Orthodox Cathedral of Holy Virgin Protection on 2nd St, a sign declared that it was "A healing alternative to godless secularism". Through the glass doors, the interior of the church glowed with a rich golden light. Outside, a woman wearing a headscarf paced back and forth on the pavement, a cellphone pressed to her ear. From time to time, people would emerge from the cathedral to smoke or make phone calls, then plunge back in to rejoin the Good Friday service.
I had been invited to take photographs of the Easter service by my friend C., who is a member of the congregation at the cathedral. Despite her assurances that they would like nothing better than to have someone barge into the middle of their holiest rituals and thrust a camera in their faces, I hesitated to go in. What if they spotted me instantly as a godless secularist, or if I inadvertently offended everyone by firing off a barrage of camera flashes at the holiest moment? I loitered outside as darkness fell, while an NYPD helicopter orbited thunderously overhead, searchlight sweeping back and forth across Avenue A and 1st Avenue. The woman in the orange headscarf put away her phone and went inside.
It was quite dark when the procession emerged from the cathedral, cascading down the steep steps and spilling onto 2nd St. Traditionally, the icon is carried three times around the church; in New York, where the 2nd St Cathedral is embedded in a city block and walking around the church itself is impossible, they make do with a single circuit of the adjacent block.
The procession moved at a surprisingly brisk pace, sweeping out onto 1st Avenue and heading north, startling the smokers outside the bars by the sudden appearance of a parade of mediaeval figures bearing banners and candles, icons and canopies held aloft by magnificently robed and bearded priests. Wreaths of gray incense smoke competed with the exhaust fumes of the passing cars. In the van of the procession, a small boy led the way with a single candle, dressed in an adult's leather jacket that reached to his ankles. Behind him came lay members carrying brocaded banners, then the priest carrying the Gospels, followed by the bier of Christ, its tasselled covering worked with gilded letters in Cyrillic. The congregation, carrying their candles in red translucent holders, followed behind, singing.
They swung left onto 3rd St, down 2nd Avenue, and then back onto 2nd St. A man in a baseball cap, shielded candle held in one hand, stood in the center of the street directing traffic with the other. The procession paused momentarily to allow an enormous white stretch limousine through, then flowed smoothly back up the steps and into the church again. I followed.
Inside, the service resumed. In the warm gold glow of the nave, the priests clustered before the iconostasis, which was set about with palm fronds and cut flowers. The congregation, standing, intoned responses or dipped briefly to touch the floor with one hand as prayers were read. The bearded priest who had carried the main icon in the procession delivered a succinct homily in which he hinted at the secularism outside the protective walls of the church and the general indifference of New Yorkers and the world at large towards Christ's message and His followers, making a parallel between reactions to the sight of the parade with the indifference and hostility with which Christ Himself had been received. I felt he was overstating the case slightly to make a point; New Yorkers love a show, and the pageantry of the Orthodox Easter made it one of the better shows in town that night. If there was any hostility about, I hadn't noticed it.
Orthodox services have the reputation of being tremendously long. This one, which had been going on for several hours. didn't so much end as dissolve. With the sermon finished, the congregation seemed to relax and there was a general sense of winding down. A few men went outside to smoke again. Little girls in headscarves shuffled forward to light candles. Some slightly older boys, released from their vestments, darted out of the nave and began to race up and down the carpeted stairs, to the accompaniment of reproving hisses and urgent orders to
“Come here! Now!” from their mothers. The half-circle of worshippers facing the altar dissolved into smaller groups.
Outside, New York's Friday night continued. Outside Lucky Chang's, two figures in denim miniskirts who may or may not have been women were chatting. The traffic was snarled up on 1st Avenue and Houston St. Emerging from the golden womb of the Easter service, I felt as if I had come from some place very far away, and the ordinary people on the streets seemed bizarre and out of place.