Easter Sunday 1991 found me flying to Bulgaria on a professional fact-finding trip with four colleagues. While there, our group unexpectedly became spectators to Bulgaria's Orthodox Easter celebrations, observed a week after our Western Easter.
What we experienced was the "return" of Easter after decades of Communist suppression of religious activity. Although the country's massive 1989 governmental changes supported the right to worship, it would take until this year to mark Easter's true resurgence.
Our hosts in Sofia were obviously nervous about the upcoming Easter weekend. Could the new government be trusted? Would police disperse the gatherings? Was it safe to be seen going to church?
We heard these and other concerns when, on Orthodox Good Friday, we were taken to Sofia's Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a place of grandeur that holds major cultural and historic significance for Bulgaria and a place turned into a museum under Communism. To our guides' surprise, streets and plazas around the cathedral were cordoned off, guarded, empty of both people and traffic. Clearly something was to happen, but our guides didn't know what and were reluctant to inquire of anyone. We finally learned the church was closed for Easter preparations, a completely unexpected explanation.
Saturday brought additional encounters with Easter plans -- and with the building excitement. First my colleagues and I met a Bulgarian counterpart who rushed us through our early-morning meeting, apologizing for his haste: He needed to begin his trip to his home village to celebrate Easter with his parents.
Next on our agenda was a mid-morning visit to the restored village of Koprivshtitsa, a place of pride for Bulgarians, showing off the country's 19th-century artistic revival. Our wanderings through the town's almost empty streets brought us to a simple, bright blue wooden Orthodox church. As we rounded a corner of the building, we surprised a priest sitting outside under the eves, talking with friends.
This black-clad, bearded young man with magnetic blue eyes invited us into his church. In English, he explained the icons and the altar, apologizing for the disrepair of both the building and its art, and offering to sing part of the Easter celebratory service for us. As we stood in the cold and damp barely lit building, we listened to words being sung in a language neither my colleagues nor I spoke. But the emotion and beauty of the liturgy were unmistakable.
Returning to Sofia mid-afternoon, we found the mood intensifying. Village women selling items in open-air markets were packing up early to return to homes outside Sofia "to get ready for Easter." In front of hotels, on street corners and in parks, vendors were selling brightly painted hard-boiled eggs. A shopkeeper chastised one of our group for trying to squeeze in a purchase as the store was closing. Didn't my colleague understand the owner had "to get ready for Easter?"
After a late-evening dinner Saturday, our hosts decided to take us to a small, out-of-the-way church. Only then did I realize Easter would be celebrated at Saturday midnight, not Sunday morning.
We arrived at the church about 11 p.m. to find it full. We headed toward larger churches, but the throngs of people filling the streets prevented our even approaching the buildings. We gave up and joined the crowds quietly moving on dimly lit streets. We later learned that tens of thousands were on Sofia's streets that night.
As we moved along, we were blocked by a gathering in front of a museum, formerly a royal palace. From the balcony, a priest was conducting a service. Almost everyone in the crowd, including children, was holding a lighted taper. Each of us was given one by unknown individuals.
Our hosts told us the speaker was a "dissident" priest, someone not allowed to have a church during the Communist period. In the waning months of that era, this priest had spoken in support of democratic change, often in this plaza, where we now were. Suddenly people raised their candles skyward, a silent action echoing the public democracy demonstrations two years earlier. The priest had incorporated this reenactment into his service.
Around midnight we moved to the plaza outside the Nevsky Cathedral, where bells were tolling. Because of the dense crowd, we stopped about 50 yards from the entrance, although we still could see the priests as they came outside the church to bless those unable to enter. Throughout the plaza, people of all ages, most with a lit taper, moved quietly or simply stood close together in the shadows of the few streetlights. The elderly sat on curbs, some holding sleeping infants. There was no traffic, no people noises, no bright lights -- only the bells, the quiet, the muted light.
The memory of that Easter has stayed with me. I had been a spectator to an unfolding drama, the cultural, religious and social complexity of which I did not comprehend. I do not know what that first celebratory Easter in decades meant to the individuals involved. But I had been given the gift of being in the midst of a people who, while undergoing massive social change and economic upheaval, spontaneously came together by the thousands to reach for the spiritual connectedness that strengthens lives. This memory has become part of my Eastertide, and I am grateful.