1. I had not anticipated that the services on Friday and Saturday would not be depressing and guilt-inducing, but rather, joyful in a piercing way—light, clean, not heavy, and certainly not manipulative the way some (not all!!) non-Orthodox Holy Week services can sometimes be.
2. I had not anticipated the complete wonkiness of the Orthodox presentation of time—throughout the week and weekend, matins and vespers seemed to have been reversed, and sometime in the midst of Holy Saturday, all the officiants changed their vestments to white, and the purple Lenten candles were replaced by white Paschal candles—but no, it wasn't actually Easter yet. What was it? Some kind of threshold time? All times seemed to be somehow juxtaposed upon, or embedded in, each other. And apparently, the entire season of Pascha is regarded as whole, a single day, "the day without evening," "the eighth day."
3. I had not expected to find out that hell has its very own lamentation, song, regret, and here it is:
Today hell cries out groaning:
I should not have accepted the Man born of Mary.
He shattered the gates of brass.
As God, He raised the souls that I held captive…
Today, hell cries out groaning:
My dominion has been shattered.
I received a dead man as one of the dead,
but against Him I could not prevail.
From eternity I had ruled the dead,
but behold, He raises all.
Because of Him, I perish.
Today, hell cries out groaning:
My power has been trampled upon.
The Shepherd has been crucified and Adam has been raised.
I have been deprived of those whom I ruled.
Those whom I have swallowed in my strength
I have given up.
He who was crucified has emptied the tomb.
The power of death has been vanquished.
4. I had not expected to experience the sensation of being on a fast-moving train, the Pascha express, that was proceeding with phenomenal power and purpose, whether or not I was personally on or even near its time-table. I felt this most strongly on Saturday night as I got into the car to head to church—I didn't feel ready! There were aspects of Great Lent and Holy Week that I hadn't sufficiently taken in!—Wait, slow down, back up even, pause, let me process some stuff!—but no, the train was on its way, and I was, in some disoriented, stunned sense, aboard, thinking of the bright blur of Turner's famous painting, "Rain, Steam, and Speed." Nor, ultimately, despite my ongoing struggle with various aspects of Orthodoxy, did I have any desire to disembark. And a few hours later, it was as if St. John of Chrystostom's astounding sermon was speaking directly to my condition:
"…If any have laboured long in fasting,
Let him how receive his recompense.
If any have wrought from the first hour,
Let him today receive his just reward.
If any have come at the third hour,
Let him with thankfulness keep the feast.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings;
Because he shall in nowise be deprived therefore.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing nothing.
And if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour,
Let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness.
For the Lord, who is jealous of his honour,
Will accept the last even as the first.
He giveth rest unto him who cometh at the eleventh hour,
Even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour.
And He showeth mercy upon the last,
And careth for the first;
And to the one He giveth,
And upon the other He bestoweth gifts.
And He both accepteth the deeds,
And welcometh the intention,
And honoureth the acts and praises the offering.
Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord;
Receive your reward,
Both the first, and likewise the second.
You rich and poor together, hold high festival!
You sober and you heedless, honour the day!
Rejoice today, both you who have fasted
And you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith:
Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness…"
5. To drastically and perhaps confusingly shift to a completely different simile, I had not anticipated the marble-cake-like experience of the Pascha service, which refused to remain "one thing" for me. There were moments of heart-rending glory followed by floods of internal darkness when I was overwhelmed with distressing emotions of sorrow and temptations of envy, rage, insecurity, and a certain degree of desolation. There was also numbness, as if there was just too much beauty and glory to take in, so that I couldn't feel anything at all (perhaps there must be too much in order for there to be enough? Or had my glory calibrator simply cracked in the flood surges of everything going on around me?), as well as physical nausea and dis-ease because of the heat and the necessity of breathing much-re-breathed air. And I was surprised to discover the next day at Paschal Vespers that all the negative feelings and temptations were gone, as if they'd been vaporized. I still wonder why they'd been there, and why they departed.
6. I hadn't expected to not feel tired despite the intensity of the services and the massive loss of sleep on two nights. Not only was I not tired, but I couldn't really nap very well on Saturday and Sunday, though I'd expected to be wiped out. What happened? Did God give me grace in order to surprise me? In something of the same vein, I had not anticipated that finally eating the few things from which I'd abstained during Great Lent would not be a big deal and would not, actually, be all that satisfying.
7. And certainly, I had not anticipated the beauty of aftermath: At 3:30 a.m. or so on Sunday morning, when I left the feast, I went back through the sanctuary, and was amazed to come upon a scene of combined hominess and holiness. The aroma of incense and the weight of glory were still heavy/light in the air, and the room was a wreck—crumbs on the floor, service booklets and candle stubs of various sizes on the few pews, children's jackets, sweaters, blankets, and diaper bags, etc. on the pews and floors—it looked as though a whirlwind had just blown through, and it looked like a living room after a wondrous party, and it looked heaven, all at the same time!