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Russian Orthodox Christians usually receive the Eucharist only a few times a year, and then only after fasting from food and drink from the previous evening and confession.

Before Communion, four priests came out from behind the iconostasis and heard confessions. Many lined tip to receive absolution and when distribution of the Eucharist neared, most of the congregation received. I wondered if such an unusually large number were receiving the Eucharist in honor of the feast. Instead, I was told that this reflected the convictions of the pastor, Father Lev, who encourages frequent reception of the Eucharist.

Those who received the Eucharist then proceeded to a table at one side of the nave where they were given small pieces of blessed bread and tea cups of diluted wine, which were consumed to wash down the Eucharist.

As the communicants returned to their places, they exchanged a triple kiss with others, first on the right cheek, then on the left check, then on the right check again. It was done with tenderness and reverence, as if having received the Eucharist they now wished to share Christ with family and friends.

Near the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, bishop, priests and people gathered processional icons and crosses, lamps and censors, left the church and processed around the outside of the building, stopping at the four points of the compass for prayers, blessings and Gospel readings. Bishop Manuel used a whisk to bless everyone within range with holy water. Children and old women giggled when the holy water hit them; Bishop Manuel seemed to be enjoying himself as well. The procession then made its way back into the church for concluding prayers.

Yet the celebration was not over. People, priests and bishop regathered at the pastor’s house, which also served as a parish center. There was no room inside the house for a gathering of this size, so tables and chairs had been set up outside for a parish potluck supper. The table settings were of various designs; a number of families had loaned their best dishes for the occasion.

Plates and bowls of food crowded the tables and when these were emptied others replaced them – a feast for a feast day. Salads and soups, fresh vegetables and fruit, breads and pastries, cheese and sausages, rice and casseroles, fish and chicken, blini and cookies: many hands had obviously been at work. I sampled foods I had never eaten before, including karelski pirogi, ovals of unleavened rye bread dough topped with a layer of mashed potatoes, pinched over and then baked. I was offered a plate of raw bacon but passed it on; others quickly emptied it as if it were a delicacy.

Most of the parishioners looked as if there were few delicacies in their lives; meals such as this one in honor of the Virgin Mary were truly a feast. The parish house itself bore witness to the kind of lives the parishioners led. Off to one side was a large stack of sawmill scraps that would furnish its heat during the winter and beside the woodpile was an outhouse. Communism reduced the gap between rich and poor by leaving almost everyone in this part of the country on the borderline of poverty.

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Tags: Christianity Russia Russian Orthodox Church