"I looked over at the largest holy image of the Imperial Passion Bearers, directly above where they were cruelly murdered, but also where their suffering ended for all time, and that was when I really let it in, and I’m not ashamed to say that I needed my handkerchief"
EDITOR'S NOTE: On July 15, 2018, the final Sunday before the 100th anniversary of the Russian Royal Family's murder, Dallas Symphony cellist Theodore Harvey attended a solemn church service at the Church on the Blood in Ekaterinburg, Russia. This church was built on the very site where Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, and their 5 children were brutally tortured and killed at Vladimir Lenin's command. Theodore's reflections show how faith, music, history, and beauty can work together, transcending cultural divides and touching a person's very soul.
This morning I returned to the Church on the Blood for Divine Liturgy, which I will never forget. My Latin Mass Catholic friends have all heard the objection, “but I don’t understand Latin.” Well, I don’t understand Russian, but I didn’t need to; at a deeper level, I felt I did understand. The service began simply enough but gradually became more elaborate. The rhythm of the liturgy felt all so meet and right (to use an Anglican phrase), even though I never knew exactly what was being sung. Two hours and a bit might seem a long time to stand and hear a foreign language liturgy, but it is impossible to be “bored” in a church like this—though there is no other church quite like this one—for there is always something new to look at. Beauty Matters. No one really stays in the same place throughout, for there is always motion. The priest went around censing the congregation, and the sun streaming in through the windows illuminated the clouds of incense as they floated upward.
About an hour into the liturgy, when the doors of the great iconostasis were opened for, I think, the second time so we could see the priests censing the altar, the choir (having previously been singing relatively quick and simple major harmonies) began to sing slowly and softly in f minor, a key that we had not heard before. I realize that leaflets identifying the music are a Western thing, but I wished I’d known what it was. That was the moment when the choir, hitherto merely good, became great, as great as the legendary choir of Constantinople in the 10th century that convinced Russian visitors that this should be Russia’s religion. I looked over at the largest holy image of the Imperial Passion Bearers, directly above where they were cruelly murdered, but also where their suffering ended for all time, and that was when I really let it in, and I’m not ashamed to say that I needed my handkerchief.
Later I noticed a man near me with what seemed to be an English translation of the liturgy on his iPhone, and I realized that what everyone was singing together in Russian was the Creed, the same Nicene Creed that Anglicans also say, so I said it with them silently in English, albeit without the Filioque out of respect for my hosts.
There was a couple in front of me with a cheerful baby, the father holding him backwards towards me. Once or twice the father held up his son so he could wiggle. In that moment the baby’s smile seemed to contain all the joy in the universe.
Afterwards I bought and lit a candle by the large icon of the Tsar surrounded by imperial symbols. So much that is important to me—royalty, music, and Christianity—had come together so beautifully.