Deep within the mazes of Venetian streets, the story of my second night in Venice begins — a night of finding my way and of seeing light in the darkness.
After a full day in Venice, our plan was to return to our rented apartment.
Earlier in the day, I navigated the winding, labyrinthine alleys of Venice with few mistakes, but in the dark, I found myself disoriented. To make things more difficult, a slow drizzle had turned to rain, crinkling the map and obscuring street signs.
Just when I started to wonder if we were lost, a random lady noticed my distress–and my lack of umbrella. She offered me room under hers and asked where we were going. I replied with the first landmark I could think of that wasn’t far: the Rialto. She said we actually weren’t anywhere near it, but she promised to get us there. She’d only been guiding us for a moment when we rounded a corner into San Marco Square. At that point, I knew we could find a vaporetto stop, which was my main goal. I told her I knew where I was now and thanked her for her kindness. She offered to keep helping us, but I assured her we would be fine. She nodded, then turned toward San Marco.
As my family discussed how spontaneously nice she was, the lady ducked into a side entrance of the cathedral, and we quickly realized she wasn’t the only one. People were coming from all directions — some alone, some in small groups — and disappearing inside San Marco.
Then it hit us: they were going to Easter Mass. (Or as I found out later, Easter Vigil.)
All day, we’d debated what to do about Easter. When arranging our Italy trip, I planned for Venice to coincide with Easter in hopes of experiencing a service at San Marco. However, our local gondolier recommended a smaller church, noting that crowds at San Marco could be difficult. Despite checking into several churches, I couldn’t find a definitive schedule at any of them.
And then: here we were, all of a sudden, in San Marco Square, watching people stream into the cathedral, practically led there by a random lady. We made a spur-of-the-moment decision to go in. When the doorkeeper asked us if we were there for the service, we nodded and entered.
At first, it was so dark.
With no light to guide us, we fumbled to an empty row of seats, took the small white candles passed to us, and waited, unsure of what to expect.
A faint glow emanated from the back of the church, and a priest in a white robe carrying a large candle, the Paschal candle, proceeded down the aisle, lighting our smaller candles, gradually spreading light throughout the church.
I’ve always loved candlelight services. But watching the light spread at San Marco — a cathedral with gold mosaics and lofty ceilings, a cathedral nearly a thousand years old — was magnificent.
San Marco transformed from pitch black to soft yellow to sparkling gold as the flickers illuminated the gilt ceiling. Caught up in the splendor of the spectacle, the symbolism of the ages and the reality of the moment merged into a surreal experience of the meaning of Easter — that of light triumphing over darkness.
The liturgy that was read captured it much more elegantly than I could:
The sanctifying power of this night
dispels wickedness, washes faults away,
restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.
On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering…
Though I’m Protestant, I’ve always revered Catholic traditions. Maybe because I’ve known family and friends who are devout Catholics, or maybe the Presbyterian in me just loves liturgy and symbolism. But despite the differences (and the similarities), the image of light overcoming darkness, of people coming together, no matter whether you believe in God (as I do) or not, I don’t think anyone could walk away from that service untouched by the beauty of it.
As a traveler and explorer, someone who was looking on this Easter Vigil partially as an outsider looking in, I appreciated the power of experiencing something that wasn’t quite mine, but had a powerful effect on me anyway. Something I could relate to and revere, while still recognizing myself as apart.
Because isn’t that what travel is supposed to do? Isn’t that point? That I can enter into an experience, an event, a cultural rite, and partake of it as someone who understands that it’s not my heritage, but still something I can appreciate. That other people in other cultures and traditions can be different from me, and yet the same. That it’s important to respect differences, while recognizing that we are all part of the same world.
That as the Easter liturgy says: we should foster concord. Harmony does not just happen. It is something we foster, something we promote and grow over a period of time.
And that as I saw this Easter, and again tonight at our Christmas Eve service, that one light lights another light. If everyone sought to spread light, it would be a brighter world.
So from me to you, merry Christmas, dear blog readers. May you know light this season, and into the year ahead. May you discover it and spread it with those you know and love, and those who are different from you.
And maybe this year, we’ll know just a little more peace.
This is the final day in the 12 Days of Travel on The Globe Turner. Hope you’ve enjoyed it, and hope you have a wonderful holiday season!