In the the Spring of 1888, Levitan stayed in Plyos, a 12th century town on the right bank of the Volga River. Here in this scene it is mid-morning, the sun is high and pushing through low-lying clouds, the air is warming. We have left the village and are climbing (perhaps a little out of breath) to the crest of the hill where we find the little Church of the Resurrection built in 1699.
But the 200 year old church is weathered and worn. The fence is falling down; the gate is gone (only the stone posts remain). Are those holes in the sagging roof?
We go up to visit the church. I'm thinking of Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Law, and Jesus going up the mount to deliver his Sermon in Matthew 5,6,7 and then again, Jesus going up to Jerusalem where he will carry the cross up Mount Calvary.
Biblically, going up a mountain or hill suggests there is going to be a divine encounter, an experience of God. There are lots of people who keep religious laws and observances but who have never had an experience of God. That's too bad. By no means must that experience occur in church. St. Paul, on his way to menace Christians, experienced the Risen Christ while traveling the road to Damascus.
Levitan's church is forlorn, perhaps suggesting the experience of God is not likely to happen there. We shouldn't think that meant Levitan was anti-church. But we can expect he knew that late 19th century Russian Orthodoxy was not experiencing what we would call a golden age: the Church had failed the people morally, the clergy spiritually weak, church life and worship were on auto-pilot. We needn't wonder why so many people angrily rejected the church 29 years later in the Russian Revolution. The same thing happened 100 years previous in the French Revolution when a weakened Catholic Church was thrown overboard.
The door to this wooden church is hardly visible; there are no windows. Not very accessible. But look, there is this wonderful sky - traditionally symbolic of God's dwelling and presence. Atop the church there is also a single cupola (onion dome) which is a stylized candle, symbolizing the little flame of faith still burning, however fragile. In the Letter to the Hebrews we read:
"The Word of God is living and effective, discerning reflections and thoughts of the heart." Hebrews 4:12God knows what's going on in the intimacy of our hearts: our longings, intentions, hopes, joys and sorrows. So what does my heart carry as I climb the hill?
When I was a boy discovering a church, I always approached, hoping to find the place would be open. What a disappointment when the doors would be locked. But even if this Church of the Resurrection is shut up tight, emptied of its altar, lights and icons, the people gone away - I can still stand and pray, reaching out to touch this most alive and reassuring sky.