It is midnight, Easter eve. Inside, the ornate Greek Orthodox cathedral is shrouded in tomblike darkness.

The worshipers, who began arriving at 9:30 p.m. to obtain a seat for the most important service of the year, wait in silent expectation. Even the flickering red vigil lights at the front of the Cathedral of St. Sophia are extinguished.

Behind the iconostasis, which stretches across the front of the church to screen the altar from the congregation, there is a tiny puff of light as a single white candle, touched to the eternal vigil light on the altar, sparks to life. The priest sings out the solemn, but joyous chant, first in Greek, then in English: "Come and receive the light and glorify Christ, who is risen from the dead!"

The single candle lights two more. The priest carries them triumphantly from the altar to five men, the lay leaders of the congregation, who light the candle of those in the pews. In moments, the Easter light, the light of the resurrected Christ, is passed through the congregation, to the crowd standing in the vestibule and to the hundreds huddled together against the chilly dark on the steps outside.

In the glow of more than a thousand candles, the Easter procession starts, led by altar boys in red, carrying intricate gold and sivler crosses. The focal point of the procession from the altar is the icon, or image, of Christ wreathed in white carnations and borne aloft on a long staff.

"Christ has risen from the dead, by death, trampling upon death, and has bestowed life to those in the tombs," the congreagtion sings over and over in English and in Greek. It is the Easter hymn that they will sing many times tonight and for 40 days following Easter. It is also the touchstone, the very heart of their faith.

As the Rev. John Tavlarides says the words of the hymn that will be repeated over and over during the next two hours, the congregation joins him in moving their lighted candles up and down, back and forth in a massive, luminous sign of the cross.

High above the Byzantine dome, bells peal out the message of the resurrection to the sleeping neighbors: Christ is risen.

Earlier, while the congregation sang mournful hymns for Christ's death and waited for the midnight hour, the priest had emphasized the significance of Easter.

"In the Greek Orthodox church, we see all things, through the life-giving resurrection," he said. While Christian churches of other traditions may become involved in problems of the community, he explained, that has never been the emphasis of the Orthodox.When Orthodox churches are criticized for this, he said, "We answer, "That is the responsibility of the individual Christian.'"

The focus of Orthodox Christianity, he said, "is to emphasize the power of the resurrection" and its reflection of God's love and the hope it gives for mankind.

Some of the congregation left at the conclusion of the resurrection service, around 1 a.m., but others remained to receive communion.

While most Christians celebrated Easter yesterday morning, the Saturday night service is the main one for Orthodox Christians. However, some -- particularly those with small children -- worshipped at another service at the church yesterday morning.

After they Easter communin, worshipers filed to the front of the church, where each kissed the hand of the priest and received a red-dyed egg.

The service over, they exchanged with each other the greetings they will use for the next 40 days -- "Christos Anesti!" "Alethos Anesti!" Christ is Risen, He is truly risen."

Then, carefully guarding the flame from their still-burning candles, they left the church, carrying the Easter light into the world.