SATURDAY and SUNDAY, April 14 and 15: Because of differences in their Christian calendars, Eastern and Western Christian churches are a week apart this year. That provides ample opportunity for Western Christians to visit the colorful, inspiring—and lengthy—Orthodox rituals that will unfold this weekend. The key for non-Orthodox visitors to remember is that the central activity in celebrating Orthodox Easter, or Pascha, is that the main action takes place Saturday night into the wee hours of Easter morning. Traditionally, there is little activity in Orthodox churches focused on Easter morning. In contrast to Western Christian customs, by mid-morning on Easter Orthodox families aren’t going to church again. They’ve already celebrated the holiday and they’re now focusing on the coming of Bright Week.
DRAMATIC LIGHTS, ESPECIALLY IN JERUSALEM’S HOLY SEPULCHRE
The Orthodox Holy Saturday liturgies that lead into the first hours of Easter are among the most dramatic in all of Christendom. They include elaborate processions, typically starting outside the church, lots of incense and candle light. Perhaps the most stirring use of candles is inside Jersualem’s Church of the Holy Sepluchre in an annual rite that is called the miracle of the Holy Fire. Around the world, this rite is often described as the oldest continuously repeated miracle in the religous world, although that claim can be debated by scholars of comparative religion. The procession in the heart of Jerusalem’s old city certainly is one of the most spectacular in the world, including fully robed and crowned clergy from a variety of Orthodox churches. Clergy remove many of their vestments before stooping inside the tiny shrine where Orthodox tradition says Jesus once was buried. They emerge with fresh fire and the faithful carry away their own lit candles, much as parishoners do in Orthodox churches around the world.
LITURGIES THAT CAPTURE THE DRAMA OF EASTER
If you care to sample some of the English-language lines of Orthodox liturgy, the Orthodox version of Wikipedia has a fairly elaborate Pascha article.
HOLIDAY GREETINGS: In various languages, Orthodox Christians greet each other at Easter with a shout of “Christ is Risen!” The formal response is “Truly, He is risen!” After all, this has been an extremely long and difficult spiritual journey for Orthodox families. They began many weeks ago with pre-Lenten reflections and a gradual cutting back into the strict Fast of Great Lent, one of the world’s most rigorous fasting periods.
This feast of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is another way to describe Pascha, is the single most important date on the entire Orthodox calendar. In many branches of Christendom, popular celebrations of Christmas seem to eclipse Easter. But Orthodox Christians make it clear that Pascha is the most important holiday, each year.
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.