SUNDAY, APRIL 20: The glorious day has arrived and 2 billion Christians the world over come to rejoice in the Resurrection of Jesus. For Eastern Orthodox Christians, today is the Great and Holy Pascha. So named because of its reference to Jesus, the paschal lamb (St. John indicates that Jesus was crucified at the time the paschal lambs were being killed), in addition to the historical occurrence of Jesus’ crucifixion during the Passover feast, Orthodox Christians hold dear the name of Pascha. The Orthodox Research Institute does indicate, however, that the word Easter may be used interchangeably with Pascha in mixed company, for both titles hail the same event that defines the very essence of Christianity: the Resurrection (and eventual Ascension) of Jesus.
Pascha services begin in the darkness of Saturday evening, running late into the night. Just before midnight, a celebrant walks to the church’s temporary “tomb,” and removes the cover sheet: and behold, Jesus is not there! The sheet is carried to the altar table, and at midnight, the magnificent Pascha procession begins. (Learn more from Orthodox Church in America.)
The Paschal Troparion is sung, together with the verses of Psalm 68, which from now will signal the start of every service during the Easter season. In a church adorned in flowers, attendants face the Easter icon: an image of Christ destroying the gates of hell and freeing Adam and Eve from death. The atmosphere is overwhelmingly joyous; hymns announce victory over death, and all are invited to partake in the Holy Communion, of Christ, the Passover lamb.
RUSSIA & GREECE: KULICH, TSOUREKI, THE PASSOVER LAMB AND RED EGG LEGENDS
Unlike the Western Christian Lenten fast, which prohibits meat just on Fridays and on Ash Wednesday, the Eastern Orthodox Lenten fast prohibits dairy and meat during the entire season—and so on Pascha, the feast is magnificent! A primary component of the Russian table today is pascha—a dense, cold cheesecake often made with curd cheese and dried fruits—alongside kulichi, soft fruit cakes. (Find an authentic recipe for pascha here. A recipe for kulich, or kulichi, is here.)
In Greece, grilled vegetables, bean salads, seafood and breads complement the centerpiece: the Pascha lamb. Spiced to perfection, the lamb (or, occasionally, goat) satisfies palates alongside the traditional tsoureki, a Greek bread that is decorated with red eggs. (Recipes for Greek lamb, soup, asparagus and tsoureki are in this article from National Public Radio.)
Why red eggs? Red eggs have long been an integral part of Eastern Orthodox Pascha, and with good reason: several legends tell of miracles that began with red eggs. In one, Mary Magdalene was bringing cooked eggs to share with the other women at the tomb of Jesus, and when she saw the risen Jesus Christ, the eggs suddenly turned a vibrant red. In a different story, Mary Magdalene was spreading word of Jesus’ resurrection when she approached the doubtful Emperor of Rome. Upon her greeting, the emperor remarked that, “Christ has no more risen than that egg is red.” With that, the egg turned a dark red. Yet another legend tells of Mary Magdalene’s egg turning red in the presence of Julius Caesar—and because of these miraculous stories, Orthodox Christians exchange red eggs at Pascha.
The next seven days—beginning today, on Pascha—are known as Bright Week, or Renewal Week.