By Anastasia Kaliabakos
Easter is arguably the most important holiday in the Christian tradition, no matter what denomination you belong to. The Western world uses the Gregorian calendar to mark the dates of many festivities each year, including Easter. In 2021, the holiday is taking place on April 4th for most Christians; however, for those of the Orthodox faith (including Greek Orthodox), Easter will not come until May 2nd. Why is this? The date of Orthodox Easter is based upon a modified Julian calendar, so the festivities do not always occur simultaneously with other Christian Easter celebrations. This year is the first time in my recent memory that my Easter celebration—Greek Orthodox—is taking place so long after the more commonly recognized Easter. Since there is such a large gap between the two holiday celebrations, I thought it would be worthwhile to delve into what sets Greek Easter apart from other Easter celebrations, besides the difference in date.
Greeks follow Lent in a similar fashion to other denominations that celebrate Easter; however, Orthodox Lent is 46 days in contrast with the more well-known 40. Orthodox Lent is traditionally quite strict: the faithful are expected to abstain from meat, meat by-products, poultry, eggs, and dairy products for the entire duration of Lent. The most important time in the Lent season is Holy Week (and is, in my opinion, a time when church services are the most beautiful and moving). It all begins with Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week. This is when Christians celebrate the day Jesus came to Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Upon his arrival, the people tossed palm fronds in his path, declaring he was the Messiah. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, people attend the Sunday Divine liturgy as usual, but there is typically a special service at the end to celebrate Palm Sunday. People are even given palm crosses to commemorate the special day.
During Holy Monday and Tuesday, Christ’s Parable of the Ten Virgins (or Ten Bridesmaids) is commemorated. In the parable, he talked about ten women who were supposed to accompany a bridegroom to his wedding. Five of the women brought oil for their lamps, but the other five only brought their lamps. When it was time to attend the wedding, the five without oil asked the others to borrow some. However, the five “wise” women refused, telling the other “foolish” women to buy their own. The fools were too late, and were excluded from the party. The story was used as an allegory to show people that they should be prepared for the Son of God at any time.
During Holy Wednesday, Orthodox Christians are able to receive the Sacrament of Holy Unction, which is offered for the healing of the soul and forgiveness of sin. This service honors the time when Mary Magdalene anointed Jesus’ feet with oil and myrrh before he was arrested and is often viewed as a preparation for Jesus’ burial, as he would be crucified in a matter of days.
Holy Thursday is traditionally the day when Jesus and his disciples had the Last Supper, during which Jesus gave his disciples bread and wine, which symbolized his body and blood.
The practice of Holy Communion arose from the Last Supper. In modern times there are several traditions that take place on Holy Thursday outside of the church service. It is a day when the preparation of Tsoureki bread takes place. This sweet brioche bread is typically braided with three pieces of dough, which represent the Holy Trinity, and is spiced with Greek mahlab. It is baked with a red hard-boiled egg in the middle. The tradition of boiling and dyeing eggs red symbolizes the rebirth and blood of Christ.
Two services take place on Good Friday, which is a day of mourning. Orthodox churches display the icon known as the “Axra Tapeinosis” (“The Extreme Humility”). This icon shows the crucified dead body of Jesus upright in the tomb, along with the cross in the background. It combines the two main events of Great Friday: the crucifixion and the burial of Christ. Additionally, a ritual lament known as the Epitaphios follows the church services. The Procession of the Epitaphios of Christ symbolizes his burial. A coffin, or the Epitaph, is decorated with flowers and is followed around the block of the church by a solemn procession of parishioners. I do not think I have ever made it through a Good Friday service without crying.
Easter Saturday’s service takes place late at night and is often the most crowded service of the whole week. The resurrection of Christ is celebrated precisely at midnight, when the priest proclaims “Christos Anesti” (which means “Christ has risen”), with bells ringing throughout the church. People shake hands and greet each other with “Christos Anesti” and its reply “Alithos Anesti” (“He has truly risen”), lighting their candles as well. After midnight, some people break their fast with a traditional soup called “magiritsa,” which is made from lamb offal.
Easter Sunday is the culmination of the 46-day fasting period, and is celebrated with an all-out feast. Typically, the main course consists of a whole lamb (traditionally roasted on a spit)—to symbolize Jesus, the Lamb of God. The tradition of “Tsougrisma,” or the egg cracking game, can also take place on Easter Sunday. This game is fun for both children and adults and symbolizes the resurrection of the Lord. The rules are simple: everyone chooses a hard-boiled egg, which has been dyed red, and taps it on top of another person’s egg. The contestant who ends up with a cracked egg is the loser. The game continues until there is only one winner, who is then said to have been blessed with good luck for the whole year!
No matter how you are celebrating Easter this year (or even if you do not celebrate it at all), I wish you all a blessed Pascha, and health and safety to you and your families throughout the year.
For any WestView readers interested in learning more about Pascha, there is a Greek Orthodox church called St. Eleftherios located at 359 West 24th Street, New York, NY 10011. Feel free to pay them a visit or contact Fr. Nicolas (firstname.lastname@example.org) this Easter season!
Anastasia Kaliabakos is a graduate of the Brearley School and is currently a Presidential Scholar in the Honors Program at the College of the Holy Cross majoring in classics. She is a features editor for Holy Cross’ newspaper, The Spire, associate editor of the Parnassus Classical Journal, author of Milkshake: A Very Special Pony, and recipient of the 2019 NYC Scholastic Writing Award. She has contributed to WestView News since 2018.