An Orthodox Easter
An Orthodox EasterBY JIM MERRITT
February 28, 2004
This year, in a rare confluence of usually divergent calendars, both Western and Orthodox Easters fall on April 11.In many respects, these Christian traditions approach Lent and Easter differently, says the Rev. Jonathan Ivanoff, pastor of St. John the Theologian, a pan-Orthodox church in Shirley.
Orthodox Lent, which began on Monday and ends on Easter, or Pascha, "is not a matter of giving something up; it's a matter of giving lots of things up," Ivanoff says.
The 65-family congregation, which includes people of Russian, Ukrainian, Greek, Irish, Norwegian or Puerto Rican backgrounds, prepared for Lent by enjoying a blini supper Sunday before attending a vesper service on what they call Cheese Fare, or forgiveness, Sunday. They emptied their refrigerators of chicken, pork, fish and dairy products as another ritual step in snapping out of "spiritual lethargy and doing the ministry Christ has called us to do," Ivanoff says.
In Orthodox Christian circles, fasting also is done with the ears and eyes, which means cutting down on television and video games. (The strictures don't apply to children under the age of 8 or to the infirm).
"Fasting is a means to an end, a tool to help conquer appetites and passions," explains Ivanoff, who says the rules often remind Catholics of pre-Second Vatican Council.
Jim Merritt is a freelance writer.
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.
- 2004.04.09 WSJ:
HOUSES OF WORSHIP
An Orthodox Easter
Expressive extravagance, dramaturgical splendor.
BY DAVID B. HART
Friday, April 9, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT
This is one of those rare years when Christians of the Eastern and Western
communions will celebrate Easter on the same Sunday. For those of us
who--in quixotic moments--blow upon the gray embers of our hopes for a
reunited Church, this is always an especially happy occasion. We may not
all be entering into the mysteries of Christ's death and resurrection as
one, but at least this year we are doing it at the same time.
After all, one of those tiresome platitudes that hovers over the division
between the ancient churches is that, whereas Eastern Orthodox tradition
principally emphasizes the resurrection of Christ, Catholic (and
Protestant) tradition principally emphasizes his death. The one, it is
said, proclaims more a "theology of glory"; the other, more a "theology of
There may be some truth in this, but not much. The more deeply one ventures
into either tradition, the more one grasps the inseparability in both of
Christ's passion and glorification, his sacrifice and his victory. And it
is in just these rare years when our two Paschal calendars coincide--when
we mourn and rejoice together--that this commonality seems especially evident.
One genuinely pronounced difference between East and West does, however,
become obvious at these times: that of liturgical sensibility. Nor is this
insignificant. How we worship very much determines how we "see" the
suffering or risen Christ in our devotions.
To those unfamiliar with Orthodox worship, it is difficult to convey a
proper sense of its sheer expressive extravagance -- its dramaturgical
splendor, its combination of the mystical and the spectacular, its
profusion of symbols, poetry and large forceful gestures. The churches are
lavishly adorned with icons, the entire liturgy is sung, the services are
long and intricate, and everything (if well executed) is utterly absorbing.
And during Holy Week (or Passion Week, as it is called in the East), all
this liturgical exorbitance reaches its climax. As the week progresses,
worship becomes all but continuous, morning and evening, culminating in
three magnificent services in which is concentrated all the dramatic genius
of Byzantine liturgy.
On Friday night, the service of Lamentation is celebrated. An image of the
dead Christ is laid in his funeral bier (ornately carved, copiously
decorated with flowers), and shatteringly powerful hymns of mourning are
sung over him. The bier is then borne in procession around the outside of
the church; briefly, the church doors become the gates of Hades, upon which
the priest beats with the book of the Gospels to announce the arrival of
the Lord of Glory, who comes to plunder death of its captives.
The eucharistic liturgy on Saturday morning is an unapologetic exercise in
triumphalism. Its governing theme is Christ's conquest of death, sin and
the devil, and his harrowing of hell. At one point, in fact, the priest
passes through the congregation flinging bay leaves to every side as a
symbol of Christ's victory.
And this same triumphalism pervades the Easter Vigil that begins that same
night and continues on well into the early hours of Easter morning. At the
moment of highest drama, at midnight, all the lights in the church are
extinguished, and the faithful wait in total darkness. The priest then
bears a lighted candle in through the central door of the great icon screen
behind which the altar is hidden, as a symbol of the risen Christ departing
from his tomb, and summons the congregation to light the candles they have
brought with them from this flame.
Thereafter, the liturgy is all light and joy, punctuated by frequent
repetitions of the great Paschal hymn--"Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs restoring life!"
And (incredibly enough) a feast follows.
As I have said, one must experience such worship to understand its
profundity. I can say only that, in my two decades of being Orthodox, the
power of these services has not diminished in the least; and every year, at
one point or another, I become entirely lost in the glory of the Gospel
being announced and portrayed before my eyes.
And as, again, this is one of those years when one can almost deceive
oneself that the churches are united, I might finish by recommending an
Eastern custom to all Christians, of every communion. For 40 days following
Easter, the Orthodox greet one another with the words "Christ is risen!" To
which the correct response is "He is risen indeed!"
Mr. Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, is the author of "The Beauty of
the Infinite" (Eerdmans).