Despite the major commercial emphasis placed on observing
Christmas in our country, historically the celebration of Easter
(commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ) has been far more
Despite the major commercial emphasis placed on observing Christmas in our country, historically the celebration of Easter (commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ) has been far more important.
In a somewhat rare occurrence, both eastern and western Christians will celebrate this major holiday of their faith on the same date this year, April 4.
The method of calculating Easter is extremely complicated. To simplify: at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., the assembled bishops from around the world decided that Easter should fall on the Sunday that follows the first full moon of spring.
It can occur any time between March 22 and April 25. But Western churches (like Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran) use the sixteenth century Gregorian calendar, while Orthodox churches (like Greek, Russian and Serbian) generally use the much older Julian calendar, causing annual celebrations to usually differ by several days or even weeks.
In 1997, representatives of both branches of Christianity met in Aleppo, Syria, to adopt a common date for Easter that would use more scientific calculations. While these discussions haven’t resulted in success yet, a coincidence of nature has allowed both traditions to celebrate their most important feast day together this year.
Although there are an estimated 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world, many people may not be familiar with such customs. The following is a brief description of some of the basics of celebrating the holiday according to its ancient traditions.
Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday (March 27 and 28) commemorate the triumphant resurrection of Lazarus of Bethany from the dead by Jesus as told in the Gospel of John and also Jesus’ triumphant entry into Bethlehem on a donkey.
On Sunday, palm-leaf crosses are blessed and sent home with worshipers. In some countries, Bay leaves or pussy willow branches are substituted.
Holy (Passion) Week follows with each day devoted to remembering a different event in the last week of the life of Jesus.
Remembrance of the Passover Supper is on Thursday, for example, and Holy Friday commemorates the removal of Jesus’ body from the cross and its burial. That day is reserved for prayer, Bible reading and meditating. For some, it is traditional to eat lentil soup with vinegar in remembrance of the sour wine offered to Jesus on the cross.
Holy Pascha (the Greek name for Easter, based on the Greek word for the Jewish feast of the Passover that also occurs around this time) is the “Feast of Feasts” for Orthodox Christians. It begins late the Saturday night before in a service shrouded in darkness.
At midnight, a priest announces, “Christ is risen.” The congregation responds, “Yes, he is risen,” and everyone lights candles before an icon showing Christ destroying the Gates of Hell. Sometimes fireworks are set off.
After the service the faithful take their candles home to light more candles in front of family icons.
Certain foods are traditional for Orthodox Christians at Easter:
– Red eggs are presented by the priest to members of the congregation who attend the Paschal Divine Liturgy. The egg represents Christ in the tomb. Red represents his blood. Breaking the egg is symbolic of the resurrection.
– Lamb, the traditional main dish of the family meal, represents the Passover lamb sacrificed by the Jews in Egypt to save their first-born from the Angel of Death.
– Easter bread represents the sweetness of heaven and eternal life. It is often shaped with three ropes of dough entwined in a braid symbolic of the Holy Trinity.
Although there are presently no Orthodox churches in South County, parishes representing several different national traditions of Orthodoxy are located in San Jose, Saratoga, Cupertino, Sunnyvale and Los Altos Hills.