PEI

How Easter is celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church

While many Islanders will be coming to the end of their Easter festivities today, for some the holiday is just beginning. Members of the Eastern Orthodox community on P.E.I. are celebrating the conclusion of the Great Lent today and entering Holy Week.

Holy Week in the Eastern Orthodox Church starts Monday

On the Sunday before Holy Week begins, the candles in the church are blessed by a priest. (Submitted by Stephen Allen)

While many Islanders will be wrapping up their Easter festivities, for some the holiday is just beginning.

Members of the Eastern Orthodox community on P.E.I. are celebrating the end of the Great Lent and will be beginning Holy Week on Monday.

Father Stephen Allen, in his 15th year at Saints Peter and Paul Church in Charlottetown, says like the Roman Catholic Church, Pascha (the name for Easter in the Eastern Orthodox Church), is the most important event on the religious calendar.

Curiously enough we could have lobster this time of year … it's a loophole in the canon, so we can have lobster and shellfish and stuff like that.— Stephen Allen

Allen said theological differences led to a schism in the Roman Catholic Church in 1054 AD, and the Greek Orthodox Church was born. 

"In this country we say Eastern Orthodox, sort of bring in the whole family of the Orthodox Church 'cause if we say Greek, then everyone thinks it's just the Greek people," Allen said. 

"But the Greek Church goes all through Russia and Asia minor, and down into Africa and different places. It really means the Byzantine Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Empire."

Allen said there are many different cultural groups and nationalities represented at his church with people of Russian, Ukrainian, Palestinian, Lebanese, Serbian and Egyptian backgrounds.

The Great Lent

Members of the Eastern Orthodox faith begin the Great Lent on the Monday before Catholics celebrate Ash Wednesday.

The church follows a modified Julien Calendar so Pascha often falls a week or two after Easter.

Allen said Eastern Orthodox Christians are supposed to abstain from eating meat and any food that comes from animals with a spine. Though he did say people don't always follow the strict guidelines.

Before the symbolic funeral procession to Christ's burial tomb, the bier is decorated by parishioners. (Submitted by Stephen Allen)

"It's a personal choice, it's still a communal thing that we do together. Everybody this time of year, in some way or another, is keeping this dietary fast," he said.

"Some people just give up meat, some people just eat fish this time of year."

This is one of those pinnacle moments in Great Lent, Holy Friday, that everybody attends.— Stephen Allen

He also said there is a convenient exception to the rules.

"Curiously enough, we could have lobster this time of year … it's a loophole in the canon, so we can have lobster and shellfish and stuff like that."

Holy Week

Holy Week in the Eastern Orthodox Church is filled with services and sacraments commemorating all aspects of Christ's Passion.

On Holy Wednesday, there is a service of unction, where parishioners are anointed with holy oil "for the healing of body and soul."

And the following day is the commemoration of the last or mystical supper. Communion reserves for hospitals are made, and the priest chooses 12 members of the congregation to have their feet washed.

A priest will wash the feet of 12 people as part of the Thursday services. (Submitted by Stephen Allen)

On Thursday night, 12 gospels of the passion detail Jesus's betrayal and Crucifixion.

Allen said half way through the reading of those gospels "the priest comes out as Simon of Cyrene and he carries the cross for Christ … around the church while they chant the song, He who created the Earth today is nailed upon the cross."

The priest walks around the church three times carrying a six-to-eight foot cross culminating in a  symbolic Crucifixion, when an icon of Jesus is nailed to the cross.

During Holy Thursday's night services, 12 Passion Gospels are read, and halfway through those readings, the priest takes on the role of Simon of Cyrene and carries a six-to-eight foot cross around the church three times. (Submitted by Stephen Allen)

On Great Friday there is a commemoration of Jesus's burial. At Saints Peter and Paul, a ceremonial tomb is dug in front of the church and decorated with flowers and greenery.

"We actually put an icon of the body of Christ on a funeral bier, a stretcher, and we carry him to his grave and we sing what is called the lamentations," said Allen.

"This is one of those pinnacle moments in Great Lent, Holy Friday, that everybody attends."

After the bier has been decorated, there is a symbolic funeral procession and burial of Christ. (Submitted by Stephen Allen)

After that the congregation, or at least some of them, stay in for an all-night vigil, reading gospels.

"Not all of us but some people stay all night," he said.

"This year our youth group … they will stay in the church all night."

Paschal service

On Saturday morning there is a service commemorating Jesus' raising of the dead.

The Saturday evening service is the culmination of Holy Week and Allen said he expects between 200 and 250  parishioners at the church for "the biggest feast of the year."

He said part of the service involves parishioners lighting candles from a sacred flame at the church.

"We have the eternal light that we bring out and people light their candles, which later they'll take them to their home and use them in their home all year," Allen said.

During the Paschal service the eternal light is used to light parishioners' candles. (Submitted by Stephen Allen)

Congregants sing Christ is risen and at the end of the service eggs are handed out in a symbolic gesture.

"[Eggs were] an early Christian symbol for the resurrection and new life. This is where the traditional of Easter eggs came from in the Eastern Church," he said.

For the 40 days after Pascha, parishioners use the greeting Christós Anésti, which means Christ is risen in Greek.

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