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Easter in Eastern Europe: the Orthodox celebration from Greece to Russia. Thousands-year-long rites and popular traditions

Eastern European countries celebrate Orthodox Easter, which this year fell on April 8, a week after Catholic Easter. Although sharing the same apostolic tradition, Orthodox rites are different Catholic rites. Good Friday marks the commemoration of Christ’s funeral, while on every year on Holy Saturday the Holy Fire descends in Jerusalem. Will there be a common date in the future?

Veglia pasquale nella cattedrale di Novi Sad, in Serbia

While the Catholic world celebrated Easter on April 1st, in some East European Countries – Greece, Russia, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Macedonia, Ukraine – the Orthodox Church celebrated the Resurrection of Jesus on Sunday April 8. The festivity was experienced intensely also in Orthodox communities of Western Europe. The difference in the date in not the result of dogmatic divergences but rather of differences when calculating the date of Easter on the calendar. Usually the Orthodox Church celebrates Easter a week later, but some years they can be distanced by a month, while in 2017 Catholic and Orthodox Easter fell on the same day. “Both the Orthodox and the Catholic Church draw from the apostolic tradition in the celebration of Paschal Triduum, thus the spirit is the same, although in the course of the centuries some of the liturgical rites developed in different ways.”, Bulgarian theologian Stefan Pashov told SIR, the day after the celebration.

The preparation of the oil for the Sacred Chrism. The blessing of the sacred oils on Holy Thursday are the same in the Orthodox Church and in the Western tradition, but some years the chrism is prepared according to the ancient recipe, with a mixture of olive oil, wine, holy water and a range of essences and fragrances. “The cooking process begins three days before the Holy Week – Pashov said -, accompanied by readings and prayer.”

The huge electric pot is placed inside the Church. A specific feature of this rite is that only autocephalous (independent)Orthodox Churches are entitled to prepare this sacred oil.

Christ’s funeral. A characteristic of Orthodox liturgies in the Paschal Triduum is that the Pascal vigil begins the day before the festivity: the events of Jesus’ death and Resurrection are celebrated Holy Thursday night. The events leading up to Jesus’ Crucifixion are commemorated on Good Friday with a special funeral liturgy. “It’s a day of strict fasting, only bread and water, while some faithful don’t eat anything”, the theologian explained. A structure is placed inside churches representing a replica of Christ’s sepulchre consisting in a table adorned with flowers and perfumes. “The clergy take down from the altar the ‘Shroud of Christ’, the piece of white linen that wrapped the buried Saviour, bearing his image. Thus begins the Adoration of the Shroud, “symbolizing our humbleness and suffering before Christ’s sepulchre along with thanksgiving prayers for the redemption bestowed upon us. It’s one of the most beautiful and inspiring liturgies”, Pashov said, “owing to the lamentations sung by women clothed in black gowns.”

The descent of the Holy Fire. The light of the Easter candles held by the faithful in European Orthodox Countries is lit with the Holy Fire from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem enters the Edicule chapel of the Tomb and starts to pray.

The flame lights other lamps placed above the Sepulchre. The Patriarch thus emerges from the Holy Sepulchre going towards the faithful with the lit candles.

A special feature of this flame is that for the first minutes it does not burn. The ceremony of the holy fire is televised live in Russia, Bulgaria, Greece and Romania. The Holy Fire is immediately brought to certain Orthodox countries by special flights for Easter night.

Easter vigil. “The Easter Vigil begins just before midnight with the lighting of the candles in darkness and the proclamation of the Resurrection, followed by a big procession outside the church singing praise to ‘the Resurrected Lord’– added the Orthodox theologian –. Then the Easter liturgy begins, it lasts until 2-3 a.m.”, he added, regretting the fact that “unfortunately most of the faithful leave after the Lighting ritual.” The hymn “Christ has risen’ is repeated many times the night of Easter”, singing the paschal troparion: “Christ is Risen from the death trampling death by death, He has bestowed life to those in the tombs”. “The purpose is for no one to doubt this incredible event while the constant act of incensation symbolizes the many apparitions of the Messiah to the disciples.”

Coloured eggs. “Eggs are coloured on Easter Thursday, the first egg is always red in memory of the blood of Christ, sign of the tomb and of Resurrection”, Pashov said explaining one of the most popular traditions in Orthodox Easter. In East European countries the tradition includes the preparation of special Easter bread, various types of cakes with candied fruit, symbolizing the body of Christ.

One same date? Many faithful question the issue of the different Easter date in Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

Already in 2015 Pope Francis said the Catholic Church was open to discuss the day of Easter

So that Catholics and Orthodox faithful could celebrate on the same day. It was an open proposal, albeit not easily implementable. Moreover, the Orthodox world has yet to reach consensus on the day of Christmas, celebrated on December 25 in Greece but on January 7 in Russia.

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