Saturday, April 5, 2008

Orthodox Holy Week & Easter – April 27, 2008

Especially when the dates for Western Easter and Orthodox Easter are so far apart like this year, when Western Christians celebrated Easter on March 23rd, and Orthodox Christians will celebrate it April 27th, the question comes up why the Orthodox Church celebrates Pascha on a different date.

Initially, early Christians converted from Judaism and celebrated the Resurrection of Christ according to the Jewish (lunar) calendar. For Christians, Christ was the Paschal Lamb, the fulfillment of all that the Passover had foreshadowed since the first Passover which celebrated the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

Orthodox Christians celebrate “Pascha” or Easter as the New Passover; the victory of the new Paschal Lamb Who shed His blood for the salvation of all people. Thus “Pascha” (from the Hebrew pesach, meaning Passover) was celebrated on Passover, the 14th day of the month of Nisan (the first full moon following the vernal equinox). At the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325 AD, the Bishops determined the Pascha date would be the first Sunday after the first full moon of the spring equinox, (which is after Jewish Passover). In keeping with historical practice, since Jewish Passover is April 19th this year, the date for Orthodox Christians to celebrate Pascha or Easter is delayed until April 27th.

Holy Week in the Orthodox Church is the culmination and the zenith of liturgical worship and the Christian life, as the Faithful gather to experience the Gospel portrayed before their eyes. During Holy Week, worship becomes almost continuous, from Palm Sunday Services on Sunday morning through the Resurrection Service early Sunday morning (midnight). We see and experience the whole drama of Christ’s Holy and Saving Passion and Resurrection through liturgy, hymns, prayers, and Scripture readings. Each service opens our hearts and minds to the experience of Christ, giving us the precious opportunity to join with our brothers and sisters in declaring that Christ is the center of our lives. Holy Week invites us to share with Christ the experience of betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection. In Holy Week we come face to face with Christ upon the Cross.

Since the early days of the Church, there has been a cycle of services celebrated during Holy Week and Pascha. We learn from the letters of Egeria, a Spanish nun made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 383 A.D. and experienced Holy Week and Pascha in the same services still being conducted today by the worldwide Orthodox Church.

Fr. George Tsahakis, Pastor of St. Christopher Hellenic Orthodox Church in Peachtree City, GA, will celebrate all the traditional Orthodox services of Holy Week and Easter with the help of his parishioners, choir, and chantors. Visitors are welcome and encouraged to attend as their schedules permit. The journey begins with Lazarus Saturday, on April 19th. The Gospels clearly relate that six days before Christ's own death, He raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. On Palm Sunday, we celebrate His triumphal Entrance into Jerusalem, with a procession of palms. On Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings of Holy Week (4/20-26), the Nymphios, or Bridegroom Vespers, have as their theme Christ the Divine Bridegroom, and His Second Coming. The solemn procession of the Icon of Christ-Bridegroom takes place around the church, as the Faithful, anticipating His sufferings, sing: "Thy sublime sufferings, on this day, shine upon the world as a light of salvation". The services tell us to watch for we do not know when Jesus Christ will come again.

On Holy Wednesday evening, the ceremony of the Sacrament of Holy Unction takes place. The themes of the service are repentance, confession and the remission of sins by the Lord, preparing the faithful to receive Holy Communion. Holy Unction is one of the seven Sacraments of the Church, and it has its origin in the practice of the early Church as recorded in the Epistle of James (5:14-15). The Priest anoints the people with Holy Oil, as a sign of healing and remission of sins. The Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Thursday morning commemorates the Last Supper, breaking the solemnity of the week with the Eucharist. In the Service of the 12 Gospels on Holy Thursday evening, we hear the dramatic events of the final hours of our Christ’s life, His betrayal and Crucifixion, from the Gospel accounts. We witness the procession with a wooden cross as representing Christ carrying His own cross along the Via Dolorosa, and we see before us the King of Glory crucified.

On Holy Friday afternoon, the body of Christ is removed from the wooden cross and that evening, the service begins with Lamentations, hymns of mourning, sung as we stand before the tomb of Christ (pictured above), the image of our dead Lord lies inside, His funeral bier decorated with flowers offered by the faithful present. There is a solemn procession of the wooden “tomb” led by the clergy outside the church accompanied by all the people present holding candles.

The Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday morning celebrates “Christ descending into Hell” and breaking down its doors, His Victory over sin, death and hell. Christ, having been laid in the tomb began our vigil of the Resurrection. The tomb has now become a place of life, and the service is bright and joyful. The Priest passes through the congregation flinging bay leaves and chanting psalm verses as a symbol of Christ's victory over sin and death.

The Services of Great and Holy Pascha (Easter), the Joy of Joys, Holy Day of Holy Days, celebrating Christ's Resurrection begins with the Canon of the Crucifixion at 11:00 p.m., anticipating the Resurrection. It is followed by the Paschal Service and Divine Liturgy which continues on well into the early hours of Easter morning. At midnight, all the lights in the church are extinguished, and the Faithful wait expectantly in total darkness. The Priest then bears a lighted candle through the Royal Doors and all the Faithful light their candles from this flame. Then all is light and joy, with the great Paschal hymn – "Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down upon death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life!"

Early Sunday morning, the faithful return to church to hear the Resurrection Gospel of Christ proclaimed in as many languages as possible – proclaiming the universal message of salvation to the world. After this Vespers Service of Love (Agape) – a red-dyed egg is given to all the faithful as they depart, encouraging them to proclaim the victory of life over death through the miracle of Christ’s death and resurrection for all.

For information on scheduled Holy Week and Easter Services, contact Tammy Soulakos, 770/487-1004, or email her at, or visit the parish’s website at

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