For Orthodox Christians, Easter rituals just beginning

Christians who follow Julian calendar will spend week reflecting

aspecht@newsobserver.comApril 9, 2012 

— About that Easter feast, the remnants of which now clog your refrigerator: Don’t mention it to your Christian orthodox friends.

The disciplined faithful have endured 40 days without eating meat, but they’d prefer as few temptations as possible until they celebrate Jesus’ resurrection – on Sunday.

“It’s hard hearing others talk about their Easter feasts, but it’s also humbling,” said Toula Capetanos, of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox in Raleigh. “This holiday isn’t about food or worldly luxuries. It’s about an authentic experience and remembering the struggles Christ endured for us.”

Authenticity is a trait prized in orthodox churches.

Their observance of Easter is a prime example. Unlike mainstream Christian churches which celebrate Easter in accordance with the Western or “Gregorian” calendar, most orthodox churches observe the Julian calendar.

The Julian calendar was established in 46 B.C. and was used by the First Council of Nicaea in 325 to set the first Easter.

The alternate calendar is just one of the many practices attractive to converts like Sydney Langford, a former Presbyterian, who want a richer Easter experience.

“It feels more meaningful,” said Langford, who came to Holy Trinity 10 years ago. “(Mainstream) churches have a lot of fanfare. And so do we, but it lasts longer than one day.”

What orthodox churches lack in traditional American pageantry – egg hunts, pastels, chocolate, etc. – they make up for in deep-rooted ritual.

Holy Trinity and other Greek Orthodox churches hold services every night the week before Easter. A different scene from Christ’s journey is highlighted each night, and Christ’s suffering is mentioned as much as his triumph over death. Until Saturday night, the sermons and singing take somber tones. The only eggs painted are those colored red to symbolize the passion.

“Understanding grace means understanding what Jesus went through,” Father Paul Christy said. “People want to experience the joy and the pain because, somehow, going through those emotions together makes us better people.”

Holy Trinity’s Easter celebration will start with a service beginning at 10:45 p.m. Saturday.

The church members will gather in near-pitch darkness.

As midnight approaches, Father Christy will light a single candle. Then, he’ll say, “Xristos Anesti” (Greek for “Christ is Risen”) and all at once, church members will light their own candle, filling the Mediterranean-blue room with light.

There will be no electricity. No musical instruments. Just family, the light of God, and the Holy Spirity, Christy said.

“The stark contrast of darkness and light come together ... making for the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen,” Christy says.

Afterward, around 2 a.m. Sunday, parishioners will return home for a traditional dinner “or they’ll go to the nearest iHop to celebrate,” says Toula Capetanos of Raleigh. “We won’t have chocolate bunnies or anything like that. We don’t want to mask the importance of Christ’s sacrifice,” she said. “But we’ll share meals as a family because strengthening Christ’s family is of utmost importance.”

Whatever they eat to celebrate Easter, it wouldn’t mean as much without the fasting, the mourning, and the ritual, Father Christy says.

“Then, it wouldn’t be about Christ,” he said. “It would be about us.”

Specht: 919-829-4826

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