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Easter: An Orthodox Perspective

Ruminations on Easter in the Orthodox Church.

The genius of the Orthodox Church, Balkan, Greek, Middle Eastern and Russian, lies in its ability to reveal glimpses of the divine through the drama of the liturgy, which in Greek means, “work of the people.”

“Christianity is a liturgical religion,” wrote Georges Florovsky, a pre-eminent Orthodox theologian. “Worship comes first, doctrine and discipline second.” According to the saints of the church, both Catholic and Orthodox, humanity was created to know, love and serve God – literally the meaning of worship. Through the “work of the people,” the church commemorates the life, death and resurrection of her founder, Jesus Christ.

To understand the Orthodox conception of Jesus Christ, a grasp of Orthodox christology is imperative. He is the God-Man in Orthodox theology. “The Church,” wrote Vladimir Lossky, a notable Orthodox lay theologian, “will always show in its liturgical hymns and icons the God-Man preserving his majesty even in humiliation.” The icon of the crucifixion best illustrates this christology.

In traditional Catholic iconography, depictions of the crucifixion emphasize Jesus’ agony and death. His body swoons from the pain of the nails piercing his hands and feet; blood pours from his side. Crowned with thorns, drops of blood flow from his brow. Below the corpse, Mary collapses; often she is depicted in the arms of the apostle John.

Byzantine-inspired icons of the crucifixion do not depict agony and death, but primarily reveal hope. “The Cross is the very image of the Redemption,” said Lossky, “which is the economy of the love of the Trinity toward fallen humanity.”

Jesus’ body hangs gracefully from the cross. There is little blood, no gore. Mary and John stand below him calmly pointing toward the suffering Redeemer. The power of death, represented by a cavern beneath the cross, is vanquished by Jesus’ death. Adam’s skull, a symbol of fallen humanity, fills the void.

Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of Orthodox christology takes place during Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday and culminating with the Easter Vigil on Great (Holy) Saturday.

In pre-revolutionary Russia, Palm Sunday was a welcome relief from the rigid fasting of Lent. A gala for children, eggs were dyed, pussy willow branches were cut and decorated (these replaced palms) and toys were distributed.

In honor of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, great processions were held in all cities and towns, even in the poorest hamlets. Carrying their decorated pussy willows, clergy and laity processed to the church, singing not mournful lenten hymns, but joyful anthems. Jesus’ triumphant entry as “King of the Jews,” not his passion, was commemorated.

On Great (Good) Friday, solemnity replaces the joy of Palm Sunday. In Jerusalem, Orthodox churches of all nationalities and rites have for centuries converged on the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of the crucifixion and resurrection.

One of the most moving rites occurs in the morning while the Gospel account of Jesus’ burial is read. A priest, representing Joseph of Arimathea, removes the body of Jesus from the cross above the altar. The corpse is then wrapped in a shroud. Laying it on the altar, the table of sacrifice, the priest then holds aloft a burial shroud with an embroidered icon of the dead Jesus. This funeral procession on the original site is accompanied by solemn chants reminding the faithful of Christ’s descent into hell – his victory over death. The procession ends with the shroud placed on a bier. In some countries, this bier is lavishly decorated with white carnations. Left in repose for hours, the image is touched and kissed by the faithful.

The emotional climax of the Easter celebration in Jerusalem occurs not during the vigil, but at noon on Great Saturday. Armed with bundles of candles and lanterns, masses of pilgrims pack the crusader church and its courtyard. There they eagerly press toward the tomb to receive the Easter fire, which symbolizes Christ as the light.

Shortly before noon, the Greek Orthodox patriarch enters the tomb and spontaneously the Easter fire surges from the tomb’s tiny opening through the basilica and to the crowded courtyard outside. Some have claimed that 30 seconds do not elapse between the lighting of the fire and the sea of flame which enveloped the courtyard.

Immersing themselves in the glow and warmth of the Easter fire which some preserve for up to a year, the worshippers sing:

Yesterday I was buried with you, O Christ,
Today I awake with you, the Risen One,

I was crucified with you yesterday,
Glory me with you, O Savior,
in your kingdom.

Again, the cross and resurrection are closely identified, never separated from each other.

All rites pale in comparison to the Easter Vigil. Russian Orthodoxy celebrates this feast of feasts in true Russian style – with exuberance and flamboyance.

The churches are packed with people. Behind the closed doors of the iconostasis (a screen of icons which divides the sanctuary from the body of the church), the clergy chant matins while cantors provide the responses. Just before midnight, the clergy and laity, bearing lighted tapers, circle the church three times in search of the missing body of Jesus.

When the crowd returns to the church for the third time, the celebrant, dressed in brilliant white vestments, throws open the royal doors of the iconostasis and in a thunderous voice shouts, “Christos Voskrese!” Christ is risen! The people then joyously respond “Voistinu Voskrese!” Indeed he has risen! These enthusiastic exclamations are repeated over and over again while the choir booms in song.

In old Russia, Easter was the national holiday Rather than retiring after the three-hour liturgy, families feasted on eggs, butter and cheeses, products which were not consumed during the great fast of Lent. Blessed baskets filled with kulich, a tall round bread decorated with frosting, a candle and the letters XB, Cyrillic for Christos Voskrese, and paskha, a sweet, creamy cheese used as a spread, were exchanged and eaten. All of Russia celebrated Christ’s triumph.

The icon of Christ’s descent into hell is a major focus of these celebrations. Unlike traditional Catholic imagery which depicts the actual moment of resurrection, Orthodox icons remain true to the silence of the Gospels.

“The unfathomable character of this event for the human mind,” wrote the modern Orthodox theologian Leonid Ouspensky, “and the consequent impossibility of depicting it, is the reason for the absence of icons of the Resurrection.”

Instead, Orthodox iconographers choose to depict Christ’s descent into hell, as echoed by the words of the Acts of the Apostles, Peter’s first epistle and the Nicene Creed.

The icon is centered in hell, in the same abyss as depicted in the icon of the crucifixion. Christ, clothed in brilliant garments of gold and white, is suffused with rays of light – an illusion to the glory of the God-Man. Beneath his feet fall the gates of hell. From these gates Christ pulls Adam, Eve and all those “who fell before him.” By freeing Adam from the bondage of sin, Christ has freed humanity and “laid the foundation of a new life with him.”

This icon, though brought out for veneration on Great Saturday, is nevertheless an Easter icon, for it serves as a reminder of the coming celebration of the Resurrection of Christ and our own resurrection on Judgement Day.

For centuries, Orthodox Christians have endured war, occupation and persecution. Nevertheless, they have proved themselves resilient. From isolated monasteries to desolate village churches, the “work of the people,” revealed an incomprehensible God to those oppressed by poverty and pain. Ever mindful of its pain, the church never ceased in hoping for its resurrection.

Today, amidst economic and political upheavals, the Orthodox Church is alive and vibrant. Like the Easter icon, its faith reminds us of Christ’s resurrection and our own impending rebirth.

Christ is risen!

Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s vice president for communications. Morfia Sokolic, the Association’s director of finance and a member of the Orthodox Church, contributed to this article.

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