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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Romanian Easter

Romanian Catholics in the United States cherish the heritage of their mother country while celebrating their faith in a new homeland.

“Hristos a inviat!” (Christ is risen!)

“Adevarat a inviat!” (Truly He has risen!)

How joyously the Easter greeting and its response are exchanged in the Romanian community. Catholic or Orthodox, all share the greeting and the deep gladness it announces.

Following the Byzantine rite in the practice of their faith, Romanian Christians had been Orthodox for centuries. In 1700 the entire Church in Transylvania – the northwestern region of modern day Romania – returned to union with Rome. The reunion reaffirmed their identity as a Latin people who trace their origins to A.D. 101, when the Roman emperor Trajan sent imperial legions to conquer ancient Dacia in southeastern Europe.

Most of the Romanians who emigrated to the United States came from Transylvania; the name means “the land beyond the forests.” Of the cherished customs they brought with them, none are prized more than their religious traditions. Settling in areas where they could find work as unskilled laborers, they rapidly established parishes in which to worship God in their way. Sixteen parishes in the eastern United States, located in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, now serve the spiritual needs of 2,000 Romanian Catholics. Their spiritual leader in the United States is Bishop Louis Puscas, an apostolic exarch, whose see is in Canton, Ohio.

With the approach of Easter, every household prepares for the glorious feast. Early on Easter Sunday morning, as dawn begins to lighten the sky, the Romanian Catholic family has already awakened. Those of Transylvanian ancestry, especially, repeat not only the joyful greeting and its response, but also the traditions learned from their parents and grandparents.

Children are reminded to wash their faces and hands in pure, cold water when they arise. Warm water with soap will come later. First, however, they must symbolize the purity of this great day by using the freshly drawn water. In it are a silver coin, reminiscent of the untarnished condition of the soul, and a reddyed Easter egg symbolizing the Blood of the Lamb. They are tokens that emphasize the dawn of a new life of the soul.

The family dresses without wasted motion. They are anxious to join other families in the still-darkened church, where the Resurrection Matins – the early morning service – is about to begin.

Vested in magnificent robes, the priest comes out of the sanctuary followed by his attendants. The congregation falls in behind, some helping to carry the Epitaphos, the cloth upon which the entombment of Christ is depicted. All carry lighted candles.

Outside the church a procession forms with priest and attendants in the lead. Solemnly, their hands shielding the sputtering candles from the early morning breeze, the faithful follow the priest as they circle the church three times, singing the stirring troparion of the Resurrection: “Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death with death, and granting life to those in the graves.”

Halting before the church entrance, all gather around the priest as he intones the opening verse of Psalm 68:

“Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered. As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish away; as wax melts before the fire, so the wicked perish when God approaches…”

To each verse the congregation responds, singing, “Christ has risen from the dead,” as the priest encircles a small table which holds the Gospel book and his golden blessing cross. He swings his censer, wafting the aromatic smoke on the morning air.

Now the priest ascends the church steps. With his blessing cross he raps three times upon the closed door.

“Raise your arches, O gates, that the King of glory may enter!”

From inside comes a muffled voice asking, “Who is this King of glory?”

“The Lord God of ages is the King of glory,” replies the priest.

Twice he repeats the knocking, and answers the question from within. Then the doors are flung open, and he triumphantly leads the congregation into the church as all sing the troparion to the background of joyously pealing bells.

At the climax of the service, the congregation sings the moving hymn:

“The Day of Resurrection! Let us be illumined with the feast, and let us embrace one another; let us say: Brothers! even to those who despise us. Let us forgive all, for the sake of the resurrection, and thus let us cry out: Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death with death, and granting life to those in the graves.”

Solemnly the Divine Liturgy commences. Throughout the service the congregation frequently joins the choir in singing. At Communion time, the faithful approach to receive the Body and Blood of the risen Savior. Children and adults respond to the invitation, “In the fear of God with faith and love draw near.”

When at length the Divine Liturgy has concluded, all the faithful approach the priest again, this time to receive at his hands the anointing with chrism, administered as a special blessing on the outstanding feasts of the year.

All, too, may now partake of the typical Easter sacramental known as the Pasti, the paschal bread steeped in wine. It is blessed in a special service on Great Holy Thursday, to be distributed to the faithful on Easter morning as a reminder of the Sacred Mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood.

After they have received the Pasti, everyone repairs to the parish hall or another suitable area. Here the families have brought their Easter baskets, filled with the foods from which they have refrained during the past seven weeks.

Like all Byzantine Christians, Romanian Catholics begin the Lenten fast by eliminating flesh meat from their diet on Monday of the week preceding Lent. The day before is “Meat-Fare Sunday,” the last day on which flesh meat is seen on their tables. The following week they observe “Cheese-Fare Sunday,” signaling the last day that dairy products appear on the menu. The next day, two days before their Latin-Rite brothers and sisters observe Ash Wednesday, Romanian Catholics enter upon the full observance of Lent. Henceforth, until Easter Sunday, only fruit and vegetable dishes will make up their daily fare.

On Easter Sunday the baskets in the parish hall are laden with hams, cheeses, beautifully decorated eggs, and sweet paschal bread and wine. Each basket is covered by a colorfully embroidered towel.

The priest enters the room and greets the people: “Christ has risen!”

In joyful chorus comes the response: “Truly He has risen!”

Three times the exchange takes place. Then the priest reads a beautiful prayer, invoking the divine blessing upon the meat foods, cheese, and eggs, “…as Thou didst bless the ram offered to Thee by Thy faithful servant Abraham, and the lamb offered as sacrifice to Thee by Abel.”

Each family’s basket is blessed with holy water, then incensed, as the priest greets his flock individually, “Christ has risen!”

Not to be overlooked is the traditional “egg-knocking.” It is highly proper for parishioners to challenge one another to a “knocking” duel. The challenger offers to knock the opponent’s egg. The winner is the one whose egg survives uncracked, and the loser must surrender his own egg to his opponent.

Practicality takes precedence over custom, however, when the eggs are lavishly decorated and given as gifts to a friend or loved one. These are frequently “blown” of their contents before they are decorated. Although only the fragile shell is left, the egg can be preserved indefinitely as a work of art and a memento of the giver’s consideration.

While the blessing of baskets is found among other peoples from southeastern Europe, the use of paschal bread and wine (the Pasti) is almost entirely a characteristic of Transylvanian Catholics. Some historians trace the custom to non-Catholic influence, viewing it as an attempt to denude the Sacred Mysteries of their divine character by substituting a merely symbolic practice. Others consider it a way to taper off the strictness of the Lenten fast by reintroducing the general use of bread and wine by the faithful.

Whatever the origin of the Pasti, the Romanian Catholic Church looks upon it as a way of transforming a folk custom into a devotional act. Like all the traditions associated with Easter among Romanian Catholics, its purpose is to glorify the risen Lord and increase the piety of the faithful.

Father Muresan is pastor of St. Nicholas Romanian Catholic Church in East Chicago, Ind., and editor of Unirea (The Union), a monthly publication of the Romanian Catholic Exarchate of America.

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