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From April 2008

HRISTIANS in Western churches celebrated Easter unusually early this year, on March 23, heightening a long-standing difference with members of ancient churches in Eastern Europe (including Greece and Russia) and the Middle East.

This Sunday members of the Eastern Orthodox communion of churches, represented in Pennsylvania for about 100 years by the descendants of Slavic and Greek immigrants as well as a few converts, will celebrate Easter, actually the most important feast in the Christian calendar, more so than Christmas, which is clear if you visit Orthodox worship.

Eastern Orthodoxy is not a Protestant faith. Not only is it centuries older than the oldest Protestant churches but it has far more in common with Roman Catholicism: bishops, belief in one true church and in church infallibility, belief in the complete change of the Communion bread and wine into Christ, devotion to Mary and the saints including asking their prayers, the smoke of incense and the use of images (icons) in church and at home with candles and lamps burning in front of them.

In Christianity’s first millennium they were essentially the same church.

Rivalry between the West led by the Pope and the new German Holy Roman Empire started by Charlemagne on one hand and the remaining Roman Empire by then based in Constantinople (now Istanbul) under its emperor on the other caused a gradual estrangement of the two sides in mediæval times, exacerbated by accusations of heresy thrown at each other. Western theologians added the words ‘and the Son’ to the Nicene Creed to make a point in a local argument with heretics; the Orthodox said the Westerners had no right to do so. The Pope eventually claimed to have jurisdiction over the entire church, which the Orthodox rejected.

Orthodox worship is sacramental, liturgical, hierarchical and, like much of American Roman Catholicism until about 40 years ago, very traditional and Old World. It’s been described as mystical. One difference is the service is often in English or in a liturgical language related to a people’s everyday language, such as mediæval Greek or Slavonic (related to Russian).

The dates for Easter usually differ because the Orthodox follow an ancient church rule that the holiday can never coincide with or come before Passover (even though the Orthodox don’t celebrate Passover). This year Passover began on April 19.

At Orthodox Good Friday services a special icon called an epitaphios or plashchanitsa, representing the burial shroud of Christ with a painting of his body on it, is brought out for the faithful to bow down (prostrate) before and kiss. It is also carried in procession.

Rather like Roman Catholic Midnight Mass at Christmas but longer and much more dramatic is Orthodox Easter, starting with chanting the Acts of the Apostles the night before with a midnight procession sometimes in the street and the chanting of the hours and Liturgy (Mass) sometimes lasting until 3 or 4 in the morning. And it’s not over: there can be the blessing of Easter baskets with traditional foods and feasting and drinking after that in the church hall, breaking the long, severe (no meat or dairy) Lenten fast.

A traditional verse and response for the feast and the liturgical season afterwards are ‘Christ is risen! Indeed he is risen!’

The Orthodox tradition
Who is Orthodox?
Explaining Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism to each other


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