Easter is the most important holy day in the Greek Orthodox year. The Easter season occupies a full ten weeks in all, this year from February 12 to April 23. During this time good Orthodox fast and pray to prepare themselves for Easter Sunday, which marks the resurrection of the Lord from the dead, with all of the joy and promise which that greatest of all events holds for us all. This period is carefully structured, with specifically relevant readings from scripture, and church services that lead the faithful through a process of repentance toward spiritual regeneration.
The Easter season divides into three parts: three preparatory weeks, the six weeks of the great fast, and the final week, Great Week, which ends at midnight Saturday with the arrival of Easter Sunday.
Not very long ago in Greece, the butchers used to close during the Easter season, and eggs and cheese were hard to find. But with the influx of non-Orthodox and the laxer practices of our time, this is no longer the case. Still, devout Orthodox do observe the fast, which means they eat no meat, no animal products (cheese, eggs, butter, milk), no fish and no oil and drink no alcohol. What is left? Olives, fasting breads, rice, noodles, vegetables pickled or cooked without oil, fruit, nuts, honey, sugar, and non-fish seafood such as octopus, clams, shrimp, etc. On Good Friday, the day of the Lord’s crucifixion, one neither eats nor drinks anything at all. On other days, however, wine and oil are permitted, and on certain festivals even fish, but never meat or animal products. One also refrains from sexual relations. The Orthodox make these sacrifices as a turning away from the interests of the body to focus on the interests of the soul.
The fast begins after Apokreas (“away from meat”), this year February 26. Previous to this, as in the West, is a carnival time, with costume parties, dancing and the like, and a waiving of the usual fasting on Wednesday and Friday. With Apokreas, meat is forbidden, but for a week yet one may eat cheese and milk. The serious fasting period begins on Clean Monday on March 6, which in theory is a day of total fasting but is usually celebrated instead with a great shift to the usual fasting foods – pickles, tarama, octopus, halvas, etc., These are often packed in a hamper and taken out to the fields, where family and friends spend the day consuming these delicacies and, often, flying kites.
The season continues with Orthodox Sunday on March 12, which celebrates the composition of the Creed by the 318 bishops who assembled at Nicaea in 325 AD. The next Sunday is dedicated to St. Gregory Palamas, the great Orthodox writer and theologian.
On March 25 the fast is relaxed for the celebration of the Feast of the Annunciation, the occasion upon which the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin to announce the great events that God had in mind for her. After that come the Sunday of the Reverence of the Cross and the Sunday of St. Ioannis Klimakos.
On the following Friday, April 7, the Akathistos Hymn is sung to the blessed Virgin. This celebrates the saving of Constantinople from the Avars and Persians, who besieged the city in 626. The siege was desperate and the city looked sure to fall, so the besieged took a holy icon and marched around the walls of the city singing this hymn throughout the night, which is why it is called the akathistos, the “not-sitting-down” hymn.
Then comes the Sunday of St Mary of Egypt on April 9, which is followed by the Saturday of St. Lazarus on April 15. Like the Annunciation, this is an important feast, Lazarus’ raising from the dead being a precursor to the resurrection of Christ Himself.
Finally, on April 16 this year, comes Palm Sunday, familiar to many non-Orthodox Christians as well. Palm Sunday marks Christ’s joyous entrance into Jerusalem, riding upon a donkey colt, with his followers shouting hosanna! hosanna! and strewing his way with palm branches. The churches are decorated with palm branches, often woven into crosses, stars and donkeys, and there is a colourful procession through the town. The fast is relaxed on this occasion, when people may eat oil, wine and fish. On the evening of Palm Sunday, Great Week begins.
Throughout Great Week, the priests are clad in black and the churches are deep in mourning. Each day has a special message with particular readings from holy scripture that review the events of the last week of Jesus’ life as a man on earth. All of the churches publish schedules of the services during this week, and you can also buy special books of the Holy Week services (in Greek). English and bi-lingual editions do exist, but not as far as I know on Paros.
The message of Great Monday and Tuesday is “behold the bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night”: in other words, be prepared! You do not know when you will be called to stand before your creator. This is sung in a dirge-like chant by the women of the church. Monday and Tuesday evenings, the services are from about 19.00 to 20.30.
On Great Wednesday from about 17.00 to 18.30 is the efchelaio service – the blessing of the oil, that heals body and soul. The faithful are first blessed with the holy oil, then given bits of cotton soaked with it, which they take home with them for their health and well-being. Later on Wednesday, from about 19.30 – 21.30, is the service commemorating the Last Supper, when Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples. It was on this occasion that he bade them, when they broke bread together, to eat it in remembrance of him, as his body, and to drink wine in remembrance of him, as his blood. This was the first celebration of communion, which is recelebrated in every liturgy.
On Great Thursday morning, from about 6.30 to 9.30, the scripture of Judas’ betrayal of Christ and his trial before Pontius Pilate are read and an entire liturgy celebrated. On Thursday evening, during a long service from about 19.30 to 23.30, twelve passages are read from the New Testament. These relate the terrible events of Christ’s betrayal to the Roman authorities, his presentation before the governor, Pontius Pilate, his mocking, and his crucifixion. At around 21.30, after the 5th text, the cross, with Jesus upon it, is brought from the sanctuary and set up in the centre of the church.
On Good Friday, April 21 this year, there are services all day, the “hours”, during which the women of each of Paros’s major parishes richly decorate their church’s epitaphio – the tomb of Christ – with flowers. At around 13.00, Christ is removed from the cross and placed within the epitaphio. Despite their sad purpose, the epitaphia are very beautiful with their wealth of fresh flowers, so lovingly arranged. On Friday night starting at around 22.00, mourning continues for Christ in the tomb, the women singing dirges in their sorrow. About 23.00, rose petals fall in a shower from the highest recesses of the church upon the bier of Christ and the worshippers. In the town of Paroikia, the epitaphia of the three churches – the Ekatontapyliani, the Taxiarchon and the Zoodhocho Pigi – leave in procession with their priests and parishioners bearing candles and the women chanting, and meet at around midnight at the harbour windmill. If the night is not too windy or cold, this is one of Paros’s most solemn and gorgeous events, as the whole island mourns Christ’s death along with Christians everywhere.
The readings on Great Saturday morning are from the Old Testament. In the evening around 23.00, the relatively brief Easter service begins, during which the priests don white vestments once more. At midnight, all lights are extinguished and the church is submerged in darkness. Then the priest emerges with a single light, announcing “Christos anesti” – Christ is risen! – which is joyously repeated again and again. The people crowd forward to light their candles from his, and so light fans out quickly to fill the whole church. This is the great moment, the climax of weeks – months, actually – of fasting and spiritual preparation.
For 40 days to come, until the feast of the Ascension (at Ag. Foka on the Paroikia harbour point), people will greet one another saying “Christos anesti!” (Christ is risen!) and replying “Alithos anesti!” (Indeed, He is risen!) or “Alithos o Kyrios!” (Indeed, the Lord!), and joy returns to the world once more. The light of the resurrection is taken physically into each home by candle or in little wind-proof lamps, and is used to smoke the sign of the cross above the freshly whitewashed doorway.
After midnight, most families unfortunately do not stay for the liturgy, which follows immediately, but return to their houses to break the fast with some mayeritsa, the traditional nourishing soup made of the innards of lamb. The more persevering stay for this first liturgy of the new era that begins each Easter, with the wonderful reading from the gospel of St. John: “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God. The same was in the beginning with God.” Amen
Katherine Clark has been a resident of Paros on and off for 37 years and an Orthodox Christian since 1987. She has written about the Ekatontapyliani and written and lectured on Greek Orthodoxy generally. If you have specific questions about Orthodoxy, please contact her at transactKC@aol.com.