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Home Paros Life - Current Issue Backissue Nr. 124
  Nr. 124 - April 2009
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A Parian Pascha

by Al Fragola
For over fifty years the village of Prodromos has celebrated Easter in a very special way with the children of the village participating in the Holy Friday "Parastaseis", a series of tableaux portray-ing scenes from the Passion - the story of the last days and events in the life of Christ.
Now also taking place in the villages of Marpissa, Marmara, Aspro Chorio and, most recently, in Lefkes, there are many opportunities to witness the "Parastaseis" at locations all around the island.
Easter is, of course, the most important celebration on the Greek Orthodox calendar, and there are many other significant religious events and festivities taking place during the Holy Week and over the weekend of Pascha.
In the article that follows, you can learn more about the differences between the Easter and Pascha celebrations in the Western and Eastern churches, thanks to Al Fragola who has kindly provided us with the notes of his recent highly informative talk on this subject to IWOP (the International Women's Organ-ization of Paros).
Wishing everyone a KALO PASCHA...

The Differences between Western "Easter" and Orthodox "Pascha"

As we approach the commemoration and celebration of the death and ressurection of Christ, we see some obvious differences in practice between the Church of Greece and western Christianity. So, today, we'll look at what is broadly meant by the "Eastern" or "Orthodox" Church versus the "Western" Church, the terms "Easter" and "Pascha", the different dates for observing both Easter and the start of Lent, and a brief look at "Carnival".
Let's begin by some definition of terms and a touch of explanatory history. I will use the term "Eastern" and "Orthodox" interchangeably to refer to the Orthodox Churches, and The "West" or "Western Churches" to collectively refer to the Church of Rome and the various other denominations commonly referred to as Protestant. Should something refer only to the Church of Rome, I will use that term. For the subjects today, these terms are reasonably accurate.

How do we arrive at the "East" - "West" definition, and why is this relevant to our topic?
Most of Christianity was basically one united Church through to 1054. The local churches were in communion, respecting Episcopal boundaries, and they worked together to combat heresy and division. While some withdrew due to doctrinal or theological issues, the majority formed one church and the present-day concept of a single authority such as "The Pope" didn't exist. Although the Bishop of Rome held a primacy of honour, church doctrine and order arose from conciliarity reached through the conferences at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) and seven Ecumenical Councils. In 325 the Nicene Creed ("I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible...") was adopted and later refined in 381 in Constantinople. It was confirmed "subject to no man's alteration" at Ephesus in 431.
Later, however, Rome added the words "and the Son" (known as the "Filioque") to the passage "...the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son..." in violation of this agreement. It was rejected by all the other Patriarchates and this dispute became one of the reasons for the East-West Schism - not just as an issue of doctrine, but also as a refusal to acknowledge papal supremacy. A break in conciliarity resulted which separated the "West" (Rome) from "East" (Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem). Thus we have a Western Patriarchiate and several Eastern Patriarchates, with the Eastern ones still united in conciliarity.

So is "Easter" a Western word for "Pascha"? Not really. First, let's look at the "English" term "Easter". This is not a translation of the Greek "Pascha" (Passover), but rather the slight alteration of the name of a Saxon pagan Spring celebration. Missionaries to the Saxons in the third century experienced Saxon resistance to scuttling all their long-standing customs, so to ease their adoption of the new religion, the pagan festival, Eastre, became the source of the name "Easter" for the Christian celebration of Pascha, the New Passover. Note that Italians, Spaniards and French, for example, refer to the feast as "Pasqua". In engaging the English-speaking West, the people of the Eastern Church have simply incorporated the term "Easter" to simplify dialogue! Thus, we often hear the term "Greek Easter" to denote the Orthodox celebration of Pascha.

Why do the dates of Easter differ?
Due to early Christians anticipating the Second Coming, commemoration of events in salvation history was slow to begin, but by the end of the 1st century, it was becoming a universal practice. Actually, up until about 20 years after our Ekatontapyliani Church was built, there was not a universally determined date for celebrating Pascha. Some local churches elected to celebrate the feast on the same date of the Hebrew calendar as it was estimated it originally took place, resulting in Pascha being observed any day of the week. Other local churches, considering that Sunday had become the Christian day of remembrance of the Resurrection, felt that Pascha should be on a Sunday. All the churches came to the conclusion that it would, indeed, be more proper to pick a uniform date to celebrate this, the most important event in Christian salvation history. Also, by this time, there were difficulties in using the Hebrew calculation, as the destruction of the Temple in 70AD and the scattering of the Jews had resulted in the calculation of their calendar being influenced by local secular calendars, so there were numerous calculations in use! The Hebrew calendar requires astronomical observations that were originally only done at the Temple in Jerusalem.
So, in 325, at the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea, amongst other decisions, the Church stated that the Pascha would be observed on the first Sunday following the first new moon following the Spring Equinox, but never on or before the Jewish Passover. More or less, this formula is followed by East and West today, but with one or two wrinkles.
At the time of the Council, the solar/secular calendar was the Julian calendar, a pretty accurate affair by those days' standards, but slighty off - by some 11 minutes per year. By the 13th century, the Julian calendar was about nine days off from actual astronomical events. This was beginning to wreak havoc with the calculated date of the equinox, amongst other things, so in 1582, Pope Gregory declared that a more accurate calendar (called the Gregorian) would be used as the official civil and ecclesiastical calendar. In implementing it, the dates 5 through 14 Oct were not observed that year, to bring the calendar back in line with actuality. While this went over pretty well with most of the world that recognized the Pope's authority, there were several groups who were not about to adopt this calendar, simply to protest the Pope exercising any authority over them. Most notable amongst these were The Church of England, The Lutherans, and all of the Orthodox. While the first two finally accepted the Gregorian calendar in 1750 and 1775, respectively, the Orthodox, at least to determine the date of Pascha, still stick to the Julian calendar for the calculation of the ecclesiastical equinox, placing it, currently, some 13 days later than the Gregorian calculation. Thus, wrinkle number one!

Wrinkle number two was that the Church of Rome, and thus all the West, stopped adjusting the date of Pascha to ensure it was not observed on or before the Jewish Passover. Hence the occasional occurrence of a "very early Easter". Since the Julian calendar, by virtue of its thirteen day error, would never result in Pascha being observed on or before the Passover, the Orthodox conform to the restriction of the Council of Nicea, albeit strictly by the accident of an inaccurate calendar! So East and West will usually observe Pascha on different dates. Occasionally the dates will be the same, but Eastern Pascha will never come earlier than Western.
I would note here that many of the Orthodox Churches, including the Church of Greece, adopted the Gregorian (actually they use the "Revised Julian") calendar for everything else in Church life except Pascha. There have been many attempts to adopt a common calculation for the feast, but so far, it just hasn't worked out.

The differing observances of Lenten Practice

So, we now know the reason for the differing dates of Easter/Pascha. The start of the Lenten Season also differs in the East and West, with Western Lent beginning on a Wednesday, and Orthodox Lent beginning on a Monday.
Both East and West base the Lenten season on the Biblical account of Christ's 40 days of fast and prayer in the desert. It is a time of preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection. In the West, Lent begins 40 days (not including Sundays) before Easter, on what is generally called Ash Wednesday. In the East, Lent begins 7 weeks before Pascha on the Monday following Forgiveness (or Cheesefare) Sunday. That is because Palm Sunday and the preceding Saturday are not included in the 40 days, nor is Holy Week, the Mon-Sat preceding Pascha. Two different approaches to 40 days! Just prior to Orthodox Lent, which is a period when strict fasting is strongly recommended, there is an additional week of partial fasting when meat is excluded from the diet. This came about as a compromise with the Palestinian Orthodox in the 6-7th century, who felt that weekends should not be fast days and thus saw the need for 8 weeks x 5 days to achieve a 40 day fast. The Sunday preceding this modified fast is known as Meatfare Sunday.
Last of all we come to the celebration of carnival. This is simply the name many cultures use for a secular celebration also called Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). As in the West, Carnival in Greece is simply a variety of local customs arising from the wish for "one last festival" before the fasting and spiritual journey of Lent.
Neither the Eastern nor the Western Church ever promoted the practice, and there is evidence that serious attempts were made over the centuries to discourage it. While some of the activities involved in these celebrations date back to pre-Christian celebrations, the reasons for them in the Christian world have no real pre-Christian roots. Carnival-type celebrations range from the massive extravaganzas seen in Venice, Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans, to a mid-range as seen in Greece, to Blini Week in Russia, to vestigial activities such as "Pancake Day" (Shrove Tuesday) in England. In Christian cultures where the Lenten Fast ceased being a significant practice, the conduct of these events has become often muted or died out. The start and duration of carnival varies from region to region. Most commonly, the season begins 3 weeks before the start of Lent, but there are some cultures where the people are so fun loving they begin their "Carnival Season" as early as November!!
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