Orthodox Christians begin their Holy Week | Local News


Vicky Christou has come full circle.

On Saturday, she was surrounded by a handful of young girls who watched her bend palm fronds into palm crosses in the social hall of her church.

“I’ve probably been doing it since I was 9 or 10,” she said. “We learn by going to church on Lazarus Saturday and watching. Older women taught us how to do it. It has become a small tradition ever since.

The crosses would be blessed the following day – Palm Sunday – and given to parishioners at the end of the morning service.

But wait – Palm Sunday? Wasn’t it Easter Sunday yesterday?

Countless Catholic and Protestant congregations celebrated the resurrection of Jesus on Sunday. But Christou belongs to St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church, one of three Orthodox Christian congregations in New Castle.

For Christou and his fellow parishioners – as well as those in the churches of St Elijah and St Nicholas, to the east and south of the city respectively – Holy Week began on Monday and includes a series of services capped off by the celebration of Easter, or Pascha.

Why the difference in dates?

Father Michael Gavrilos, pastor of St. George, explained that the Orthodox faith uses a different calendar to determine the date of Easter each year.

“Everyone uses the same formula – everyone is Christian,” Gavrilos said. “We just use a different calendar, so the day can be anywhere (as Western Christians observe) five weeks apart between feast days.”

Two historical divisions figure in the difference.

Originally there was just one Christian church, Gavrilos said, but the Great Schism of 1054 resulted in two sections, the Western (which became the Roman Catholic Church) and the Eastern (orthodox). Then, more than 500 years later, during the time of Pope Gregory XIII, “they realized they had been wrong about the time it took for the earth to revolve around the sun,” Gavrilos said.

The result was that the pope introduced a new calendar – the Gregorian – to replace the previous one, the Julian (named after Julius Caesar). The move created a difference of 10 or 11 days, Gavrilos explained, a gap that increases by a full day every 100 to 200 years.

“They went to bed one night, I believe it was October 1, and when they woke up,” he said, “it was October 12.”

However, the Orthodox Church continues to apply the formula that determines the date of Easter using the Julian calendar. This formula was fixed by the First Ecumenical Council in 325 at Nicaea, and it established that Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The day to be considered as the invariable date of the equinox is March 21, the first day of spring.

“But we are 13 days behind,” Gavrilos said, “so March 21 would be March 8. There is a 13 day gap that could push (Pasha) until the next full moon.

There are similarities between Western and Eastern celebrations of Easter. Both observe a 40-day period of Lent and each proclaims that Jesus was crucified on a Friday and resurrected on a Sunday.

But there are also differences.

While Western Christianity marks the start of Lent with Ash Wednesday, the Orthodox faith observes Pure Monday.

“We don’t necessarily let things go like Western Christians do in their tradition, but we just pay more attention,” Gavrilos said. “Sometimes that means we give things up. We fast, and during fasting periods we have no meat products, dairy products, oil.

“We want to be more mindful of what we eat, less heavy food, so we can better enjoy and celebrate what’s happening.”

There are also differences in observances. Saturday, for example, was Lazarus Saturday, celebrating the third occasion in which Jesus raised someone from the dead. And what others call Good Friday is known as Great and Holy Friday, Gavrilos said.

St. George begins his observance of the crucifixion from sunset on Thursday, when a cross is carried inside the church and worshipers can light candles and worship it.

On Friday, Gavrilos said, Christ is taken down from the cross and a funeral procession takes place in front of the church.

Saturday morning, Gavrilos said, is the liturgy of the Descent into Hell, and “on Saturday evening, 99% of the Orthodox churches have a service around midnight,” he continued, “and that is the resurrection of Christ, where you hear ‘Christ is risen!’ sang again and again.

Gavrilos said he frequently asks about why the Orthodox celebration of Easter falls on a different day and, in his case, whether to be Greek to worship at St. George.

“You don’t,” he said. “We just brought someone into the faith today who has no Greek background. Our faith is Orthodoxy; front-linked ethnicity doesn’t matter.

“It’s like saying Roman Catholic, Polish Catholic, German Catholic. Our faith is Orthodox.

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