Tomorrow is the Greek Orthodox Easter. Pretty much the same as that celebrated by any other Christian denomination, you may think, and you would be partly right. For, you see, Easter is a really big deal over here. Bigger than Christmas (I can practically hear the gasps).
Following forty days of lent, when many people give up meat (and fast-food and even souvlaki joints joints offer veggie or seafood alternatives), it all kicks off with Palm Sunday – a week before Easter. Church-goers are treated to handmade palm crosses and liberally scattered bay leaves. These are meant to remind us of Jesus’ triumphant entrance to Jerusalem. They are taken home, as a blessing.
Monday and Tuesday have morning and evening services. Tuesday is dedicated to Maria Magdalene, and a 9th century Byzantine troparion (poem) is sung, written by Kassiani (a Byzantine monk, renowned for both her beauty and poetry skills).
Wednesday has three services: a morning liturgy; an afternoon unction service and an evening service, where the Last Supper is celebrated. The unction service is the most popular of these, with churches overflowing with people. It takes place before a bowl filled with olive oil. Once it’s over, the priest anoints people with it. They also dip small cotton balls into it and take them home. This oil is believed to cure sickness, so they also take bottles of the oil home, to anoint themselves in case of ill health.
Thursday has a morning liturgy and an evening service, referred to as the Twelve Gospels. This is a reference to the priest reading twelve gospel excerpts, namely those describing how Jesus was captured and brought to Pilate.
Good Friday also has two services. In every church there is a wooden cross, complete with a figure of Jesus nailed on it. This is brought to the center of the church, and Jesus is removed from the cross. A gold-embroidered sheet with the scene of His burial is placed inside an elaborately adorned box, known as the Epitaph.
Throughout the day, bells ring pensively. In the evening, a solemn procession takes this around the village or parish. This consists of marching bands, boy scouts and hundreds of people. The Epitaph chanting, known as Epitaph mourning, is particularly haunting – you can listen to it below in a lovely rendition by Glykeria.
Saturday has a morning liturgy, but it’s the midnight Resurrection service that everyone’s waiting for (unless you’re in Corfu. Unable to keep fasting for too long, Corfiots have decided to celebrate what we call the First Resurrection; when Jesus goes to Hades to take the souls to Heaven. At noon sharp, clay jugs are thrown out of every window. Moments later, marching bands playing happy tunes march throughout the city and the fasting is over. Everyone else has to wait until midnight before they break the fast).
Moments before midnight, everyone’s out on the streets. At midnight sharp, the Holy Fire is distributed, having arrived earlier by plane from Jerusalem (see below). Everyone lights up their candles, kisses each other and exchanges wishes of Christos Anesti (Christ is risen). Moments later, only a few are left behind to attend the midnight mass. The crowds disperse and go home, where they break the fast with a meat stew called magiritsa and boiled eggs. Traditionally, people make a wish and crack each other’s eggs. Whoever cracks his neighbor’s egg, will get their wish fulfilled.
In most places, however, there are also fireworks (sometimes taken to the extreme, like in Chios or Crete, where tons of fireworks or even heavy weapons may be used). The photo on the right is from Corfu, which features a lovely fireworks display. You can see below the crowds with their lit candles.
Finally, Easter Sunday is celebrated by eating lamb (as in the Lamb of God, but also a reference to the Jewish Passover and Exodus). There is no morning liturgy, only Vespers, so religion takes a back seat to a rather boisterous and prolonged family lunch.
Needless to say, every part of Greece has its own customs for the occasion. For example, on some islands the Epitaph is dipped into the sea, to ensure kind seas for the ships in the following months.
I mentioned before the Holy Fire being transferred to Greece from Jerusalem. Mihran Kalaydjian kindly left a comment last week, detailing what that is all about. Here is his story, in his own words.
(Note: the video starts off with a bit of a travel log, so I suggest you start playing at 4′)
“This ceremony takes place in the Orthodox Church of the Resurrection of Christ in Jerusalem in such a way that bewilders the soul of the Christians.
ON EASTER SATURDAY, at noon, the Orthodox Patriarch, or any other Orthodox Archbishop, enters the Holy Sepulchre in the church of Resurrection, recites special prayers and remains waiting. Sometimes the waiting is long, sometimes short. The crowd, in the darkened church, repeats continually with a loud voice: “Lord, have mercy” (Kyrie eleison). At a certain moment the Holy Fire flashes from the depth of the Holy Sepulchre in a supernatural way, miraculously, and lights up the little lamp of olive oil put on the edge of it. The Patriarch (or the Archbishop), after having read some prayers, lights up the two clusters of 33 candles he is holding, and begins to distribute the Holy Fire to the multitude of pilgrims, who receive it with great emotion, accompanied with the pealing of bells, acclamations, and an unbridled enthusiasm.
The Holy Fire is not only distributed by the Archbishop, but operates also by itself. It emits from the Holy Sepulchre having a gleam of a hue completely different from that of natural Fire. It sparkles, it flashes like lightning, it flies like a dove around the tabernacle of the Holy Sepulchre, and lights up the unlit lamps of olive oil hanging in front of it. It whirls from one side of the church to the other. It enters to some of the chapels inside the church, as for instance the chapel of the Calvery (at a higher level than the Holy Sepulchre) and lights up the little lamps. It also lights up the candles of certain pilgrims. In fact there are some very pious pilgrims who, every time they attended this ceremony, noticed that their candles lit up on the own accord!
This divine light also presents some peculiarities: As soon as it appears it has a bluish hue and does not burn. At the first moments of its appearance, if it touches the face, or the mouth, or the hands, it does not burn. This is proof of its divine and supernatural origin. We must also take into consideration that the Holy Fire appears only by the invocation of an Orthodox Archbishop. Each time that heterodox bishops tried to obtain it, they failed.
Once the Armenians paid the Turks, who then occupied the Holy Land, in order to obtain permission for their Patriarch to enter the Holy Sepulchre, The Orthodox Patriarch was standing sorrowfully with his flock at the exit of the church, near the left column, when the Holy Fire split this column vertically and flashed near the Orthodox Patriarch.
A Moslem Muezin, called Tounom, who saw the miraculous event from an adjacent mosque, abandoned immediately the Moslem religion and became an Orthodox Christian. This event took place in 1549 under Sultan Mourad IV, when the Patriarch of Jerusalem was Sophrony II. (The mentioned split column still exists. It goes back to the XII c. The Orthodox pilgrims embrace it at the “place of the split” as the enter the church).
The appearance of the Holy Fire is an event which occurs every year in front of thousands of visual witnesses. Nobody can deny it. On the contrary, this miracle can reinforce those who have lack of faith.”