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Easter: Western versus Eastern Orthodox Christian Practices

With Easter fast approaching (though you'd never know it in New York City, given that Ol' Man Winter is still hanging around), I have contributed to a couple of Facebook threads with regard to the differences between the Western Christian versus Eastern Orthodox Christian dates for both Easter and Christmas. I decided to put this on my Notablog because it has sparked some discussion.

I was baptized Greek Orthodox. In fact, my grandfather, the Rev. Vasilios P. Michalopoulos, was the first pastor of one of the first Greek Orthodox churches in Brooklyn, the Three Hierarchs Church on Avenue P and East 18th Street. A monument to him can be found in this Google pic; it is the concrete monument in-between the two trees on the right side, outside the front of the church building.

I was asked on one Facebook thread about the significance of Midnight Mass on Christmas, and I remarked that I had never attended a midnight service in the Greek Orthodox church for Christmas, though I had attended a midnight "divine liturgy" for Easter Sunday. Midnight Mass is a practice that apparently began in the 400s.

There are certain differences with regard to the dates on which both Christmas and Easter are celebrated among the Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches in the Western tradition versus the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy. First, with regard to Christmas, the Greek Orthodox celebrate the day on December 25th, along with Western Christianity. There is a difference in dates, however, between the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox celebrations of Christmas. The Greeks follow the revised Julian calendar (which corresponds exactly to the modern Gregorian calendar, adopted by Western Christians), while the Russian Orthodox celebrate Christmas Day on January 7th, the date of the old Julian calendar.

Here's another piece of religious trivia: I was always puzzled, growing up, why the Greek Orthodox commemorated Christ's crucifixion on the evening of Holy Thursday, with the Twelve Gospel readings pertaining to the events that Western Christianity commemorates on Good Friday. On Friday afternoon, however, the Greek Orthodox commemorate the taking down of the body of Christ and its placement in the Epitophios (signifying Christ's tomb).

I later learned that the reason the Greeks begin their commemoration of the Passion on Thursday evening is that, following the Jewish tradition, the new day begins after sundown; so Thursday evening is treated as Good Friday, and the taking of Christ's body down from the cross takes place on Friday, before sundown (which would have been the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, a day on which the body could not have been removed from the cross).

Also, another important fact: the Orthodox Easter almost always follows the Jewish Passover, because tradition holds that Christ came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover; the Last Supper is treated like a traditional Passover Seder. Every so often, the Eastern Orthodox, Western churches and the Jewish Passover all fall together, but typically, you'll always find the Eastern Orthodox Easter following Passover. So, take this year as a perfect example: In 2018, the Jewish Passover takes place from Friday, March 30th to Saturday, April 7th. The Western churches, however, celebrate Easter on April 1st. But according to the Greeks, April 1st would have been Palm Sunday, the day that Jesus came into Jerusalem during the Jewish High Holy days of Passover. And he is resurrected on Sunday, April 8, after the conclusion of Passover (and the end of the Jewish Sabbath).

So if you treat Thursday evening as the beginning of Day 1 and Friday evening as the beginning of Day 2 (and the onset of the Jewish Sabbath), then Saturday evening is the beginning of Day 3. In some churches, the resurrection is celebrated at midnight, while in other churches, it is celebrated at dawn---but in each case, it is meant to signify the Third Day. Having attended the midnight liturgy in the Greek Orthodox church, I can attest to the moving symbolism of the service: It begins with the lighting of a single candle from the altar, signifying the light of the resurrection, and that light is passed from the priest to a member of the congregation, who then passes it to another and another, until the whole church is lit up with the candles of the faithful to celebrate the resurrection. And the congregation sings the hymn of "Christos Anesti" or "Christ is Risen." "Anesti" is "of the resurrection", which is why people who are named Anastasiya or Anastasia, celebrate their "name day" on Easter Sunday, the name being a derivative of the resurrection. Ironically, my mother was named Anastasiya; she passed away during the Greek Holy Week in 1995. At her funeral, the priest remarked that it was just like my mom to have passed away on the Greek Orthodox Good Friday so that she could be resurrected with Christ on Easter Sunday, her name day.

My name day is, of course, Christmas---my actual name is just Chris, but in Greek, it is pronounced "Christos", which is the "annointed one", the word from which Christ is derived.

I have always found these subtle but important differences in the cultural and religious traditions to be of historical interest.

Now I just have to finish up that essay I've been promising for a few years comparing the 1959 version of "Ben-Hur" to the 2016 version. Oy vey.