Christ is risen! Xristos Anesti! Christus ist auferstanden!
A week or two before Holy Week, I mentioned to a friend that our Greek Orthodox parish (like most Greek parishes) doesn’t do blessed baskets at Pascha (1). I don’t think my priest would know what to do if–in the chaos of pre-Pascha preparations–I suddenly appeared on the solea with a basket full of sausages. It’s just not something Greeks are familiar with (with some very seldom exceptions, of course.)
“I don’t think I could do that,” she told me. Meaning she didn’t think she could face the prospect of a basket-less Pascha. Mind you, this is someone who fasts with greater aplomb than almost any non-Monk person I know. Yet, for all her asceticism, omitting an Easter basket was taking things too far. I say this teasingly–she later laughed at herself for being so attached to what we both agreed was not a “capital T” tradition.
Nonetheless, her words continued to haunt me the last weeks leading up to Pascha–they reminded me of how difficult it was and sometimes still is for me to adjust to Greek Orthodoxy, having converted in a more Russian Orthodox/ OCA-type environment. The faith is the same, but the customs and ways of expressing that faith are very different–and at times bewildering.
It took me a long time to realize that the best approach is not to look for what’s familiar–or judge what is not familiar–but to look for beauty and to look for Christ wherever one finds oneself, however unfamiliar the surroundings.
And so, here are some beautiful things about Greek Pascha.
1.) There shall be light. A lot of it.
Greeks take passing the light seriously–very seriously. In most Orthodox traditions, the candles eventually get blown out within an hour or so, or once your hand gets tired of holding the dang thing. I told this to my husband and a Greek friend of ours the other day and they both looked at me, bewildered.
That’s because, in Greek Orthodox-dom, you hold the candle the. Entire. Time. And if it gets blown out by the wind, you hurriedly take some light from someone else before anyone notices. And if anyone in your household is too sick to attend the Paschal services, you light an extra candle for them and hold that one too. What’s more, you bring the flame home with you by lighting a tealight inside a tiny, glass-encased lantern. Yes, you will take this into your car–or walk the empty early morning streets with it until you are home (as my husband and I did this year, it was beautiful).
But it doesn’t stop there. When you walk in the door of my parents-in-law’s house, if you know where to look, you will see a black, vaguely cruciform smudge at the top of their white doorframe. Every year, as they return home with the light from Pascha, they light a candle from it and use the flame to burn a cross over the door. And then my mother-in-law lights the vigil lamp in the family icon corner, which she will keep going the entire year. Both these items serve to bring to connect the reality of the Resurrection with life in the home. And to keep it going all year.
(Sidenote: We would have all of these things at our home too, except condo rules and hallway security cameras. We’re lucky when we can manage to get our lantern into our condo.)
2.) “Christos Anesti” is a serious affair.
In a Greek parish, you’re not going to find the Paschal troparion set to light, soaring melodies. You won’t even find any variety of melodies whatsoever. Here, there is one and only one way we will sing the troparion the entire Paschal season, and it is decidedly sombre, even haunting–musically, it falls somewhere between a battle cry, victory hymn, and funeral dirge. On Sunday liturgies during the Pentecostarion season, I’ve found myself secretly longing for the variety and levity of all those beautiful Paschal hymns you find in parishes with Russian roots.
But there are plenty of other times–namely when I am standing outside, raising my candle to sing the first “Christos Anesti” of the year, not sure whether I’ve actually made it this far or whether I will make it the rest of the night–when the sobriety of the Greek melody is exactly where I’m at. In words, it proclaims the Resurrection, but in music, it captures the harrowing reality of what it took to get here: an actual, real death. And for the faithful, the tiny rigours and deaths along the path of Lent and Holy Week. This is the kind of victory hymn one sings when the battle was fierce, when our souls could have gone either way, when we know we are truly unworthy of the outcome we’ve been given.
3.) … But not so serious that there can’t be fireworks.
But what Greeks lack in cascading, frilly melodies, they more than make up for with fireworks. Many of them. Which we will proceed to shoot off in the middle of the night, at basically the first possible millisecond after the first Christos Anesti has left our lips. In a crowded metropolis with sleepy houses all around, for all to see and hear. Because after all, this is the Resurrection.
4.) We save the feast for later (mostly).
Instead of breaking the fast of Lent at church, Greeks tend to go home and have a quiet meal (traditionally Margaritsa, a lemon-flavored lamb offal soup) and head to bed. They have to be up early the next morning to get the full lamb on the spit (it takes much of the day to cook, depending on the size of the lamb, and multiple people to prepare and tie to the spit). Alternatively, they have to get to someone else’s house and help cook the lamb. In our neck of the woods, my parents-in-law are the ones with the lamb, and they deck Pascha out in all manner of old-world custom (to the chagrin of their neighbours, one of whom we believe to be a vegetarian).
When first encountered Greek Orthodoxy, I was taken aback that they didn’t break the fast as a parish. I wonder, though, if the tradition of eating together after the Paschal services is more prominent in North America, where there are so many converts–many of whom don’t have a family or extended family to go back and celebrate at home with. In Greek parishes, there tend to be fewer converts and breaking the fast is understood more as a family affair. I’ve also realized that my digestive system and introverted tendencies somewhat prefer the Greek custom–a quiet bowl of meaty soup is a nice transition from fasting to feasting (in our home, however, I always make chicken noodle soup alongside the Margaritsa. Because offal.) There will be more than enough meat and celebration the following day.
(1): If you’re unfamiliar with this tradition, many Orthodox jurisdictions–particularly those with Russian roots–have a blessing of the baskets before or after the Paschal services on the eve of Resurrection Sunday. The baskets are filled with sausage, cheese, eggs, and other items members have fasted from, or items of symbolic significance (like candles). Among other things, this blessing serves to bless the first fruits of the feast and bring the blessing of the feast into one’s home.
Wow, I grew up WWII-immigrant-based ROCOR (now attending a Greek Church) and am astonished at how the author’s experience of Russian-rooted Church differed from what I experienced. Who says Orthodox don’t change? 🙂 When growing up, candles were not allowed to go out, and yes, if they did, they were hastily lit again. We did not break the Lenten fast at the Church (the service went from 11:30 p.m. straight through to somewhere around noon on Sunday – modern living meant we had a drive of 1 hour to and from Church, and we were a single-working-mom household, so we’d leave around 3 a.m., get home, break the Fast and go to bed). Then, we had friends, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, in and out all afternoon and evening for an “open house”. And the seriousness of the Greek version of the Paschal hymn has struck me as well, but so far, I have yet to acclimate to it – I still miss the joy expressed over the Resurrection found in the Russian version (although I noticed, at the OCA Church I went to specifically because I missed that joy a couple of years ago, that the parishioners weren’t singing joyfully – they weren’t singing at all! the joy was missing there as much as it was in the Greek Church).
Thanks for painting a picture of your experience!
I think the important thing to remember is that there is at least some variation in these traditions. We each have different experiences, and each parish also has its own way of doing things. Admittedly, part of my motivation in writing this was the suggestion from other Orthodox that (other Orthodox) people who do “little t” things differently are somehow less faithful–a suggestion I have encountered in a number of shapes and forms in various realms of Orthodoxy. I think that is a damaging assumption to make, and I hope to write a bit more about cultural traditions and Orthodoxy Lord willing.
It’s interesting to hear about your experiences and impressions over time. I wonder if somehow in North America we’ve lost a bit of the Old World Orthodoxy in our practices.
By the way, I didn’t mean to imply that the Greek way of singing Christos Anesti is not joyful. The melody itself may not be warm and fuzzy, but in my experience, Greeks derive a great deal of joy from proclaiming the joy of the resurrection in the form of this hymn. As a Greek friend of mine put it the other day, it’s an extension of the bright sadness of Great Lent.
Christ is risen! –NMR
This is a great essay. I’ll never forget driving home (an hour’s drive on I-80, in Wyoming) with our paschal tealight tucked into our cupholder, and then the crazy western wind blowing it out the second we opened the car door!
I think that the “bright sadness” note is absolutely right, and really restorative for us even in the midst of Paschal joy. As we celebrate the resurrection, we’re still in the not-yet of God’s kingdom, eagerly awaiting it, and that comes right alongside living in a world of so much decay and bloodshed and loss. It can be hard for people to reconcile the triumph of Christ over sin and death with their lives, and I think that there’s a lot of pastoral wisdom in living in “the bright sadness.”
Interesting. I was received into the Greek Church here in Texas. Both the parish in Austin, and in San Antonio bless baskets, AND break the fast communally in the parish hall after the service somewhere between 2 and 3am. I was unaware this was an anomaly for Greeks.
Blair, I think maybe in the US this may be different, or at least in some areas. I’m based in Canada, where the immigrant population is much newer than in the States–i.e. my husband and a number of our friends are first generation. In the US, there is more borrowing between various Orthodox traditions, converts, etc.–which I think is a good thing 🙂 So it doesn’t surprise me your parish does indeed practice some of these traditions. But by and large, baskets and big potlucks to break the fast are not necessarily something a Greek–in Greece–would recognize. –NMR
Our mostly Convert Parish of 350 have baskets and break the fast with wine, ribs, cheese, pizza, chocolate! All together at 3:00a.m.
Pascha afternoon we gather again for a feast of roast lamb (about 6) and lots of delicious food.