Easter is the fundamental and most important festival of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox. Every other religious festival on their calendars, including Christmas, is at best secondary in importance to the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord. This is reflected in the cultures of countries that are traditionally Orthodox Christian majority. Easter-connected social customs are native and rich. Christmas customs, on the other hand, are usually foreign imports, either from Germany or the USA. Eastern Rite Catholics in communion with the Pope of Rome have similar emphasis in their calendars, and many of their liturgical customs are very similar.
This is not to say that Christmas and other elements of the Christian liturgical calendar are ignored. Instead, these events are all seen as necessary but preliminary to the full climax of the Resurrection, in which all that has come before reaches fulfilment and fruition. Pascha (Easter) is the primary act that fulfils the purpose of Christ’s ministry on earth—to defeat death by dying and to purify and exalt humanity by voluntarily assuming and overcoming human frailty. This is succinctly summarized by the Paschal Troparion, sung repeatedly during Pascha until the Apodosis of Pascha (which is the day before Ascension):
|Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
|Χριστος ανέστη εκ νεκρον,
θανάτο θάνατον πατήσας,
και τους εν τους μνήμασι,
|Хрїсто́съ воскре́се и́зъ ме́ртвыхъ,
Сме́ртїю сме́рть попра́въ,
И сѹ́щымъ во гробѣ́хъ
|Transliterations||Christos anesti ek nekron,
Thanato thanaton patisas,
Kai tis en tis mnimasi
|Christos voskrese iz mertvich,
Smertiu smert poprav,
I soushchim vo grobyech
*This language is not well-supported on many systems, so it may not appear as intended here.
Celebration of the holiday begins with the “anti-celebration” of Great Lent. In addition to fasting, almsgiving, and prayer, Orthodox are supposed to reduce all entertainment and non-essential activity, gradually eliminating them until Holy Friday. Traditionally, on the evening of Holy Saturday, the Midnight Office is celebrated shortly after 11:00 pm. At its completion all light in the church building is extinguished. A new flame is struck in the altar, or the priest lights his candle from a perpetual lamp kept burning there, and he then lights candles held by deacons or other assistants, who then go to light candles held by the congregation. Entirely lit by candle, the priest and congregation process around the church building, re-entering ideally at the stroke of midnight, whereupon Matins begins immediately followed by the Paschal Hours and then the Divine Liturgy. Immediately after the Liturgy it is customary for the congregation to share a meal, essentially an agape dinner (albeit at 2.00 am or later!)
The day after, Easter Sunday proper, there is no liturgy, since the liturgy for that day has already been celebrated. Instead, in the afternoon, it is often traditional to hold “Agape vespers”. In this service, it has become customary during the last few centuries for the priest and members of the congregation to read a portion of the Gospel of John (20:19–25 or 19–31) in as many languages as they can manage.
For the remainder of the week (known as “Bright Week”), all fasting is prohibited, and the customary greeting is “Christ is risen!”, to be responded with “Truly He is risen!”
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