Today marks the beginning of Holy Week for followers of the Greek Orthodox faith. With Palm Sunday, the week of Easter liturgies and traditions begin. And as followers of the Greek Orthodox faith, we too embrace these traditions and respect them leading up until Sunday – the resurrection of Jesus, or what many of us know as the day we indulge in lamb-on-the-spit.
But for many, we have taken these traditions in our stride, and although year after year – around this same time – we do the same things, eat the same foods and go to the same church services – many of us don’t know where these traditions have come from.
Surrounding Easter, these traditions stem from the Greek Orthodox religion. And Easter – in the Greek Orthodox faith – is one of the biggest celebrations that occurs. It is the most revered celebrations, on the religious calendar.
In Greece, Easter is a more important religious and cultural celebration than Christmas and everyone of faith will take time out to reflect on Easter. Good Friday and Easter Monday are public holidays in Greece, giving everyone time to take part in services and enjoy time with family and friends.
The religious aspect of this celebration sometimes plays second fiddle; but it is religion that ties us and binds us to the cultural tradition. The more devout followers of the faith would have begun fasting already to ensure they have fasted for the whole 40 day lent period. It is the Holy Week when everyone of the faith joins in on the fasting and refrains from meat and dairy products, choosing to cleanse themselves for the night of Jesus’ resurrection.
Palm Sunday was the day that Jesus went to Jerusalem. When the villagers heard Jesus was coming, they took branches of palm trees in their hands and went to greet Him. In Greek Orthodox churches, palm tree branches grace the church and act as an archway for people as they enter. At the end of the service the priest hands out crosses made from the palm tree leaves with bay leaves and myrtle, for people to take home and keep. These palm crosses are to be kept by the faithful year after year. It’s a tradition to never throw them out, they can be buried in the garden or burnt but never thrown in the garbage. The branches of the palm trees are to symbolize Christ’s victory over the devil and death.
The night of Palm Sunday begins the liturgy of the Divine Service of the Bridegroom (Nymfios) “Akolouthia Tou Nymphiou”, this service also continues on Holy Monday night.
Holy and Great Monday is the day the holy passion of Jesus begins. In the morning, churches will have the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified with the Divine Service of the Bridegroom taking place at night.
Holy and Great Tuesday brings to mind the parable of the ten virgins. The beautiful hymn written by Saint Cassianne, is sung in this service. Saint Cassianne gave voice to the sinful woman described in Luke’s Gospel (7:36-50) who anointed Christ’s feet with oil after washing them with her tears in repentance. This is the psalm sung to souls who have sinned and are asking for forgiveness.
Holy and Great Wednesday starts in the morning with the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. Seven gospel readings are made at the night time service. This is the night that followers of the faith are blessed by the priest who crosses the followers of the faith with Holy oil on our forehead and inside our hands, this is to bless our spirits.
The Last Supper is the day we are reminded to reflect on during Holy and Great Thursday’s service. 12 gospel readings are made during this service. The priest will walk around the church with crosses and icons and come into the centre of the church to reflect on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Good Friday is one the most significant church services of the Greek Orthodox calendar, and is equally one of the most moving and symbolic services for followers of the faith. Good Friday is the day Jesus Christ was bought to Pontius Pilate, and was sentenced to death. He was handed to the Roman soldiers, stripped of his clothes and a wreath of thorns was placed on his head. He was forced to walk to where he would be crucified holding the cross all the while being spat on and mocked by the people around him.
That night, Jesus died on the cross, and was buried in a tomb where a great boulder was rolled across the entrance.
In church, the burial of Jesus is recreated in the afternoon. The priest will take an icon of Jesus and wrap it in a clean sheet and then place the wrapped icon behind the altar. This service is attended mainly by young mothers, who can’t make the evening service with the epitafeio (the tomb).
The epitafeio is easily the most recognisable element of the Greek Orthodox Easter. It symbolises Jesus’s tomb and is featured in the church on Good Friday. The service begins at around 7:00 pm and is the Holy Ceremony of the Burial of Christ. As the service is conducted, the epitafeio is taken out of the church, and, led by the priest, is walked around the whole block of the church with the followers behind.
After this is done, the epitafeio is placed in front of the altar of the church for the faithful to walk under it to receive a blessing from the Lord. The epitafeio is adorned with flowers that have been blessed by the priest, after the service, these are given to the parishioners who take them home. The flowers can be placed wherever you have an icon in the house, and a candle burning. It’s part of the faith to never throw out these flowers, they must be buried in the garden deep below the ground where you know no one will walk over them or placed in an isolated area of the garden.
Easter Saturday starts with a morning service known as the “Proti Anastasi” (the first resurrection).
After this service, you are still not allowed to break lent when you go home. You have to keep fasting till after midnight mass. But like the Good Friday service, Midnight Mass on Easter Saturday is another symbolic and one of the most beautiful services that our faith offers.
At 11:00 pm on Saturday night, the parishioners start flocking to their Greek Orthodox Church of choice to rejoice in the resurrection of Jesus. Churches are generally so busy on this night that you find yourself standing outside with your lambatha (candle). People bring their own adorned candles to receive the Agios Fos (Holy Light) from the priest during this service. At midnight on the dot, the lights go out in the church, and outside the church and slowly you see the Holy Flame being passed from person to person till every single person is holding a candle with the Holy Flame.
At midnight, followers of the faith being to sing Christos Anesti (Christ has risen).
After this service, parishioners take the flame to their house where they make the sign of the cross three times on their outside door as a blessing and to ward off any evil spirits from their house. The Holy Flame is then kept in the house for a minimum of 40 days – but many keep the flame for the whole year till the next Easter celebration. Saturday is the night when you can finally break your fast. Traditionally families gather together to rejoice the resurrection of Christ with a warm bowl of mageritsa.
Easter Sunday is a day that is spent with your family, eating and rejoicing in the resurrection of Christ by inviting loved ones over for a large Easter lunch. Lamb on the spit – or even roast – is served to all and it’s the time when everyone gathers to crack the red eggs. The red eggs symbolize the blood of Christ and also the rebirth, and the person that has the egg that did not break receives the good luck and blessing for the year.