Putting the spirit of the orthodox back into Easter by Hayden Case

Photo by Iryna Shyroka

Photo by Iryna Shyroka

When we enter the church on Pascha,” says Father Justin Hewlett, Rector for St John of Shanghai in East Vancouver. “I cry out ‘Christ is risen!’ cuing the response, ‘Indeed, He is risen!’”

The Orthodox Church in Canada is made up of different denominations such as Greek, Russian, Romanian, Ukrainian, Serbian and Armenian.

With a myriad of cultures and their respective languages involved, the Paschal shout of ‘Christ is risen’ is bound to become a little complicated.

Father Justin Hewlett has found an excellent way to cater to the diversity found within his congregation.

“Our custom is to give the Paschal greeting and response in as many languages as we can,” says Father Hewlett. “I usually manage to stump most of my parishioners when I shout out in my very rusty Japanese, ‘Harisutosu fukkatsu’.”

Orthodox Easter, also known as Pascha, is the celebratory finish to a period of 40 days of Lent, plus 1 week called Holy Week, of fasting from meat, fish, and dairy products. Orthodox Christians calculate the date of Easter in accordance with the Julian calendar which was established under Julius Caesar. This means that Pascha often occurs on the weekend following western Easter. This year, Pascha is held on April 15.

Pascha is a period of intense spiritual discipline in which prayer services are longer, more frequent, and are held in a more somber tone than usual.

“The aim of these spiritual disciplines is repentance,” says Hewlett, “To examine our minds and hearts and to change them, or, rather, to allow God to change them as needed.”

In the past, traditional religious messages have been primarily passed on over the years through church services, Bible studies, Sunday school, and parables recounted by elders. These teachings have evolved in recent years to include films, documentaries, cartoons, periodicals, and of course, the Internet.

Each generation envelops the Orthodox Church’s strong sense of spiritual and moral values found within the family and community.

“Everything starts from Palm Sunday,” says Iryna Shyroka, a university student. “You have to go to church to be blessed by a bunch of Palm and holy water. [A] very strong fast starts from that day together with Clean Week. When the Clean Thursday comes you are supposed to clean your house, yard and yourself. On Friday you are not supposed to eat, work or listen to any kind of music.”

Iryna Shyroka and husband Stan Gueller. Photo courtesy of Iryna Shyroka

Iryna Shyroka and husband Stan Gueller.

Essentially clean week is the Holy week leading up to Pascha. For Orthodox Christians, this leads to experiences of heightened spiritual enlightenment.

“Saturday is a bit of relief,” says Shyroka. “People bake Easter bread and make Pysanka’s – dyed eggs.”

One of the most recognizable images associated with Ukrainian Pascha, Pysankas are hardboiled eggs that have been dyed red to symbolize the blood of Christ.

Psyankas are made by using a rough egg, bee’s wax and a stylus, and can be personalized by including individual hopes, dreams and aspirations for the coming seasons.

“Elements of animals will symbolize wealth in your house,” says Shryoka. “Plants – rich harvest this year.”

Holy week is populated by services, readings, and solemn funeral processions, before culminating in a prayerful vigil over an icon of Christ’s body in the tomb. Finally, as the hours before Pascha tumble, the feeling of joy begins to twinkle in the dark.

“Precisely at midnight on Sunday morning, after another solemn and anticipation-filled procession around the church,” says Father Hewlett.

“I knock on the door of the tomb and we all enter singing and shouting ‘Christ is risen!’ into a building newly bedecked with white flowers and ablaze with light.”

These new beginnings signify the start of the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. So, after weeks of preparation, what does the holy day itself actually involve?

“On Sunday, in the early morning, everybody goes to church to get their Easter baskets blessed,” says Shyroka. “When coming home from church the whole family gathers at one table and eats the holy food.”

These Holy foods include Easter bread, Pysanka’s, sausage, horseradish, butter, cottage cheese, and any other foods given up for lent.

“When the eating is done,” says Shyroka. “Youth and children go to the church’s yard and play games which involve running, tagging and singing.”

Children are involved in every aspect of Pascha: preparing food baskets, joining processions, and playing a part in singing and feasting. Some families and churches also hold Easter-egg hunts.

But Pascha doesn’t just end with a large meal and a celebration, the festival of life continues beyond Sunday with all manner of rejoicing known as Bright Week.

“Throughout this period we do not fast,” says Father Hewlett. “We greet one another with the exclamation, ‘Christ is risen!’, and all church services held during this period – even funerals – are exceptionally joyful.”

Ultimately, for Orthodox Christians, Pascha comes down to basic humble needs.

“I always remember the day of dyeing eggs,” says Shyroka. “When all of the family gets together from different parts of my country, we make Pysanka’s, talk, share memories, and are a family.”

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