I don’t have the luxury of any childhood Easter memories involving God or church. Religion wasn’t something we did in my family.
Easter was a day marginally less important than Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Fourth of July. My sister would spend hundreds of dollars on candy and toys that would be hidden around my parents’ yard for us kids to find.
Then we’d barbecue despite the ever-present Washington drizzle, and plop in front of the television for the night.
The closest I ever came to any religious exposure were the 30-second network news pieces on the dwindling Christian presence in “the Holy Land” (the phrase had no meaning for me), or some dude called “the Pope” giving a speech.
I honestly didn’t know what any of this stuff had to do with Easter. It wasn’t until junior high that I began to realize Christmas and Easter had religious implications. A self-professed nerd who enjoyed National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, I vividly remember one Easter night watching a documentary about Christian celebrations in the Middle East.
The exotic pageantry tugged at something inside. I wanted to be part of what I saw. The pastel plastic toys and candy suddenly seemed a sad substitute (especially the marshmallow Peeps – I hated those).
After exploring a number of world religions and Christian denominations, I became a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church during my senior year of high school, converting on Pascha eve.
And what is Pascha? Depending on whom you ask, the Orthodox name for Easter is either a Greek corruption of Pesach (Hebrew “Passover”), or a version of the Greek verb pascho (“to suffer”).
Learning a new name for the holiday wasn’t all. When I started celebrating it on a different date, my parents must have thought I had joined a cult. The Orthodox Church follows every condition for calculating Easter mandated by the Nicene Council of 325 A.D. It must be the first Sunday after the first full moon after the point in spring when night and day are equal lengths.
All Christians are on the same page up to here, but we part ways where Nicea says Easter has to be after Passover, never before or the same weekend. Other Christians dropped this condition long ago, but we kept it.
Although we sometimes coincide, this year we’re a week “late.” But that’s OK; we get your leftover marshmallow Peeps at a discount.
Despite the fact that services were in English and most members of my parish were converts, the culture shock of becoming Orthodox involved more than a new name and calendar.
The factor that most caused this shock is also the factor I most loved about Orthodoxy, and love still: its ancientness.
When I participated in my first Holy Week services, I was finally part of those Middle Eastern celebrations I’d watched on television years before.
I joined millions of Orthodox Christians from Russia to Ethiopia in celebrating Christ’s resurrection substantially as it had been observed since the dawn of the faith.
What were some rituals I participated in that week “as seen on TV?”
We nailed a wooden icon of Jesus to a cross in the middle of the church. As each hammer blow echoed through the darkened nave, my body jerked as if stricken.
We erected a wooden tomb in front of the crucified Christ. Women of the parish decorated it with flowers, preparing it to receive his body.
The priest and deacon, like Joseph and Nikodemos, took him down, wrapped him in linen and carried him into the altar before re-emerging with an embroidered icon of his lifeless body.
We placed him in the tomb as we made prostrations and kissed his pale, gray feet.
We attended his funeral. There are no instruments in Orthodox worship, so we chanted dirges as the priest censed Christ’s body and sprinkled rose water.
We carried him in a procession around the church. As we re-entered, we lifted him up to pass beneath his body into death.
As midnight drew near on Pascha, we gathered in darkness. The priest held a candle to ignite our tapers as we began a Resurrectional procession. Before dawn, we broke our Lenten fast with meat and dairy so long abstained from.
I tried giving my parents some idea what I’d been up to, but my explanation was Greek to them.
My first Pascha confirmed a nascent call to ministry. Some find liturgy oppressive. I embraced it as an ancient tradition greater than myself and which I wanted to serve.
I’ve never heard his voice in so many words, but God called me to ministry through Holy Week.
April 11, 2009
Fr. Barnabas Powell is pastor at St. Michael’s Orthodox Church and writes an occasional guest column for The Chieftain.
Ed.: The article was written in 2009.