My Humble Greek Lean Easter

Greek Orthodox priests cover the body of the Christ with a white cloth during the Apokathelosis on April 2, 2010, marking the
Greek Orthodox priests cover the body of the Christ with a white cloth during the Apokathelosis on April 2, 2010, marking the removal of Christ's body from the Cross forming a key part of Orthodox Easter, at the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin in Penteli, north Athens. Millions of Greeks flock to churches around the country this week to celebrate Easter, the country's foremost religious celebration. AFP PHOTO / Aris Messinis (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Easter, 2013 in Greece: For the first time in recent memory, Greeks will celebrate Easter stripped of their annual Easter bonus which, until now, represented 50 percent of their monthly salary. The Greeks have watched in shock as their incomes are crushed under the weight of an austerity program that has tightened its grip around the country, bringing it to the brink of asphyxiation. As such, they will be looking to celebrate the most important event in the Orthodox Church's calendar with less, hoping that good weather and some form of optimism will help mask their despair. It will definitely be a lean Easter!

But what is Easter for us Greek Orthodox? It is the greatest celebration of Christianity whereby the solemn atmosphere of Holy Week is followed by the joy of the evening of the Resurrection, bringing ineffable relief and intense excitement to the Orthodox world.

And, whereas the Greek Orthodox Church gives the utmost importance to the resurrection of the Lord, Jesus Christ, the non-Orthodox faith, on the other hand, emphasizes the mourning of his death.

Here-in lies one of the main differences between the two doctrines. In the Roman-
Catholic Church, Christ as God is distant, fair and a punisher, but in the Greek Orthodox
religion, Jesus takes on a more simple, human form, depicted in our icons as he who was
sacrificed and subsequently resurrected, cleansing mankind of sin.

My vivid memories of Holy Week on the Ionian island of Lefkada are a collage of colors
and fragrances.

The week begins with Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings dedicated to the bridegroom:

"Behold the bridegroom comes in the midst of the night... beware, therefore."

Later on Tuesday night, I remember always being mesmerized by the beautiful, enthralling "Hymn of Cassiane." Most likely the work of Patriarch Photius or Romanos, it relates the story of a humiliated woman in the crescendo of asking forgiveness for her sins:

"The woman who had fallen into many sins recognized the Godhead. O Lord, Woe to me, saith she, receive the sources of my tears. O thou who doth gather into clouds the water of the sea. Who can trace out the multitude of my sins and the abysses of my misdeeds? O thou whose mercy is unbounded."

Holy Thursday is the day of the twelve gospels. Written by four different evangelists but actually recounting the same facts, they describe the path taken by Jesus to the Crucifixion. Through their wonderful narratives, they delineate Christ's progression from glory to humiliation, his prayer at the Mount of Olives and his betrayal by Judas.

After the reading of the fifth gospel, the Crucifix is processed around the church with the priest chanting the 15th antiphon:

"Today is hung upon the tree. He who did hang the land in the midst of the waters... "

During the service of Holy Friday, the removal of the body of Christ from the cross is commemorated with a sense of mourning for the terrible events which have taken place. As the cleric reads the gospel, he removes the body of Christ from the cross, wraps it in a white cloth and takes it to the altar:

"... and taking the body, Joseph wrapped it in a white cloth."

He then places it on the Epitafios or Sepulcher, a carved bier which symbolizes the tomb of Jesus and we are reminded that, during Christ's entombment, he descends into Hades to free the dead of the ages before his incarnation.

All unwed girls bring violets from their gardens to the Epitaph which they proceed to adorn, praying. The smell of spring pours into the church and everyone remains transfixed by the aromatic fragrances that abound.

That same evening, the thoughtful and well-written "Odes," sung by the choir, compare the Compassion of God to the cruelty of man, the might of The Lord with the moral ineptitude of humanity. The Odes depict all creation trembling, witnessing The Creator being hung by his own creatures. Then the entire congregation joins in singing the three parts of the "Hymns of Praise" (there are approximately 300 hymns, but only a few are sung). After these hymns, the priest sprinkles the Sepulcher and the whole congregation with fragrant water.

This is followed by the procession of the Epitaphs of all the different churches of the town across the main market area with the scent of flowery perfumes spreading the joy of the coming Resurrection.

Holy Saturday commences with the breaking of clay objects, symbolizing the end of evil. Housewives awake at dawn in order to break pots and vases while the Lefkadian Philharmonic parades through the narrow streets, playing hymns from Bach and Beethoven.

My mother would bathe us in the afternoon and force us to take an extended nap in order for us to be able to witness the twelfth hour. I am still haunted to this day by our awakening to the smell of the slowly simmering traditional tripe soup, the magiritsa, wafting in the whole neighborhood.

Then, at precisely 11 p.m., it was off to church with our ceremonial candles, the lambades in hand. At 11:45, the priest (our Dad) would bring out the 'holy light,' originating in Jerusalem, and offer it to us. At midnight, he would chant "Christ is Risen" and everyone would join in, kissing each other and asking for forgiveness.

We would then partake in an impressive fireworks display that would light up the sky to commemorate the joy of the Resurrection and subsequently return home to devour the gut soup. After dinner, we would smack dyed eggs against one another with the lucky winner, the one with the unbroken red one, being blessed with a year of good fortune.

The following day was Easter Sunday. Bright and early, the spits would be turning and the grills would be red-hot. The customary main attraction, the lamb or goat, is usually roasted whole, in the open air, to represent the lamb of God. We would often gather round, hacking mouthwatering chunks directly off the spit and leaving little but bone by the time we were done. Undaunted, many Lefkadians would do their cooking in the oven, preferring this method as it would enable them to add all kinds of accompaniments and trimmings to the roast.

Great Greek wines, ouzo, raki, tsipouro and all kinds of drinks would flow freely and everyone would end up dancing in the streets, turning the traditional Easter meal into a memorable celebration that would last well into the night.

Predictions are that the Greeks will not be able to have a festive Easter or Pascha this year given that their austerity-slashed salaries will dampen their spirits. However, with spring in the air, with its colors and scents, optimism can not help but be the flavor of the season!

Kalo Pascha, Happy Easter!