We recently celebrated Easter in the Orthodox Church. We also call it Pascha, which is a nod to the Jewish Passover. To be clear, when it comes to Orthodoxy and the church traditions that grew out of Rome, there is more that unites us than divides us, but what does make Orthodox Christianity different is most pronounced in the way we prepare for, and celebrate, the Resurrection.
Orthodox Easter came very late this year. Orthodox Easter often falls on a different date than everybody else. This is the most obvious difference, and it is also the stupidest. There are clear historical reasons for this (the best explanation I have ever read can be found on PublicOrthodoxy.org), but in a nutshell we would rather violate the spirit of Nicaea than admit the pope was right about something. Its only theological significance is that it evinces how stubborn and prideful we can be as an institution.
More significant is the way we enter Lent. There is no Ash Wednesday service in the Orthodox Church. We have Forgiveness Sunday. Our journey to the cross begins with a ritual in which every parishioner ends up having asked forgiveness from each other. Ash Wednesday stresses our need to be reconciled to God. Forgiveness Sunday reminds us that we cannot be reconciled to God without also being reconciled to each other.
Our fasting practices are different as well. Many Christians, Catholic and Protestant, will give something up for Lent, like chocolate or Twitter. It is a mini-sacrifice reminiscent of Christ's ultimate sacrifice on the cross. Orthodox fasting is less "customizable." We become functionally vegan; we avoid meat, eggs, dairy, olive oil, and wine, though we are "allowed" to eat crustaceans. (Some would say that lobster being "fasting friendly" is the second stupidest thing about the Orthodox Church as an institution.) There is something simple, beautiful, and extremely difficult about western fasting practices. Personally, I would probably find it harder to give up Facebook than bacon. But for us, fasting is more about focus. There are ways that changing what we eat can help us spiritually (I wrote about this here). But the practical reasons can be just as important: "Eat simpler. Eat less. Now go to church!"
Our services during Lent are long and often. This is especially true during Holy Week. We alternate between standing, bowing, and full prostration. We recite the Psalter over the symbolic tomb of Christ in an all night vigil. We stand and listen to the Passion Gospels in a three-hour service (that ends with even more prostration). It is almost as if the church is daring us to fall asleep like the disciples did on the night Jesus was betrayed. Your legs are tired? Jesus sweated blood! Get over it! Holy Week is a reminder of our own mortality, that there is no resurrection without death, and that Christ was not raised a spirit. He is a body, and so are we. Thus we worship Christ in our bodies.
As for the Easter liturgy itself, the differences especially between Evangelical and Orthodox services are stark. For many Evangelical churches, Easter is a great marketing opportunity. They know that a lot of unchurched or nominally churched individuals will show up on Sunday morning. So Easter becomes a big production. The service is extra glitzy, with top-notch, singers, musicians, and multimedia presentations set to moving music and featuring only the best pop-Christian art. It is amazing how they manage to cram the stories of Good Friday through Easter Sunday into one 60-minute production.
Orthodox Pascha is less people-friendly. We begin somewhere around 10 or 11:00 Saturday night and finish up in the wee hours of the morning. Then we have a feast, but more on that in a bit. The point is, for us, there is little temptation to market on Easter. The point of our liturgy is the joy of the resurrection. We celebrate the triumph of life over death. We do not care about numbers. They are not a sign of "success." For us, a "successful" Easter service is one that declares, "Christ is risen!" And we declare that a lot. We shout it, actually.
Easter is Orthodoxy at its most Pentecostal. Anyone who has visited an Orthodox Church knows that our services are pretty "subdued." Charismatic Christians might think this is a sign that we are not "tuned in" to the Spirit of God. For them, if a person were to make her way to the prayer rail in the middle of a hymn, that would be a sign that the Spirit of God has come upon the service. For us, that sign is the Eucharist. We see God's presence in calm reverence, and order, not the disruption of it. Still, at Easter things get a bit more raucous. The priest marches quickly up and down the center aisle, shouting, "Christ is risen!" And the people shout back, "Truly, he is risen!" One gets the sense that the only thing keeping the priest from running is that he is carrying a censer. We also speak in other tongues, literally. The priest yells, "Christ is risen" in English, Russian, Arabic, and many other languages. And the people reply in other languages too. "Alithós anésti!" "Voistinu voskrese!" "Ḥaqqan qām!" The message of the Resurrection is universal. We are enthusiastic without losing all sense of order. Our overall respect for the majesty of God "organizes" our enthusiasm, keeping it from degrading into what might otherwise look like mass hysteria.
The joy of Christ's Resurrection spills over into the parish hall after the service ends. There is a fascinating way that the "thanksgiving" of the Eucharist extends itself into other parts of our lives. We receive Communion from the priest, and we experience Communion in fellowship with each other. After the priest blesses us and we exit the temple, little children (and sometimes older men) push their way to the front of the crowd and powerwalk to the parish hall, ready to dive into the foods that they have denied themselves for over forty days. In the Orthodox Church, the grownups get Easter baskets, and those Easter baskets contain wine and bacon. One witnesses laughing, sharing, toasting, and even dancing. There is joy, and that joy manifests in what St. Augustine called caritas. The love the people have for each other is their love for Christ himself. To love our sisters and brothers is to love the body of Christ, for we, the church, are his body. The celebration of the church becomes a foretaste of our never-ending celebration in the Kingdom of God.
I have found Protestant Easter celebrations to be pleasant affairs, but there is just a kind of palpable enthusiasm that I have only witnessed in the Orthodox Church. I think the reason for this might have something to do with the greatest theological difference between "Eastern" and "Western" traditions. Though this trope gets overplayed, many Christians from the Latin tradition, Protestants in particular, will say that Christ died "in my place." Or, "Christ died so you don't have to." Jesus is a kind of substitute for the eternal sense of justice, honor, or wrath of God the Father. Because God cannot tolerate human sin, Jesus takes our sin upon himself. We Orthodox just do not see things that way. That is not to say that we do not have a deep respect for the justice or even wrath of God, only those divine characteristics are ordered by God's love. The death of God on the cross is not a substitution. It is a rescue mission. This is the way Christians thought about the Resurrection for over a millennium. In theological parlance, it is called the Christus victor theory of atonement. There are various ways of explaining how this works, but basically the idea is that the powers of sin, death, and hell only saw the humanity of Christ, not his divinity. So when Christ descended into Hades, Hades could not hold him. Death cannot contain the Source of Life itself. Thus Jesus becomes the ultimate cherry bomb. Yes, Christ suffered on the cross. He died for our sins. He suffered, was buried, and descended into hell. And once he got there, he kicked some ass!
For us, that is what the Resurrection is about. It is not primarily the vindication of Christ against the charge of blasphemy or proof to the world that he was truly divine. Of course it was those things! But more importantly it was good news (the meaning of "gospel" in the Greek). The Resurrection of Christ was not so much for him as it was for us. Our icons of the Resurrection depict Jesus, standing upon a cross, over an image of Hades, with a personification of death bound up, and the locks that once held shut the gates of Hell broken open. Christ lifts Adam and Eve out of their tombs, an image of all humanity. This icon is a sign and reminder that the Resurrection of Christ is also the resurrection of us all. The Bible calls Jesus the "firstfruits" of the life to come (1 Cor. 15:23). One might say the time we experience between his Resurrection and the life to come is like the millisecond it takes for a detonator to set off a bigger explosion, in this case one that will utterly annihilate suffering and death. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is life for us all. Thus at Easter the Orthodox Church sings, and will sing for weeks to come,
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs