Orthodox traditions observed locally for Easter season

| Friday, April 18, 2014, 12:45 p.m.

The period from the beginning of the Lenten season through Holy Week is perhaps the most sacred of times on any Christian calendar.

For congregations that find their roots in the Orthodox faith, such as those at SS. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church and St. Mary's Holy Protection Byzantine Catholic Church, both in Homer City, the season is marked by a number of meaningful traditions and celebrations.

Some Eastern Orthodox churches may celebrate Easter on a different date because the Eastern Orthodox faith has retained use of the Julian calendar while Roman Catholics moved to the Gregorian calendar in the 1500s. But the holy day falls on the same date, April 20, for both denominations this year.

According to Father Matthew Conjelko of SS. Peter and Paul, one of the most crucial observations during the Orthodox Easter season is the fasting period during Lent, 40 days of self-examination, broken with Communion on Easter Sunday.

“We're fasting from what's created in preparation for coming closer to God,” Conjelko explained.

Lent finds its basis in early Christian writings, from the book called the Didache, he said.

Some Orthodox Christians fast every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year because of Christian tradition that Jesus was betrayed by Judas on a Wednesday and was crucified on a Friday.

That continues in some parishes today, Conjelko noted, but for his parish, the fasting starts with the beginning of Lent. The Didache's prescription for the fast is no meat or dairy during all of Lent, through Holy Week. Fish is permitted only on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter.

“So when Lent starts, it's a complete absence from meat and dairy,” Conjelko said. “That's what's prescribed, but people are to do what they can.”

But the Lenten season is meant to be not only a fasting from meat and dairy, but also a fasting from sin.

“We're fasting from those things that maybe pull our attention from God,” he said. That may include an increase in alms giving and an increase in prayer and in prayer services, he added.

The fast is broken on Easter, with the congregation taking Communion, representing the body and blood of Jesus, “to show that our true dependence is on God,” Conjelko said.

SS. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church also follows the tradition of the blessing of the Easter baskets. Members of the congregation may bring in small portions of the dishes they have prepared at home that they will be serving that day in order to have them blessed.

“We'll take some of that and, after church, we'll have a little get-together with ham and kielbasa,” Conjelko said. “We try to balance it because we realize people try to spend time with extended family” and often have large meals planned.

Traditionally, the Orthodox Easter table may include ham, cheeses and often lamb, “because Jesus is identified as the Lamb,” Conjelko said.

Eggs, too, are a big part of Orthodox Easter tradition.

“The egg is sometimes referred to as new life, and some identify it with the Resurrection” he explained.

The eggs may have Orthodox icons painted on them.

Within his own church, Conjelko said eggs are incorporated into the Easter Sunday service and are passed out after the liturgy. The congregation members tap their eggs together as they join in a response that celebrates the Resurrection.

In the eastern churches, Easter is the highest, most important celebration of the year, according to Father Cuthbert Jack of St. Mary's Holy Protection Byzantine Catholic Church.

“It dwarfs even the celebration of Christmas,” he said. “The whole year revolves around it.”

Byzantine Catholics descended from formerly Orthodox Christians — the result of a union over 350 years ago between Orthodox Christians and the Catholic church, in what is now predominantly the eastern part of Slovakia, Jack said.

“Byzantines are Catholic, but they're not Roman Catholic,” he explained.

A staple of Easter for Byzantine Catholics is paska bread, which uses an abundance of milk, eggs and butter, all of which are restricted in diets during Lent. Paska, or Pascha, is the word for Easter in many European languages, according to Jack.

Dairy, along with meat, used to be forbidden during Lent, but Jack said things aren't always as strict as they once were.

For Byzantine Catholics, Lent begins on Pure Monday, the Monday before what other Christian faiths celebrate as Ash Wednesday.

Pure Monday and Good Friday are the strictest of days when it comes to fasting in the Byzantine Catholic tradition. In addition to meat, milk, butter, eggs, cheese and other dairy products are prohibited.

“Those are peanut butter and jelly days,” Jack said with a laugh.

He noted that those of the Orthodox faith also fast from fish, but Byzantine Catholics don't hold by that tradition.

All Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent involve fasting at least from meat, he said.

The Lenten fast is broken after the Resurrection Matins on the Saturday before Easter. The matins, which Jack said do not include the Divine Liturgy, are marked by many hymns that are usually sung acappella by the priest with responses by the congregation.

The end of the matins marks the end of fasting, and many people will hold feasts Saturday night following the matins, no matter how late they are held.

In comparison, “Easter Sunday is lower-key because everything happens the night before,” Jack said.

The blessing of the baskets occur at both the Resurrection Matins and the Easter Sunday service. The baskets, Jack said, often contain things like ham and kielbasa, foods that were not allowed during the Lenten fasting.

Gina DelFavero is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2915 or gdelfavero@tribweb.com.

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