Greek Orthodox celebrates Pascha
BY JOAN KERN, Correspondent
For many members of the Greek Orthodox Church, the earliest memories of church are from Holy Week.
"I know a man who remembers when he was 4 years old and the church was completely darkened and the priest carried Christ on the cross and the congregation chanted a very somber hymn," says the Rev. Alexander Goussetis, priest of Lancaster's Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church.
That very somber Holy Thursday hymn begins, "Today is hung upon the Cross, He Who suspended the Earth amid the waters." It comes from a 500-page book devoted solely to Holy Week.
Holy Week will culminate for the congregation at the church, 64 Hershey Ave., in a three-hour Resurrection service beginning at 10 tonight.
"Around midnight, the priest comes out of the altar with a single candle, into a pitch black sanctuary," Goussetis wrote in an email. "He chants the words: 'Come receive the light from the light that is never overtaken by night, and glorify Christ who is risen from the dead.'
"The priest then offers this candlelight to people in the front of the sanctuary who are also holding candles. Within minutes the entire church is filed with candlelight. The image is complete: the light of Christ has overtaken the darkness."
A lamb dinner will follow at about 1 a.m.
"It's a beautiful fellowship," Goussetis says.
About 600 worshippers are expected to attend the service.
"It will be completely jammed," he says. "People will even be sitting outside."
Pascha, the Greek Easter, will be observed in Agape Vespers at noon Sunday, a briefer service when members will take turns reading John 20 in their native languages, including French, German, Spanish, Albanian, Eritrean, Serbian, Russian, Ukrainian, Greek and English.
"On Saturday night, we receive the light. On Sunday, we share the light and receive the command to take it out to all the world," Goussetis says. "It's a joyful setting."
Western Orthodox Christians observe Easter later than Catholics and Protestants because they follow the nearly 2,000-year-old Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar that Western Europe adopted around 1500.
Pascha, Greek for Passover, means passing over from death to life, Goussetis says. During the 40 days of Lent, members are asked to prepare for the most important holiday of the year by fasting from meat, dairy and eggs, unless it would be harmful to their health.
"Not everyone does it, but everyone does something," he says. "It's about discipline and self-control. Kenosis is the Greek word for self-emptying. Once we empty ourselves of material things, then we have room for spiritual nourishment and prayer, liturgical services and the sacraments of the church."
And there are lots of services.
During Lent, the church offers Compline services on Monday nights, pre-Sanctified liturgy and Eucharistic services on Wednesday nights and Salutation services on Friday nights, along with the usual Sunday services at 8, 9 and 10 a.m., and Sunday school at 11:05 a.m.
From Palm Sunday to Pascha, there are 30 hours of services; one each night and several during the day. To demonstrate how important Holy Week is, Goussetis says the Book of John has 21 chapters, 11 devoted to Jesus' three-year ministry and nine to just one week: Holy Week.
"That's why we spend so much time in church in Holy Week retracing the steps of Christ, including his final teachings, the institution of the last supper, washing the disciples' feet, his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, his arrest and crucifixion and his resurrection."
The 40 days leading up to Pascha are "very fatiguing," he says.
"But it's extremely satisfying to get the full effect of Christ's experiences first hand. Holy Week is such a visual experience. We don't just to read about it or hear about it."
For the 40 days from the resurrection to Ascension Day, members of the church will greet each other saying, "Christ has risen," and respond, "Truly he has risen."
"In all our services -- including weddings, baptisms, funerals -- we always begin with the hymn, "Christ is Risen."
"Our celebration of Easter is not limited to one day."