As a lifelong Lutheran, I grew up with a close connection to the Eastern Orthodox as my grandfather was Greek Orthodox. All of this was on my mom’s side of the family and my grandmother was not an adherent of the orthodox so my mom grew up in something of a tension that spilled over into my childhood; hence the Lutheran. To this day I’m still not clear how my grandparents found each other.
In the mind of the orthodox, Easter is far more important than Christmas. That is not to say that we did not celebrate Christmas only that in the Orthodox thinking my family found the resurrection more important than the birth event.
The best part for me was when I discovered that the calendars observed between the eastern and western churches are not very well aligned and this shows up most notably Easter. In most years, we celebrated two Easters. Only one in every four, five or six years falls on the same day.
Orthodox Easter mornings would begin with my grandfather and his younger brother Gus (the only other of the family in Greece who came to the US) would appear in our first floor apartment, always before daylight, and greet everyone, “Happy Easter”. It was an awful lot of noise for so early in the morning; but my mom, having grown up with all of this, was fully dressed and ready for the ensuing chaos.
The day would begin with preparing of a lamb leg roast which would be ceremoniously placed in the oven in the first light of the morning. The expectation was that dinner might be served around three in the afternoon. Then it was off to church, us to our neighborhood Lutheran church and Gramp and Gus would be off to the Greek Church of the Assumption, all on the west side of Chicago. I cannot recall how many services the Greek Church offered but our Lutheran Church offered six hourly services beginning at sunrise. We usually went to the third service at eight in the morning. Once back from church the preparation of the dinner resumed. Mom, steeped in all of these traditions, would then start on the various side dishes for the balance of the meal. We all pitched in with either cooking or table settings.
Sometime around the noon hour Gramp would reappear with a bottle of Metaxa (a strong Greek brandy) and drinks were shared around the room and again, “Happy Easter”. This included me beginning at age of four and the years thereafter. I loved this Easter stuff!
Along with the Metaxa came a large bowl of hard boiled eggs dyed red. There are numerous traditions around the red eggs but our family held to the one that goes along with the story of when the women came back from the tomb with their announcement of the resurrection, the men replied, “If that is true, let these eggs turn red”. The eggs in this tradition did turn red.
We played a game that had to do with the breaking or the eggs. Each person would hold an egg and they would travel around the room bumping the ends of the eggs with one another to see who could be the last with an unbroken egg. The symbolism here is the breaking out of the tomb. The person agreed to be the striker of the eggs would announce, “Christos Aneste”. (Christ is Risen) and the person holding the egg being stuck would reply, “Alithos Anesti”. (Indeed he has Risen). Sound familiar?
At the end the person holding an unbroken egg would have good luck for the next year.
To my consternation, Gus almost always won. It would be years later when my sister and I discovered that he always presented the more pointed end of the egg to an opponent he never moved. He would wait for the other to strike. It was structurally more solid.
The dinner included a braided bread ring, called tsoureki, with a red egg baked into the middle.
Continuing with what made the day so special was that no matter how many people were present for the dinner, everyone sat at the table; the kids were not shuffled off to a smaller side table. We were loud, boisterous, and jubilant and everyone seemed to be talking at the same time (another indicator of Greek heritage). Those who know me now understand that none of this skipped me.
So what are we celebrating during the season of Easter? The events of the virgin birth and God coming into the world in a mysterious way at Christmas to proclaim a new way of living is truly significant. I suppose we could think of Christmas as a beginning. At Easter, again with even greater mystery, we discover that God is serious about the relationship with this creation and that God is truly triumphant. Easter then is the culmination of that beginning and offers us a realized expression of God’s love for each of us.
This is definitely something worth celebrating. And if you are asking when the Orthodox Easter is for this year, in another three weeks we get to do it all over again. I love this Easter stuff!
Christ is Risen.
He is Risen Indeed.
Thank you, God, for the gift of your Son in our lives which we celebrate in this Easter Season. May we live out our response to this with ways of expressing and sharing that love. Amen