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Orthodox Welcome Easter Calendar Variation Dates To 4th-Century Decision

For more than a month, the Rev. Gregory Horton has been babysitting Easter lilies in a cold, dark corner of his garage.

He hand-picked a dozen, selecting the late ones that had not yet bloomed. He kept them cool and sheltered to slow their growth.

Then last week he carried them all out into the sunlight, finally allowing them to flourish.

They will be on the altar tonight at Saint John the Baptist Orthodox Christian Church in Coeur d’Alene when the lights come on to mark the arrival of Orthodox Easter.

In many ways, Horton’s labor is symbolic of the difference between Western and Eastern Easter in the United States.

There are roughly half a dozen Orthodox congregations in the Inland Northwest. That compares with more than 1,000 Western Christian congregations.

The Western date for Easter, which passed a month ago, is blurred in the minds of many by commercialization and misunderstanding. Images of the cross compete with chocolate bunnies and Barbie-doll Easter baskets. Many Christians who participate in the joyous Sunday morning ignore the dark and somber services of the preceding week.

Pascha - Orthodox Easter - on the other hand, is generally ignored by Western culture. That’s just fine with most Orthodox Christians. The holiday is less expensive, but requires its participants be more vigilant, better prepared.

Orthodox parents buy chocolate eggs and other holiday candy weeks ahead to stock the Easter baskets. The same goes for Easter dresses and bonnets, which are usually marked down, but the pickings get slim as time passes.

Instead of buying palms from a commercial supplier for Palm Sunday - the ceremony that commemorates Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem - Horton canvassed Coeur d’Alene churches last month for leftovers. He found nearly a half-dozen congregations - from Roman Catholics to Presbyterians - willing to help him out.

The discrepancy in religious calendars dates back to the early stages of Christianity. In the year 325, the Council of Nicaea proclaimed that Easter would fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The Eastern bishops soon added to that stipulation that the Jewish Passover had to precede the Christian Easter.

Christ was crucified just before Passover. His resurrection was discovered by his followers three days later.

“It’s important to keep those connections,” said the Rev. Anthony Creech, pastor at St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church in Spokane.

Passover celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. It commemorates the night Jews slaughtered a lamb and marked their homes with the blood so the Angel of Death might spare them.

That imagery is significant for Christians, who describe Jesus as the paschal lamb. Through his resurrection, Christians believe they, too, find salvation and deliverance.

Occasionally the two calendars coincide, as they will in four years. Usually Orthodox Easter comes one to two weeks after its Western counterpart. The widest spread is six weeks.

“I love the Eastern calendar,” said Creech, who along with his congregation converted from a western denomination to Orthodoxy two years ago. “I hated it when Easter came in March and things were cold and blustery. To me the flowers and the green grass help us to appreciate the meaning of Easter.”

Pastors at Orthodox churches said they cherish the later date because it is easier to concentrate on the religious significance of the holiday, rather than the secular meaning.

Pascha services at most Orthodox churches in the Inland Northwest start at 11:30 tonight. The service begins in darkness. At midnight the lights come on to reveal the decorated sanctuary.

“The resurrection took place in the depth of the night without witnesses,” said the Rev. Stephen Supica, pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Spokane. “So this is our opportunity to reexperience the meaning and power of it.”

Many Orthodox parishes finish their service and break the fast of Lent with a huge dinner in the middle of the night.

“We want to hold the service at the earliest possible moment,” Horton said. “This is not like any other Sunday and we want to do it as soon as possible because it is the center of our faith.”

Saint John the Baptist and Holy Trinity churches will both host large lamb dinners immediately following the service. Other congregations share a hard boiled egg and bowl of soup.

“An egg never tasted so good,” after 40 days of not eating any animal products, Horton said.

Orthodox Christians who practice fasting during Lent are often faced with a dilemma on Western Easter. While their non-Orthodox relatives are feasting, they must abstain. Fasting ranges from giving up a few selected foods to forgoing all food except one meal of vegetables each day. Many children watch with envy as their cousins devour chocolate and candy.

But in the end, those experiences make the final celebration all the sweeter.

“The whole point of fasting is that if I can learn to control myself with the obvious stuff, then maybe I can transfer that to the stuff that really matters,” Supica said. “The great thing about Orthodoxy is that the standards are set very high. But we deal with not meeting them very mercifully.”

Later Sunday, many congregations gather a second time for a second service and other festivities such as egg hunts or blessing of the Easter baskets.

Orthodoxy and Western Christianity grew out of different languages and cultural traditions. The result is a distinct feel at the different churches even today.

“Latin (the language of the Western Church) is austere, terse, even legalistic,” Horton said. “In Greek (the language of the Eastern Church) there is a richness, a subtleness.

“As a result, the Orthodox spiritual life is very layered. Every detail of life, from cradle to grave, is handled by the faith. Orthodox Christianity is a way of life.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos

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