For the world's 225 million Orthodox Christians, this Sunday, May 1st is Easter. The holiday celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his death by crucifixion, and it comes almost one month after the rest of the world's Christians observed their Easter holiday.
At the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Washington DC, the atmosphere is solemn throughout Holy Week -- the week preceding Easter Sunday.
Across the street, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is also preparing for the big holiday. Father Victor Potapov, the rector of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral says May 1st is the right time to celebrate the miracle of Easter. "In (the year) 425, the First Ecumenical council stated specifically that Christians should celebrate the New Testament Passover -- Pascha, as we call it in Greek and in Russian -- which means Easter should always be celebrated after the Jewish Passover. If you open the Gospels," says the rector, "you will read very specifically that Christ was crucified on the eve of the Jewish Passover - Good Friday - and resurrected on the third day after the feast of Passover. For historical, chronological reasons we continue to this day to hold very strongly to that rule."
The later Orthodox Easter holiday has another value, in raising the profile of the Orthodox Christian churches, whose members comprise only about 10% of the world's
Christians. According to Father John of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sophia, Orthodox Christians in the United States are not only a religious minority, but a part of an immigrant community that, he says, has not yet quite blended with the American mainstream. "We have slowly grown out of this status, but we are not yet fully united as a church in America especially where the faith was brought by the immigrants from different countries. Many times in the early years you would have a Greek Orthodox, an Antiochian Orthodox, and a Russian Orthodox church within one block of each other."
Unlike the Catholic Church, which is united under the Pope at the Vatican, the Orthodox churches don't accept the infallibility of the Pope, and maintain their own leadership as well as diverse cultural traditions. In the 11th century there was a schism between the Orthodox Church and Catholicism over a doctrinal dispute about the precise relationship between God, Jesus Christ his son, and the Holy Spirit.
Despite the theological unity of Orthodox churches, they have become separated over the centuries by differences in language and culture. But Father John believes there is some hope for unity among them. "(Originally) we spoke Russian or Greek or Arabic," he says. "Now as time is going on English emerges as the dominant language and the Orthodox churches begin to know each other better and begin to coalesce."
Father Potapov says the Orthodox churches are also united in their belief that the Easter holiday is the most significant event on their calendar. "In the West, theologically speaking, Easter is the most important event in Christian history. But in life, I think Christmas is celebrated a lot more solemnly and festively than Easter is," Father Potapov says. "But in the Orthodox Church, Easter is central. I mean there is nothing that is ever going to marginalize the feast of Pascha or Easter for us."
Orthodox Easter preparations begin with 40 days of strict fasting prior to Easter Day. Hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christians flock to their churches to listen to the mass during the Holy Week that leads up to Easter Sunday. Father Potapov says that in Russia Easter is massive celebration.
"It's interesting that throughout the history of the Soviet Union Communists were never able to wipe out the celebration of Easter," the priest notes. "People found ways to celebrate particularly by going to the cemeteries and placing Easter eggs and Easter bread on the gravesites of their dead. Because in our tradition after the celebration in church among the living, the physical living, we all go to the cemeteries to greet the dead with the words Christ has risen, 'Christos Voskriesse' in Russian."
Paul Christou, the owner of a large bakery in Washington, D.C., says Easter is celebrated exactly the same way as it is in his country of origin, Greece. "If you can visually see the Greek people this week, from children to housewives, to husbands, to everybody, they are scrambling to make this Sunday a very festive Sunday. Including me," the baker says. "You caught me just in time. I just walked i
n and I just hung the lamb in the refrigerator." The lamb is the center of the Easter feast, as Mr. Christou notes: "We're going to put it on a spit [over open coal], we are going to be drinking around it, and it's going to be a very festive type of a day.
Also a busy day for Mr. Christou, who hopes to distribute 2500 loaves of Tsoureki -- a traditional holiday bread -- in time for Easter Sunday.