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Perceptions of Pascha, 2004

April 12, 2004

There were a lot of ingredients that came together to make this yearís observance of Holy Week and Easter even more relevant to Greek Orthodox Christians here in the D.C. area. It being one of those rare years where Orthodox Easter and Western Easter fell on the same day, and one of those even rarer years where a film about the last 12 hours of Christís life makes over $300 million in this country. We started noticing attendance in our Greek Orthodox churches start to rise throughout the Lenten season, but it was nothing compared to what we saw over this past week. I canít say if it was this movie or just other things going on in the world, but this Holy Week and Easter were a lot different for us than in the past. 

So what about this movie, The Passion of The Christ? We went to see it on Saturday night of Lazarus, or the night before Palm Sunday. (One of the rare weekends there hasnít been a Greek Night this Lenten season.) From everything we had heard about the movie, it was kind of hard to get fired up to see it. It was one of those questions I had been asking myself all of Lent, ďIs it better to be depressed on a Friday night or a Saturday night?Ē followed by the equally vexing question, ďIf I go to a 7:00 showing would it be too early to go to bed right afterwards at 9:30, because letís face it, watching a film focusing entirely on the beating and crucifixion of Christ and barely touching upon the Resurrection, wonít make you want to go out and grab a beer afterwards, right?Ē I have to say as a Greek Orthodox Christian, the movie shouldnít really have affected you that much, unless you had your own issues going on. Still, there was a profound feeling of silence that came over us when we walked out of the theatre. And I was thankful for the time change that night because yes, it gave me an excuse go to sleep pretty much right after we got home from the movie. 

It was nice to see the church packed on Palm Sunday. The time change on Saturday night probably didnít hurt, because all the folks who would normally come to church around 11:30 actually got there on time. For many, Palm Sunday lunch was as much of a family affair as Easter would be the following week. We went with our parents to the Metro 29 Diner, which was packed with Greeks and non-Greeks alike. But you could tell that it was the Greeks who had come from church, because they were actually dressed up, and they were the ones trying to get in off the waiting list quicker. 

I donít know why, but we decided that we were going to try to make as many church services during the evenings of Holy Week as possible. Monday and Tuesday were good warm ups for the ďbiggieĒ services during the week, Holy Wednesday through the Resurrection service on Saturday night. We were surprised by the crowd on Tuesday night, and that there were actually other young adults there. We had to hand it to Fr. Kosta and the other priests at St. Katherineís because they were running through the services pretty quickly during the early part of the week.

Holy Wednesday is an interesting service because of itís the one time during the year that you can partake in the sacrament of Holy Unction, so people come out for it in droves. The trick to Holy Wednesday usually is to sit as close to the front of the church as possible if you have any desire to get out of church early, because the granting of Holy Unction takes longer than having everyone in the church participate in Communion. There were a couple of readings in the service that really affected even some of the younger adults in attendance. You saw quite a few people crying and you knew that they were probably dealing with some serious heartache or worry in their lives.

And thatís what you really get to notice about people during Holy Week. Holy Week is probably one of the only times that most of us are going to get to see our Greek-American friends and acquaintances on that many consecutive nights in a very real and honest setting. If your friends were going through some tough times, you could see it in their faces as the week progressed, particularly the more they came to church. Too often in this community when you only see people maybe on the weekends or not at all when they disappear for a while, you really donít know whatís going on in their lives on a daily basis. Seeing people at church, particularly during Holy Week, really puts things into perspective. 

Iíve always wondered what the 6:00 A.M. service on Holy Thursday is like. I wasnít going to make this year the year to find out. But we did make it to Holy Thursday night. Our mom decided to join us for this service. The trick to this service is to either get in before the reading of the first gospel or significantly after it, because you donít want to get stuck with the mass of humanity in the narthex as they close the doors to the main part of the church. We want to commend the priests at St. Katherineís for deciding to read the first gospel, the longest of the 12 readings that night, in English, because it takes a really, really, long time to chant it in Greek. Church was packed on Thursday night and there were a lot of young people there, some on their own, but some with their families as well.

The good thing about Good Friday coinciding with Western Good Friday was that it allowed a lot of people an easier time in taking the day off of work or school. When Orthodox Easter takes place sometimes a month after Western Easter, your boss sometimes looks at you as a big slacker just wanting a three day weekend in the beginning of May, and then youíre stuck explaining to him the difference in the methodology of calculating Easter, and why youíre actually spending the morning and evening in church. We decided to take the day off and go to the morning service, and then to stick around a while longer to help in the preparation for Easter. The Epitaphio was brought up from the church basement and the young ladies of the church decorated it with flowers. Over in the community center, the little children and their parents were busy wrapping the thousands of red eggs that were prepared for distribution on Saturday night and Sunday morning. If you attended St. Katherineís Saturday night or Easter morning and received an egg that looked like it was wrapped by a five year oldÖ well that was wrapped by the five-year old girl in the leopard dress that kept sticking her tongue out at me both during that morningís service and during the egg-wrapping exercise. On the other hand, if you received an egg that looked like it was wrapped by a four year oldÖ well, that was one of mine, which I probably wrapped with my tongue sticking out as well, not so much in mocking the girl, but sticking it out more to the side for balance and coordination.

Back inside the church, the altar boys and the men of the Parish Council were busy behind the altar actually cleaning the icons. What do you use to clean an icon? Well apparently according to the guys at St. Katherineís, good old fashioned Pine-Sol, followed by a second pass with rosewater. We talked to one of the Parish Council members, who has been with the church since it opened in 1969, and he couldnít remember the last time they cleaned the icons. It was glorious to see the true colors of the icons come through from under years of smoke and dust. 

I have to complain about the weather though on Good Friday. It was way too nice out, particularly during the afternoon. Good Friday weather is supposed to be as cold and rainy as possible for that time in the year. It has rained on Good Friday, at least a drop sometime after midnight, for every year as long as I can remember. I remember it was raining on Thursday night when I went to bed at 11:30, and hoped that it continued after midnight to keep that streak alive. The ground was still wet on Friday morning, so who knows. 

We got a different perspective on Good Friday night as we were tapped to help carry the Epitaphio. Seeing one of the myrrh bearer girls almost pass out up at the altar really didnít inspire confidence in us that we werenít going to drop the Epitaphio or have something horribly go wrong. The question everyone asked us afterwards was, ďIs it heavy?Ē The answer, ďNo not really,Ē particularly when there are a total of six or eight guys helping out, but itís more awkward than anything else particularly when not everyone on the team is of the same height. Itís interesting to see how people approach the process of going under the Epitaphio. There were the couples that were passing under the Epitaphio at the same time, which was nice to see. We saw one couple try to go under it at the same time while holding hands, which you really canít do if youíre intent on crossing yourself doing it. Itís also cute to see the old ladies who can basically walk under it without having to duck their heads even an inch. 

Saturday morning service is a good one to go to if youíre looking at taking Communion without having to stay until the end of the evening service to take it. A service thatís normally sparsely attended by families with young children was packed again at St. Katherineís by the same people we had seen on Holy Thursday, Holy Friday, and who were still planning on coming that evening for the Resurrection. For many in the church, it was the last time theyíd be seeing the inside of the church that day though. 

I donít know how it was at other churches, but at St. Katherineís, church was at capacity on Saturday night at 10:50, 10 minutes before service even started. The overflow crowd was directed to the new community center where Fr. Ted was offering a simultaneous live service, which was at least better than their closed-circuit big screen service that they were offering there on Friday night. We hung outside with the GOYA kids and sold candles to everyone. It was funny listening to some of the excuses that people were trying to use to get into the church that night.

Parishioner:  My parents are in there.
Parish Council Member: No, theyíre not, I know for a fact that your parents left last Thursday to spend Holy Week and Easter in Greece.
Parishioner: Well, um, Iím a member of the choir.
Parish Council Member: No, youíre not, Iíve heard you sing; youíre terrible.

We were surprised that no one tried to slip the Parish Council member a $20 or a $50 like you would to get a nice table at a restaurant when you donít have a reservation. We were proud of our fellow Greek-Americans that they didnít try to bum-rush the doors. 

As midnight approached, many just gave up on getting into the church or into the hall next door. The number of people just hanging out outside the front of the church made the decision to head out early and not stick around until the end of the service that much easier. It really just didnít feel like church outside when you saw teenagers with a lambada in one hand and a cigarette in the other. One of our friends almost ended up going out after service ended, but he decided he should probably get the light from the candle home instead. We were glad that he didnít decide to use the light of the Resurrection to light a cigarette after the service and continue to light cigarettes at a bar with it, and then make sure to transfer it back to his candle for the drive home to his house, like he originally joked. Itís for this reason that going to church on Saturday night by yourself must really be difficult. Last time I checked, cars donít come standard with holy flame holders. Particularly if you are driving stick, holding a candle, the steering wheel, and shifting all at the same time canít be easy. 

On our drive home we decided to listen to the radio for the first time since Holy Week started on something other than WTOP. It was a little surreal having the first song on the radio that we heard in a week, being ďDonít You Forget About Me,Ē making the end of Holy Week seem the closing credits of a bad teen movie.

Thereís something about waking up on Easter Sunday morning that is a little anti-climactic. It was almost like waking up with a hangover, feeling groggy and not really that much in an Easter mood, particularly this year with the cold and rainy start to the morning. I felt bad for my Catholic friends who were planning on going to sunrise service in their churches, and felt bad for all the little kids at the Orthodox churches in the area who were probably going to be forced indoors for their Easter Egg Hunts. Again, I wonder what an Agape service is like, not having been to one probably ever.

There was a sale at Giant this week on Australian Lamb Legs. According to the packaging these were ďFree RangeĒ lambs. I donít know how free these lambs are and how much range they really have, when they are walking around with at best three legs. Needless to say, they made for a tasty, quiet, and low-key end to Easter week. Our mom was particularly comforted by listening to some Easter-themed laika that I managed to pick up on my laptop from the internet feed from 89.5 FM in Athens. 

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