INTERVIEW BY

CHRISSIE FLINT FOR BFBS RADIO 2

2nd April 2007

 

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ON HOLY WEEK AND EASTER SUNDAY

 

CHRISSIE: This week is Holy Week which started with Palm Sunday, and I am here with Father Christopher who can tell us more about it. Father what happens this week?
FR. CHRISTOPHER: We remember and do many things this week, but in short, we follow Christ from his entrance into Jerusalem and relive the accounts of his passion, his crucifixion, his death and rejoice at the news of his Resurrection. But before I explain the services I would like to say something that I think would help your listeners understand better the Orthodox way of thinking. What we do in Church is not just a commemoration of past historical events. We are actually present with Christ as he suffers the passion and the Crucifixion. How this is possible I will explain. Time began from the onset of creation, but there is an earthly time and a heavenly time, a temporal and a non-temporal. Earthly time is measured by change and motion. Its nature is to begin, to endure and to have an end. Now Heaven and the angels, exist outside of earthly time. They are not eternal, because they have a beginning, but they have their existence in what we call the aeon which is motionless time, because it remains without any change. The Church stands at a point of intersection where the past, present and future of our earthly existence are merged with the unchanging and motionless time of the aeon. All the events of Christís life, from His Birth to His Resurrection and Ascension, are re-acted by the Church, but they cease to be just an act and become a reality in that all the events are forever taking place in the motionless time of the Kingdom of heaven. Therefore, we become witnesses of His birth together with the wise men and the shepherds, we follow His earthly life, hearing His divine words of salvation and bear witness to the countless miracles He performed; in pain, we stand and gaze at His crucified body, and we become co-mourners with the Mother of God, the Apostles, the Myrrhbearers and all His followers; and we follow Mary Magdalene and the Apostles to the empty tomb and rejoice with them at the news of the Resurrection. Another thing to help understand the order of the services is that all the services are sung in anticipation of the actual event. Iíll explain what I mean. The morning or matins services as sung on the evening before, and the evening or vespers services are sung on the morning before. This is done for practical reasons because the most beautiful services of the Crucifixion and the Burial are actually morning services, but because people have to work in the mornings, they would not be able to attend the services, so we reverse the order of the services so that the people can be present.
So now let us start with Palm Sunday. On this day the Orthodox Church commemorates and celebrates the entrance of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ into Jerusalem. It is customary for the people to bring Palm leaves with them to Church, but as we donít have many Palm trees in Cyprus, we bring branches of Olive tree. At the end of the Service there is a procession around the Church which is symbolic of Christís journey into Jerusalem and then the Priest will read the Gospel for the day. At the point where it says: ďAnd a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way.Ē The people throw their branches towards the Priest who represents Christ and in that way they identify themselves with the multitude of the Gospel. Another custom which we have only in Cyprus is that apart from the olive branches, people also bring bags full of olive leaves, which after being blessed, are kept in church for 40 days as another form of blessing, and then the people take them to their homes and use the leaves as incense. This is a custom the younger generation have left behind, but our grandmothers would begin their morning prayer by first offering incense to God and asking him to bless the day.
On the evening of Palm Sunday we begin the services of ďChrist the BridegroomĒ, which we have on Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, and Holy Wednesday. The Icon for the Bridegroom doesnít show Christ dressed up as a Bridegroom, but as the Man of the Passion, reminding us that shortly Christ will suffer the humility of the Passion. The Icon brings to mind the Gospel passage which says: ďAnd they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe. And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!Ē The name Bridegroom comes from the Gospel reading of Holy Tuesday, which recounts the parable of the ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. Also in other places Christ calls himself the Bridegroom, as in the passage where he tells the disciples of St. John the Baptist that the children of the bridechamber cannot mourn as long as the Bridegroom is with them, but the days will come when the Bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then they will fast.  The hymn for these three days begins. Behold, the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night and blessed is the servant whom he shall find watching.
On Thursday morning we celebrate the Last Supper or as we Orthodox call it, the Mystical Supper. It is the celebration of that very first Eucharist service which Christ instituted. On this day we celebrate four events: the washing of the disciples' feet, the institution of the Holy Eucharist, Christís Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and Judasí betrayal. On the Evening we sing the Service of the Passion and Crucifixion. This is the longest of all the services of Holy Week and is about 4 hour in length. During the service there are 12 Gospel readings which recount the awful Passion of our Lord and what he willingly endured - the spittings, the scourgings, the buffeting, the scorn, the mocking, the purple robe, the reed, the sponge, the vinegar, the nails, the spear and above all the Cross and Death. The Actual Crucifixion takes place after the reading of the fifth Gospel. The Cross and Christ are carried in procession inside the church and when the Cross has been placed in the centre of the Church the priest will then put the Icon of Christ onto the Cross.
On the morning of Good Friday we celebrate the Deposition from the Cross, in other words, the taking down of Christís body from the Cross. If there is only one Priest, then someone will take down the body of Christ and wrap it in a white linen cloth. This is then given to the Priest who will place it on the Holy Altar which represents Christís tomb. Then the Priest will carry the embroidered Icon of the Epitaphion, which is an Icon of Christ lying dead in the tomb and will place it in the Canopy decorated with flowers which now takes centre place in the church.

CHRISSIE: Good Friday is a very holy day in Cyprus what happens in the evening?


FR. CHRISTOPHER: On the evening of Good Friday we celebrate the service of the Lamentation. In the centre of the church we have the Canopy which represents Christís tomb and this is decorated with beautiful flowers which represent the myrrh and spices that were used in the burial preparation. Inside the canopy we have the Icon of the entombment and the Book of the Gospels which were placed there from the morning. There are two main events of the service. The first is the singing of the Lamentations which are about 300 short hymns in total. I would say that this is the highlight of the service. The hymns stir up a mixture of feelings, moving us from sadness when we are reminded how man put to death his God and Creator, then to tears when we think of the pain in the Blessed Virgins heart on first seeing her Son and God suffering the humility of the Cross and now seeing him dead in the tomb, and then to hope and joy when we are reminded that in three days he will rise again. After the singing of the Lamentations, everyone will come and venerate Christ in the tomb and will receive from the Priest a flower from the tomb as a blessing. The second event is the funeral procession which varies to whether one is in a town or a village church. In general, the Icon of the entombment or the whole canopy is lifted above the priestís head and is carried in procession into the streets, and as they walk the streets the people walk under the canopy, the choir all the while singing hymns from the service. In towns the funeral cortege is often lead by a brass band and members of the armed forces and meet up with the funeral procession from other parishes.

 

CHRISSIE:  Easter seems to be a very important festival in the Greek Orthodox calendar is it?

FR. CHRISTOPHER: Easter for Orthodox Christians is the greatest Feast in the churchís calendar. It is the Feast of all Feasts. Man was created for Paradise, for immortal life, for knowledge of God and communion with Him. Adamís original sin resulted in man being exiled from paradise and being deprived of that blessed life, and instead of immortality was now subject to illnesses, diseases, pain, suffering and ageing bodies, which eventually would bring about his death. Christ, with his death and Resurrection, re-opens the door of Paradise to everyone who follows him, so Easter is in fact the celebration of mankindís return to Paradise. It is the celebration of our return to God.

CHRISSIE:  The main Easter service takes place on Saturday night can you talk us through it?
 
FR. CHRISTOPHER: There is nothing quite like the Easter Service. It is so beautiful and moves the spirit to tears of joy and happiness. It is the moment we have been anticipating these past 50 days. The atmosphere is almost electrifying. Everything has been cleaned and polished, the dark vestments of Holy Week have been put aside and in their place are now the bright white Resurrection vestments. But letís take it from the moment someone comes into the church yard. Very often one will see a great bonfire in the courtyard. Most town churches have now banned these bonfires from the courtyard, but in villages the bonfire is still a highlight of the night. The bonfires have nothing to do will the Church service. In times of old, they were probably lit so that the people outside the church could keep warm and in time it became a tradition. If we were to give it a symbolic meaning we could only say that it represents the fires of hell, because the Easter service has a double meaning. Firstly it is the Celebration of the resurrection but it is also the Celebration of the Second coming of Christ. Although we donít know when this will be, there is a tradition from the times of the Apostles that the Second coming of Christ will be one year on the night of the Resurrection. Symbolically then, those who are found inside the church are those who are saved and those outside are those who will suffer the fires of hell.
Letís return to the actual service. Everyone takes a candle to church or they can purchase one from the Church counter. The service begins at 11 oíclock but the actual Resurrection service will begin at exactly Midnight. The Church will be darkened with no lights or candles lit and the faithful wait for the Priest to come out of the sanctuary. As the priest comes forth holding three lit candles, he sings ďCome ye, and receive the light, from the never setting and eternal light, and give glory unto Christ, He who hath risen from the dead.Ē And everyone lights their candles from these 3 candles. This is done in commemoration of a miracle that happens every year in Jerusalem that the western world doesnít seem to be aware of. In Jerusalem on Holy and Great Saturday at noon, they have the special service called the Light of the Resurrection. The Patriarch, having been witnessed by other church denominations that he doesnít have any matches on him, enters the Holy Sepulchre and prays for the light of the Resurrection. After praying and waiting, his candles light by themselves and if you are standing inside the Church of the Resurrection you will see a blueish light dashing around the church and lighting up some of the candles held by the people.
Coming back to our Resurrection service, as soon as everyone has lit their candles, The Priest carries the Gospel Book in procession around the Church. The procession around the Church is symbolic of Christís earthly life and the people following the procession are the multitudes that believed on Him and followed Him. We then have the Reading of the Gospel which is the Good News of the Resurrection announced by the angel to the Myrrhbearers. Then we sing the Easter hymn many times. Christ is risen from the dead, by death he hath overcome death, and to them in the graves hath he given life. Then follows something not found in the service books but is a custom done in many Churches. As soon as the procession begins, the doors of the Church are closed. With the doors shut, the Priest knocks three times on the western doors and says: Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Someone from within the Church will respond saying: Who is this King of glory? And the Priest shall reply: The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. This is done a total of three times and the doors are opened and the Priests leads the people back into the Church.

 

CHRISSIE: What does all this mean?

 

FR. CHRISTOPHER: When Adam was cast out of Paradise we are told that God put an angel with a flaming sword to guard the entrance of Paradise so that no one could enter in. The dialogue the priest has with the person inside represents a dialogue between Christ and that angel. The Priest representing Christ tells the angel to open the doors of paradise so that he who is the King of Glory can enter in. As the doors open, Christ leads the people back into Paradise, which is what the Resurrection actually means, our return to Paradise, our return to the Kingdom of Heaven which is our rightful place where we will reign with Christ forever and ever. After this many of the thousands who attended the service sadly leave and return to their homes, but in truth the service has only just begun and they miss out on the wonderful hymns that follow. At the very end of the Service it is customary for the Priest to give everyone still remaining a red egg. And that very first egg after 50 days of fasting tastes absolutely wonderful.

CHRISSIE:  Can anyone attend this service?

FR. CHRISTOPHER: Yes, everyone is welcomed to attend all the services. We have people attending from various denominations. Of course we must draw the line when it comes to Holy Communion. Only those who are members of the Orthodox Church are allowed to receive Holy Communion. Also keep in mind that on these nights thousands of people attend the services and very often there is not enough room inside the church so you might find yourself amongst the hundreds, if not thousands, standing in the church courtyard.


CHRISSIE: What do I need to do?


FR. CHRISTOPHER: Just bring yourselves and maybe a candle to church or as I said before you can always purchase one from the counter inside the church. With most church services you will notice that the women sit at the back of the church and the men in front, but on such nights when so many people attend, this is largely ignored.

CHRISSIE:  What happens after the service?


FR. CHRISTOPHER: After the service it is traditional for the people to take their lit candles home finding some way to protect it so that it doesnít blow out from the wind. Some people use foil paper to make a protection and others bring small lanterns. With this Resurrection light they will light their vigil light at home and keep it burning for the next 40 days. After this they will have their Easter breakfast which normally consists of the traditional Cypriot egg and lemon soup, chicken, eggs and of course flaounes, which is an Easter pastry filled with a mixture of cheese, eggs, mint and raisins.

CHRISSIE: What happens on Easter Sunday?

FR. CHRISTOPHER: On Easter Sunday there is a vespers service usually held at about 11 oíclock in the morning called the Vespers of Love. In towns this is usually served in only one Church Presided by the Bishop and all the Priest from the various parishes attend this one service. During the service, the reading of the Gospel is said in many languages fulfilling Christís commandment to the Apostles after his Resurrection when he said ďGo ye therefore, and teach all nationsĒ.
At home, everyone is preparing for Easter lunch. It is a day of love and all the family will gather together, they will greet and kiss each other, and as they kiss, one will say Christos Anesti, which means, Christ is Risen and the other will respond with: Alithos Anesti, which means:, He is risen indeed or Truly he is risen. Lunch itself will normally consist of barbecued lamb and other delicious foods that we havenít eaten for 50 days. And having not eaten meat or dairy product for the past 50 days everything tastes absolutely wonderful. A feast indeed.

CHRISSIE:  It is traditional that you greet everyone you see for the first time after Easter with a special greetingÖ


FR. CHRISTOPHER: Yes, as I said we greet each other with Christ is risen and respond with He is risen indeed. This we say for the next 40 days until the feast of the Ascension. We use this greeting in place of good morning or good evening, or hello when we answer the phone. In general it replaces all other greetings.

Chrissie, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you and all your listeners a wonderful Easter and may the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ enlighten your hearts and bring joy and love into your homes. Happy Easter.