Orthodox Easter for Dummies

April 28th, 2016 6:17 pm


Orthodox Christians sometimes celebrate Easter at a different time than other Christians. This year (2016), Orthodox Easter period starts on May 1, while the Western Churches are just two weeks short from the Pentecost Feast. (Find out why.) This Easter we have interviewed a Romanian Orthodox Christian “source” to understand better, what is going on in the Orthodox church in this period.

The actual day of Easter is preceded by the Great Lent, which is the time for preparation, silence, and concentrating on what Easter is all about – the time of renouncing of worldly distractions, and concentrating on Christ’s journey to Resurrection. This year, with Easter celebrated on 1 May, the Great Lent has started on 14 March. Each Easter week is marked by a thematic Sunday.


  1. Sunday: Triumph of Orthodoxy
  2. Sunday: St. Gregory Palamas
  3. Sunday: Veneration of the Cross
  4. Sunday: St. John Climacus
  5. Sunday: St. Mary of Egypt
  6. Sunday: Palm Sunday. The Lord’s Entry in Jerusalem, in Romanian named Flower Sunday (Duminica Floriilor). This Sunday is preceded by Lazarus Saturday.


Normally in the Orthodox Church tradition, any given day starts on the evening of the previous day. This is a little complicated to explain, but the idea is the same like in Jewish time understanding – the Sabbath starts on Friday at sunset, and ends on Saturday on sunset. So, in Orthodox Christianity, normally Sunday celebration is already getting mentions – officially starting – on Saturday evening. This is how it normally goes. However, during the Holy and Great week, the time double-speeds-up, in the words of our Romanian source, hurrying up towards the Easter, trying to get to the Feast of Feasts faster.

After the 6th Sunday starts the Holy and Great week, where each day carries a special meaning and is celebrated differently. Since today is Holy Thursday, we paid most attention to the services from today on and until Sunday.

On Holy Thursday morning, the Romanian Orthodox Church (ROC) Holy Thursday begins with the celebration of vespers and the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, in representation of the earthly presence of Christ realized at the Last Supper. In ROC, the choir sings a special chant “From the feast table of the Lord” (“Din ospatul Stapanului“) instead of the usual Hymn to the Mother of God (Axion) – like a few other chants, this one is sung only once a year at this specific service.

In some churches, during the service, the highest-ranked priest washes and dries the feet of twelve priests, monks or laymen, to connect the today with the humble gesture of Christ towards his disciples at the Last Supper.


On Holy Thursday evening, the liturgical time for the services is actually the Matins of Friday morning. The Holy Passion service of the reading of the Twelve Gospels is conducted. In these readings Christ’s last instructions to his disciples are presented, as well as the prophecy of the drama of the Cross, Christ’s prayer, and his new commandment. The twelve readings are:

  1. John 13:31-18:1
  2. John 18:1-29
  3. Matthew 26:57-75
  4. John 18:28–19:16
  5. Matthew 27:3-32
  6. Mark 15:16-32
  7. Matthew 27:33-54
  8. Luke 23:32-49
  9. John 19:19-37
  10. Mark 15:43-47
  11. John 19:38-42
  12. Matthew 27:62-66

In ROC, after the 6th gospel, the time of Christ’s crucifixion symbolically arrives. A full-sized cross is taken out from the altar and brought to the middle of the church by the highest-ranked priest. The Cross is carried in the manner the original Cross was carried by Christ.

The Great and Holy Friday begins with reading of the Royal Hours leading up to Vespers of Friday afternoon, at which time the removal of the Body of Christ from the Cross is commemorated. The priest removes the cross from the middle of the church. In a Friday evening service, called the Lamentations at the Tomb, the priest carries the Epitaphios, the painted or embroidered cloth representation of Christ, from the altar around the church before placing it in the Sepulcher, a bier symbolizing the Tomb of Christ. This procession, with the faithful carrying lighted candles, represents Christ’s descent into Hades.


In Romanian, the Lamentations at the Tomb service is called Prohodul, which is also the name for a service for grieving for one’s recently deceased close relative or friend. In this way the Orthodox Christians mourn Christ’s death as if he is a very close member of the family.

Epitaphios is an icon embroidered usually on a piece of cloth, depicting Christ after he has been removed from the cross, lying supine, as his body is being prepared for burial. The scene is taken from the Gospel of St. John (John 19:38-42). Epitaphios is used in the Holy week as part of the ceremonies marking the death and resurrection of Christ. In ROC, the epitaphios is placed in the middle of the church, and there is a tradition to pass under that construction with epitaphios on top, on one’s knees and towards altar, to symbolize going with the Christ through the grave towards resurrection.


Great and Holy Saturday Vespers and a Divine Liturgy of St. Basil are served in ROC on Saturday morning, marked with readings of Psalms and Resurrection hymns that tell of Christ’s descent into Hades, celebrated as the “First Resurrection” of Adam and the conquering of Death.

Saturday evening is when Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, celebrations begin, just before midnight with the singing of the Odes of Lamentation as the Resurrection Vespers begins with the church in complete darkness. As midnight approaches the priest taking a light from a vigil light within the altar passes the flame to the faithful for their candles while singing “Come ye and receive light from the unwaning life, and, glorify Christ, who arose from the dead.”


Then the priest leads the faithful out of the church in procession. After circling the church either one or three times, as the procession nears the entrance door of the church, the priest leads in the singing of the hymn of Resurrection. “Christ has risen from the dead, by death trampling upon Death, and has bestowed life upon those in the tombs!” At this point the priest and faithful enter the well-lighted church for the remaining part of Vespers and the breaking of the fast with the Divine Liturgy. After conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, in many communities, the faithful retire to an agape meal to break the Fast together, and then return home as dawn arrives. Later in the day of Pascha the faithful again gather for prayer with lighted candles in a vespers service, singing the hymn “Christ is Risen from the Dead,” and greeting each other joyously, “Christ is risen” and responding with, “Truly He is risen.”



Reportage prepared by Maria Kozhinova, WSCF-E Communications Officer. For all questions or clarifications, please write to publications@wscf-europe.org.



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