"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Friday, 29 April 2016


Knocking Down the Gates of Hell
my source: Glory to God for All Things (Orthodox)
Fr. Stephen Freeman 

The Swedish Lutheran theologian, Gustav Aulen, publish a seminal work on types of atonement theory in 1930 (Christus Victor). Though time and critique have suggested many subtler treatments of the question, no one has really improved on his insight. Especially valuable was description of the “Classic View” of the atonement. This imagery, very dominant in the writings of the early Fathers and in the liturgical life of the Eastern Church, focused on the atonement as an act of invasion, smashing of gates and bonds, and the setting free of those bound in hell. Aulen clearly preferred this imagery and is greatly responsible for its growing popularity in some segments of Western Christendom.

The language was obscured in the West by the later popularity of propitiatory suffering (and the various theories surrounding it). Aulen noted, however, that Luther tended to prefer this older imagery. I had opportunity to do a research paper in grad school on the topic. I surveyed all of the hundreds of hymns written by Luther and analyzed them for their atonement theology. All but about two used the Classic View. Aulen was right.

In Orthodoxy, this imagery is the coin of the realm in the hymns surrounding Pascha. All of Holy Week is predicated on the notion of Christ descent into hell and radical actions of destroying death and setting free those held in captivity. St. John Chrysostom’s great Paschal Homily, read in every Orthodox Church on the night of Pascha, is an “alley, alley, in come free!” of salvation.

I have written on this topic before. I thought, however, to share some of the verses from the hymns for the Matins of Holy Saturday. Their language is a pure expression of the spirit of Orthodox Pascha and the atonement teaching of the Fathers.

Hell, who had filled all men with fear,
Trembled at the sight of Thee,
And in haste he yielded up his prisoners,
O Immortal Sun of Glory

Thou hast destroyed the palaces of hell by Thy Burial, O Christ.
Thou hast trampled death down by thy death, O Lord,
And redeemed earth’s children from corruption.

Though thou art buried in a grave, O Christ,
Though Thou goest down to hell, O Savior,
Thou hast stripped hell naked, emptying its graves.

Death seized Thee, O Jesus,
And was strangled in Thy trap.
He’’s gates were smashed, the fallen sere set free,
And carried from beneath the earth on high.

O Savior, death’s corruption
Could not touch thy holy flesh.
Thou hast bound the ancient murdered of man,
And restored all the dead to new life.

Thou didst will, O Savior,
To go beneath the earth.
Thou didst free death’s fallen captives from their chains,
Leading them from earth to heaven.

In the earth’s dark bosom
The Grain of Wheat is laid.
By its death, it shall bring forth abundant fruit:
Adam’s sons, freed from the chains of death.

Wishing to save Adam,
Thou didst come down to earth.
Not finding him on earth, O Master,
Thou didst descend to Hades seeking him.

O my Life, my Savior,
Dwelling with the dead in death,
Thou hast destroyed the iron bars of hell,
And hast risen from corruption.

These examples could be multiplied many times over. The section of Matins from which these are taken has over 100 verses! Orthodox Holy Week and Pascha has many ways of acting out this theology. Lights go up at the hint of victory, particularly as we sing the Song of Moses celebrating the drowning of Pharaoh’s army. In some parishes, bay leaves are tossed in the air by the priest in a fairly violent and joyous celebration of the victory. In yet others, at certain points during the Vesperal Liturgy of Pascha,  loud noises such as the banging of pots and pans are heard as the liturgy describes the smashing of hell’s gates. There’s is one village in Greece where two parishes have developed a custom of firing rocker fireworks at each other in the Paschal celebration.

Such antics completely puzzle the non-Orthodox and even seem comical. The Paschal celebration in Orthodoxy is far more akin to the wild street scenes in American cities when the end of World War II was announced – and for the same reason!

All of this also explains why many Orthodox are very reluctant to engage in “who’s going to hell” discussions with other Christians (though some Orthodox sadly seem to relish the topic). The services of Holy Week, as illustrated in these verses, are filled with references to hell. I daresay that no services elsewhere in all of Christendom make such frequent mention of hell. But the language is just as illustrated above. It’s all about smashing, destruction and freedom. It is the grammar of Pascha. It should be the grammar of Christianity itself.

Hell is real. Jesus has come to smash it. It is the Lord’s Pascha. It is time to sing and dance.
What Is Pascha? Ahead Of Orthodox Easter 2016, Russian, Greek And Other Eastern Churches Begin Celebrations 
Orthodox Christian worshipers from Serbia hold crosses as they walk along Via Dolorosa during the Holy Week Good Friday procession in Jerusalem's Old City April 29, 2016.

Orthodox Christian worshipers take part in a procession along the Via Dolorosa on Good Friday, during Holy Week in Jerusalem's Old City, April 29, 2016.
Ethiopian Christian Orthodox priests pray during the Washing of the Feet ceremony, one of the Orthodox Easter celebrations, at the Deir al-Sultan chapel on the roof of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City April 28, 2016.

In the streets of Kiev, Ukraine, traditional Ukrainian Easter eggs, known as pysanky, are on display for the holiday. Outside of beautiful, decorative eggs, it is traditional for eggs to be dyed red to symbolize the life and the blood of Jesus Christ. It is common for people to also play games with eggs, banging them against each other. Whoever ends up with the non-cracked egg is supposed to have luck for the coming year. Many worshippers also bring baskets full of food and special breads to church on Easter Sunday to be blessed.
A woman takes a picture of a traditional Ukrainian Easter egg "Pysanka," installed as part of the upcoming celebrations of Easter, in central Kiev, Ukraine, April 29, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS/VALENTYN OGIRENKO
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Metropolitan Theophilos (C) blesses the crowd during the Washing of the Feet ceremony outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, April 28, 2016, ahead of Orthodox Easter.PHOTO: REUTERS/AMMAR AWADplease click on:good friday: jesus christ died for our sinsa.schmemann, r. cantalamessa ETC

The God Who Fights For Us
by Father Stephen Freeman

I was small for my age as a child, and quite thin at that. I liked to play, but was not particularly rugged and did not enjoy sports that involved getting knocked around. I grew up with another “Steve” next door to me, who was big for his age. Inevitably, I was nicknamed “Little Steve,” and he, “Big Steve.” I confess to being glad when he moved away, at least for my name’s sake. I was born in the post-War era of the 50’s and lived near an air base. War and military exploits were the daily fare of the playground imagination. It is difficult to cultivate a warrior’s mentality if you’ve lost every fight you were ever in. I wasn’t a “wimp,” but I could have been a happy pacifist.

I often think that my childhood experience has colored my adult love of Pascha. In my years as an Anglican priest, I was always careful that my favorite hymn be sung at all the Easter services:

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

The strife is o’er, the battle done,
the victory of life is won;
the song of triumph has begun.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

The powers of death have done their worst,
but Christ their legions hath dispersed:
let shout of holy joy outburst.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

The three sad days are quickly sped,
he rises glorious from the dead:
all glory to our risen Head!

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

He closed the yawning gates of hell,
the bars from heaven’s high portals fell;
let hymns of praise his triumphs tell!

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Lord! by the stripes which wounded thee,
from death’s dread sting thy servants free,
that we may live and sing to thee.

It is, I think, one of the most Orthodox hymns in the Anglican tradition, both in its tone and in its content. Pascha, in Orthodox thought, is described primarily in terms of battle. Christ “tramples down death by death.” That line, part of the primary hymn of Pascha, is sung over and over in the course of the feast.

God fighting for you and smashing your enemies is particularly good news if you’ve been on the losing side most of your life. It seems to have been the “losing side” that was most drawn to Christ during His ministry. He excoriated religious leaders but was exceedingly kind to harlots, adulteresses, and turn-coat tax-collectors. It is certainly the case that the religious leaders of that time bullied the poor and the “unrighteous.”

None of that suggests that we should become harlots, and the like. It certainly suggests that we should not be bullies. But it strongly suggests that we should identify ourselves with those who lose. This can be difficult for some, particularly in a culture that so values winners. There are versions of the Christian faith that are better suited to the culture of winning. I suspect that this is part of the attraction of those groups who speak of themselves as having been “saved.” To have found out the mechanism of salvation and applied it in your life easily feels like getting the answers right on the test. And I worry as well when I hear a discussion about the wickedness of sinners and their destiny in hell.

My worry is that my years of pastoral experience have taught me just how complicated and twisted are the souls of “sinners.” I have known a number of people who simply cannot manage money. When they do work, they have no common sense about how things should be spent and how things should be saved. And their lives are always complicated with money problems. I see the same thing in many lives with certain moral issues. I see far more people do “stupid” things than “evil” things. Indeed, I see very few people who actually want to do anything truly evil. They simply don’t know how to “manage” being good.

Historically there has been a behavior described as “middle-class” or “bourgeois” morality. Sometimes used as a pejorative by radical types, it nevertheless can be very telling. It refers to a form of public behavior, typical in moderate and upper income homes, in which people have interiorized a set of rules about “how decent people should behave.” They are the rules for how to get along with others, and how to keep your head down and slowly improve your lot in life. Many people have a deep sense of satisfaction and competency that accompanies this internal ability.

In point of fact, it’s no great effort. Sometimes it is nothing more than Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation.” There is nothing heroic, or deeply sacrificial. It’s religion is always taken in fairly modest, acceptable directions. It is the essence of “public” morality, the least likely to cause difficulty for anyone. At its worst, it simply becomes insipid.

I’ve often wondered if such people will ever be incompetent, weak or sick enough to be saved. They are more likely to subscribe to religious views that lauds their competence and protects their vested interests. They do not need a God who fights for them. They would prefer the fight to be polite and metaphorical, at best. In New Testament terms, they are the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Puzzled by the celebration accorded to their n’er-do-well younger brother.

Christ, the God-Who-Fights-For-Us, fights for them as well, but their lives may generally lull them into thinking that they really don’t much help. They manage to stay away from battles. Their lives may not be paradise, but their hell has become comfortable enough to suit them pretty well.

Pascha is radical good news. God not only fights for us, but has won. If it seems rather ho-hum to you, look carefully at your life. You may be in a sleepy corner of hell, too comfortable to want salvation. The secular utopia, along with its modest religious forms, is the true opiate of the people.  

Holy and Awesome Saturday

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh Archive
Now, it is for us to wait;
to wait with all longing, all hope, all desire for the news to reach us.

On this holy, great and awesome Saturday when the human soul of Christ was torn away from His Body, and when His incorruptible, holy Body rested in the tomb, what a deep sense of awe and what horror, what terror filled all creation. … A sense of awe, because all creation had recognized in Him the Living God, God’s Word, the Creator of all things; and what terror, what horror at the sight of His death! Humans in their blindness, prisoners of sin, prisoners of their mortality could continue to live insensitive to what was happening. Pilate went his way, the soldiers continued in their barracks, the multitude dispersed having been present at an awesome, strange event, but an event that remained undeciphered for them; and the High Priest rejoiced, and Judas died. But the whole created world knew more about what had happened than the humans.

On the first great Sabbath, God Who had created all things, rested from His labours, and committed the care and the charge of the world He had made to man, man who belonged to the created world at the very root of it; because he was not made as a fulfilment, as the greatest of all beings in a line of evolution: he was made of the clay, of the dust of the earth; lower he could not go, but at the same time, because he was partaker of the lowest there was, he partook of everything that had been born of this primeval matter which God had called into existence.

At the same time man was possessed of the breath of God, belonged to two worlds, indeed, the world of the created and of the uncreated. And his vocation was to lead all beings into that fullness to which he himself was called; from purity and innocence to the maturity of holiness, to that maturity which Saint Paul describes when he says that all things in the world were made in such a way that God be all in all, that all things created be, as it were, the vesture of God, the Body of God, filled with divinity, partakers of it: man and all the rest partakers of the divine nature.

But then man fell, he betrayed his vocation, he fell away, and the world stood in dismay, lost, without a leader who would lead it to the fulfilment of its calling. It would continue to exist — yes; but it could not become what it was called to be without man; and Paul, perceiving this so deeply said that the whole creation is groaning for the revelation of the children of God, for the day when man should become man again, as God had wanted, called him to be, made him to be, and when all creatures would find in him a vision of what they were to become and a leader on the way to this becoming, this eternal growth into God.

And then Christ appeared, the Son of God Himself became the son of man, and all things created, from the smallest atom to the greatest galaxy recognised in Him the Creator, but at the same time in the body of the Incarnation, in His flesh, all things recognised themselves fulfilled, brought to perfection, recognised themselves as God longed for them to become. And they saw also that this was possible, because if it was possible in Christ, it was possible for all things to be pervaded with divinity, to be the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, to become the body of the God Eternal.

And then, on one tragic day, once more humanity betrayed both God and its own vocation, rejected the Living God Who had come to save what He had created, rejected the Son of God become the son of man, and nailed Him to the cross, and killed Him. When Adam betrayed his vocation, deeply was the whole world shaken, but there was hope, there still was hope: God was there. On that day, the whole creation trembled with horror, because not only the real Adam, the true and perfect man was now dead, but God had been defeated in him. Was there any hope? There was no hope … And we can see that the powers of heaven were shaken, that the sun lost its light, that the earth trembled, darkness came down upon the world because even God had been and conquered by human hatred and blindness: nothing was left, seemingly, but death, disintegration, the end.

What wonder when, from the depths of hell, victory resounded the sound of victory, when the whole creation became aware that the Christ’s human soul had descended into hell, into the place where God was not, could not be, into the place which by definition was the place of eternal, irremediable absence; but He had come to it in the glory, the shining, the resplendence of His Godhead, and darkness was banished; the place of radical separation had become a place filled victoriously by the divine presence; hell was no longer; victory was won by God, but not only by God, because it is the human soul of Christ, the man filled with divinity that has won this victory .

And the body? The body lay in the tomb uncorrupted, because corruption could not touch this Body that was filled with divinity, even when His human soul had been torn away from it. Hope came, shy, yet exulting; the whole creation knew now that victory was won and that all things were possible, all promises would be fulfilled, all longings will be satisfied.

Only the world of man was still unaware of it. And we are today in that same holy and awesome Saturday, when the Son of God, the son of man rested from His labours. All creation knows the victory, all hell has been harrowed; now, it is for us to wait; to wait with all longing, all hope, all desire for the news to reach us, that not only hell was conquered but soul and body were reunited, that Christ the man had risen from the tomb, that all things were fulfilled, that the end had come — the end not as a point in time but as a goal attained: the vision of the perfect man united perfectly for ever with the Godhead, whose body stood not only for mankind, but for all the created, material and spiritual world.

Let us wait with awe, let us wait with gratitude, let us wait with the tenderness and adoration for the moment when we, on earth, will hear the news: Christ is risen from the dead, having trampled death by death, and to those in the tombs having been given life. Amen!

Commemoration of Holy Saturday

Experience more of Holy Week in pictures through John Thomas' book "Sacred Light: Following the Paschal Journey"
On Great and Holy Saturday the Church contemplates the mystery of the Lord's descent into Hades, the place of the dead. Death, our ultimate enemy, is defeated from within. "He (Christ) gave Himself as a ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the Cross ... He loosed the bonds of death" (Liturgy of St. Basil).

On Great Saturday our focus is on the Tomb of Christ. This is no ordinary grave. It is not a place of corruption, decay and defeat. It is life-giving, a source of power, victory and liberation.

Great Saturday is the day between Jesus' death and His resurrection. It is the day of watchful expectation, in which mourning is being transformed into joy. The day embodies in the fullest possible sense the meaning of xarmolipi - joyful-sadness, which has dominated the celebrations of Great Week. The hymnographer of the Church has penetrated the profound mystery, and helps us to understand it through the following poetic dialogue that he has devised between Jesus and His Mother:

"Weep not for me, O Mother, beholding in the sepulcher the Son whom thou hast conceived without seed in thy womb. For I shall rise and shall be glorified, and as God I shall exalt in everlasting glory those who magnify thee with faith and love."

"O Son without beginning, in ways surpassing nature was I blessed at Thy strange birth, for I was spared all travail. But now beholding Thee, my God, a lifeless corpse, I am pierced by the sword of bitter sorrow. But arise, that I may be magnified."

"By mine own will the earth covers me, O Mother, but the gatekeepers of hell tremble as they see me, clothed in the bloodstained garment of vengeance: for on the Cross as God have I struck down mine enemies, and I shall rise again and magnify thee."

"Let the creation rejoice exceedingly, let all those born on earth be glad: for hell, the enemy, has been despoiled. Ye women, come to meet me with sweet spices: for I am delivering Adam and Eve with all their offspring, and on the third day I shall rise again." (9th Ode of the Canon)

Great Saturday is the day of the pre-eminent rest. Christ observes a Sabbath rest in the tomb. His rest, however, is not inactivity but the fulfillment of the divine will and plan for the salvation of humankind and the cosmos. He who brought all things into being, makes all things new. The re-creation of the world has been accomplished once and for all. Through His incarnation, life and death Christ has filled all things with Himself He has opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the author of life would be dominated by corruption.

Saint Paul tells us that:

"God was in Jesus Christ reconciling the world to Himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19). Hence, eternal life - real and self-generating - penetrated the depths of Hades. Christ who is the life of all destroyed death by His death. That is why the Church sings joyously "Things now are filled with light, the heaven and the earth and all that is beneath the earth" (Canon of Pascha).

The Church knows herself to be "the place, the eternal reality, where the presence of Christ vanquishes Satan, hell and death itself.

The solemn observance of Great Saturday help us to recall and celebrate the great truth that "despite the daily vicissitudes and contradictions of history and the abiding presence of hell within the human heart and human society," life has been liberated! Christ has broken the power of death.

It is not without significance that the icon of the Resurrection in our Church is the Descent of Christ into Hades, the place of the dead. This icon depicts a victorious Christ, reigned in glory, trampling upon death, and seizing Adam and Eve in His hands, plucking them from the abyss of hell. This icon expresses vividly the truths resulting from Christ's defeat of death by His death and Resurrection.

Icon of the Commemoration of Holy Saturday

Mary Magdalene, Mary, the Mother of God, John the beloved disciple, and Joseph of Arimathea are shown preparing Christ's body for the tomb. Icon provided by Athanasios Clark and used with permission. Icon of the Epitaphios Thrinos provided by Athanasios Clark and used with permission.
Orthodox Celebration of Holy Saturday

Photo courtesy of John Thomas and used with permission. Experience more of Holy Week in pictures through John Thomas' book "Sacred Light: Following the Paschal Journey"
At the Third Stasis when the verse "Eranan ton Tafon ai miroforoi mira lian proi elthousai-early in the morning the myrrh-bearers came to Thee and sprinkled myrrh upon Thy tomb" is sung the priest sprinkles the Epitaphios with rosewater, using the rantistirion (sprinkler). This verse is usually repeated three or more times. It has become the custom to sprinkle the people as well.

Photos courtesy of John Thomas and used with permission. Experience more of Holy Week in pictures through John Thomas' book "Sacred Light: Following the Paschal Journey"
At the conclusion of the service, the faithful go in procession with the Epitaphios and often the entire structure that represents the Tomb of Christ around the Church chanting the Thrice-Holy hymn, in a similar manner to the traditional procession for a funeral.

Photos courtesy of John Thomas and used with permission. Experience more of Holy Week in pictures through John Thomas' book "Sacred Light: Following the Paschal Journey"
It is customary for the clergy and people to hold candles during the singing of the Lamentations and at the procession of the Epitaphios. This practice is rooted in ancient Christian burial practices. Candles were lit in order to symbolize the victory of Christ over death, and to express as well the Church's belief in the Resurrection.

The Scripture readings for the Matins service are: Ezekiel 37:1-14; I Corinthians 5:6-8; Galatians 3:13-14; and Matthew 27:62-66.

Photo courtesy of John Thomas and used with permission. Experience more of Holy Week in pictures through John Thomas' book "Sacred Light: Following the Paschal Journey"
The Liturgy held on the morning of Holy and Great Saturday is that of Saint Basil the Great. It begins with Vespers. After the entrance, the evening hymn 'O Gentle Light' is chanted as usual. Then the Old Testament readings are recited. They tell of the most striking events and prophecies of the salvation of mankind by the death of the Son of God. The account of creation in Genesis is the first reading. The sixth reading is the story of Israel's crossing of the Red Sea and Moses' song of victory - over Pharaoh, with its refrain: 'For gloriously is He glorified'. The last reading is about the Three Children in the fiery furnace of Babylon, and their song of praise with its repeated refrain: 'O praise ye the Lord and supremely exalt Him unto the ages.' In the ancient church the catechumens were baptized during the time of these readings. The Epistle which follows speaks of how, through the death of Christ, we too shall rise to a new life. After the Epistle, the choir chants, like a call to the sleeping Christ: 'Arise, O Lord, Judge the earth, for Thou shalt have an inheritance among all the nations... The deacon carries out the Book of the Gospels, and reads the first message of the resurrection from Saint Matthew. Because the Vespers portion of the service belongs to the next day (Pascha) the burial hymns of Saturday are mingled with those of the resurrection, so that this service is already full of the coming Paschal joy.

Photos courtesy of John Thomas and used with permission. Experience more of Holy Week in pictures through John Thomas' book "Sacred Light: Following the Paschal Journey"
After the reading of the Epistle, the priest follows the custom of tossing of laurel, saying: "Arise, O God, and judge Thou the earth: for Thou shall take all heathen to Thine inheritance". The Cherubic hymn of this day is: "Let all mortal flesh keep silence and stand with fear and trembling...", a thoughtful hymn of adoration and exaltation. The Divine Liturgy ends with the Communion Hymn: "So the Lord awaked as one out of sleep, and He is risen to save us".

Hymns of Holy Saturday

Resurrectional Apolytikia
When he took down Your immaculate Body from the Cross, the honorable Joseph wrapped it in a clean linen shroud with spices and laid it for burial in a new tomb. 

When You descended unto death, O Lord who yourself are immortal Life, then did You mortify Hades by the lightning flash of Your Divinity. Also when You raised the dead from the netherworld, all the Powers of the heavens were crying out: O Giver of life, Christ our God, glory be to You. 

The Angel standing at the sepulcher cried out and said to the ointment-bearing 
women: The ointments are appropriate for mortal men, but Christ has been shown to be a stranger to decay.

Arise, O God; judge the earth, for You shall inherit all the Gentiles.


The Lenten Triodion. translated by Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, 1994), pp. 61-62, 622-661.

Calivas, Alkiviadis C. Great Week and Pascha in the Greek Orthodox Church (Brookline: Holy Cross Press, 1992), pp. 77-87.

Farley, Donna. Seasons of Grace: Reflections on the Orthodox Church Year (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2002), pp. 141-144.

Wybrew, Hugh. Orthodox Lent, Holy Week and Easter: Liturgical Texts with Commentary (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997), pp. 109-112.

Christian Orthodox worshippers hold up candles lit from the "Holy Fire" as thousands gather in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City 


Patriarch Kirill  in Moscow's cathedral receives the sacred fire
 from Christ's tomb in the Holy Sepulchre  and the Easter Celebration can begin in earnest.

Serbian Christians celebrating  Easter in an mediaeval monastery in Grananica
Ethiopian Christians celebrating Easter on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre
An ancient Orthodox Easter rite engenders new and old passions
May 1st 2016, 12:37 BY ERASMUS | CORFU

FROM the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to the Russian Arctic, millions of Orthodox Christians have been celebrating Easter this weekend, in a passionate cycle of lamentation, anticipation and candle-lit jubilation. And part of the point of those festivities is that they remain exactly the same year after year, century after century. Local practices can vary, of course, but once a custom is established, people never want to change it. In places where the British flag once flew, such as the Ionian islands of Greece or the Palestinian territories, there can be a slight Anglo-Saxon tinge to the eastern Christian ceremonies, with parades by uniformed scouts and marching bands. (The Christians of Bethlehem love bagpipes; on the shores of the Ionian, where musical talent abounds, the preference is for brass and drums.)

But regardless of the local variations, many practices are set in stone. For example, shortly after the midnight proclamation that "Christ is risen", clerics everywhere re-read a sermon by Archbishop John Chrysostom, who died in 407. With a generosity of spirit that has not always been shown by Christian clergy, or even by Chrysostom himself, the sermon invites everybody to the feast, regardless of how well or badly they have observed the discipline of Lent.

You rich and poor, enjoy the feast together. You temperate and heedless, honour the day. You who who fasted, and you who did not, rejoice today. The table is richly laden. All of you, fare sumptuously on it. The calf is fatted, let no-one go away hungry.
Despite the spirit of timeless universalism, every Orthodox Easter brings its share of contentious news stories, and this one is no exception. A Greek bishop who is known for his sharpness of tongue, Amvrosios of Kalavryta, gave an astonishing homily in which he compared the various disagreements between the church and the country's secular leftist government (which are mostly quite manageable) with the contest between the Hebrew prophet Elijah and the priests of the false god, Baal. (It ended badly for Baal's side.) May God "rot the hand" of education minister Nikos Filis if he appends his signature to measures downgrading the status of religious instruction in schools, the latter-day Elijah expostulated, in what people hoped was a rhetorical flourish induced by the rigours of Lenten fasting.

In another Paschal news flash, it was reported six of the refugees holed up in the Eidomeni refugee camp on the Greek-Macedonian border had been formally received into the Orthodox Christian church by the local bishop. The hierarch insisted to Orthodoxia.info, a religious news agency, that the refugees' conversion was far more than an impulsive gesture: they had requested and received elaborate instruction on the doctrines and practices of their new religion before undergoing the conversion ceremony, which involves being baptised and anointed with holy oil. All this is happening in a part of northern Greece where, in the 1920s, people gained the right to live if they were Orthodox Christians on the run and lost it if they were Muslim. So the consequences could be complex if many more refugees follow this example. But for the meantime, the newly-illumined are probably enjoying their Easter lamb.


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