As we wrap up our Easter celebrations here in the States, Greeks all over the world are in the thick of Holy Week that climaxes on April 28 – Orthodox Easter simply known as Pascha (Passover) – the most sacred event for all of Greece. The typical Greek Orthodox family holds tradition very closely, and Holy Week is packed full of significant and meaningful preparations leading up to Resurrection Sunday.
During our five years on Crete, we were blessed to take part in many Easter celebrations. One in particular stands out in my memory and I write about it in my book Uniquely Crete: Life Redefined on a Greek Island. My good friend Marina invited me to Easter Mass at Chrysopigi Monastery in our hometown of Hania. The following is an excerpt from my book:
Dusk was falling when Marina and I arrived at the monastery. We entered through its thick wooden doors into a large stone courtyard filled with the fragrance of blooming orange trees. The church was already filled to capacity, so we sat among the mostly silent crowd that had gathered in the courtyard. All was in darkness. I managed to inch my way to the doors of the church and watched i wonder as the service began. The chapel was silent as the priest began to read from the Holy Scriptures. The sound of incantations, the sight of dimmed lighting and the smell of incense gave me goose bumps. But what happened next left me awestruck.
At midnight, the most significant event of the year began. All lights were extinguished, plunging the church into complete darkness and silence. The priest emerged from behind the curtain at the altar carrying a single candle lit from the holy flame. He lit the nuns’ candles first and they passed the flame from person to person until the cold darkness of the church succumbed to the glimmering warmth of light. The nuns began singing a song that translated, “Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.” They moved down the center aisle followed by the congregants. Everyone exited into the darkened courtyard where more people waited to receive the light.
The pristine little courtyard filled with blazing candlelight under the large orange trees fragrant with their blossoms. Suddenly, solemn faces changed to smiles, handshakes and kisses. Exclamations of “Christos anesti!” (“Christ has risen!”) and “Alithos anesti!” (Indeed He has risen!”) echoed through the crowd. Everyone dispersed to their cars carrying their still lit candles.
And then the celebration began in earnest.
After leaving Marina around 1:00 Easter morning, I headed home. As I rounded a corner, i was stopped cold in the middle of the road. Before me, an effigy of Judas stood ablaze on the summit of a giant bonfire. Shouts of laughter and fireworks filled the air. Church bells pierced the night. Houses were brightly lit and the aroma of slow-roasted lamb on the spit warted from nearly every front terrace. The tables were laden with traditional Easter food and the feasting fireworks and live music continued throughout the early morning hours.
I felt refreshed by the deep spiritual observation of Holy Week in Crete and I knew that I would never look at easter the same way again. The devotion and strict adherence to ritual and tradition are criticized by some as unnecessary, but I disagree. If anything, the observance of Holy Week with its extravagant preparation, deep solemnity, and jubilant celebration only deepens the reality of the most significant event in Christian history.