Orthodox Christians, mainly from the Middle East or Mediterranean region, closely follow the same traditions as Catholics and Protestants, but in a fundamental origin that has been preserved over the two millennium. The Orthodox Easter observations and celebrations begin a week after mainstream Christians leading up to this year’s important Easter date, Sunday April 12, 2015
By Ray Hanania
As an Arab Christian from Palestine growing up in America, I’ve always celebrated both the traditional Christian Easter and the traditional Middle East Orthodox Easter that often but not always begins one week later.
Sometimes, the two holidays occur on the same date.
But Orthodox and mainstream Christians share a strong commitment to this holiday because it is essentially the most important religious event in their lives, even more so than Christmas which marks the birth of Christ and has a dichotomous calendar, too, first for mainstream Christians and a week or weeks later for Orthodox Christians.
What is Easter? Easter symbolizes the true beginning of Christianity because it was the crucifixion of Jesus and later his resurrection from the tomb where he was placed that launched the religion, not his actual birth.
Jesus was a Jew and grew to become a Rabbi. Born in Bethlehem in a manger that his traveling parents, Joseph and Mary, found when the birthing process began, Jesus later was raised in Nazareth and then preached throughout what we religiously call the Holy Land but that has been distorted by the political machinations of mankind in political boundaries, called Canaan, Judea, Palestine, and recently Israel.
His teachings caused fear among the Jewish religious leaders of the time who protested to the Roman occupiers. He was arrested, tried by Pontius Pilate and then crucified in part to satisfy the fears of the Jewish religious establishment at the time.
His message of peace and love and the promise of another life by following the One True God resonated with many Jews in Judea, especially as they witnessed the corruption of their religious leadership under the Roman occupation.
Jesus was Crucified at a location that we know as Golgotha which was near the ancient city of Jerusalem, just outside the old walls. Golgotha refers to a stone looking face on the rocks nearby that looks like the face of a skull. Golgotha, an old abandoned stone quarry at the time outside of the Walls of Jerusalem near the Damascus Gate and on a mountain area called Mount Moria that includes Jerusalem, is often called Calvary by all Christians. Although the precise location is believed lost to time, we know that Jerusalem’s location has been fixed along with Mount Moria and Damascus Gate. Although Golgotha was outside the original wall, it was enclosed in Jerusalem later, in what is now the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem, when it was expanded.
But it was the Roman’s who actually inadvertantly preserved the location of the Crucifixion when they erected a small temple to one of their Gods, the Temple to Venus, on the spot where Jesus was crucified after the began noticing that “Christians” — a new term for those who believed in Jesus “The Christ” — were flocking to the location.
Roman Emperor Titus destroyed the Jewish Temple in 70 AD. And a successor, the Roman Emperor Hadrian (Emperor from 117 AD to 138 AD), ruled over the continued destruction of Jerusalem. Hadrian believed in erecting small Temples of his Roman Gods to replace the Jewish sites. One of those was a small temple he erected to commemorate the larger Temple of Venus in Rome, on the spot outside Jerusalem, they would hide the location. But in fact, the temple marked it for eternity. (Some historians assert the Temple of Venus was actually built by Hadrian to honor the Roman God Jupiter. Hardian erected several including one over the Temple Mount, a hexagon which many believe is today the foundation of the Dome of the Rock.)
Centuries after the crucifixion, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built at the presumed location and around the small Roman Temple by the Roman Emperor Constantine (Constantine I or Constantine the Great; Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus) who ruled from 306 to 337 when he died.
Constantine I was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. Much of his inspiration came from his mother, St. Helena, whom he funded lavishly and tasked with finding Christian relics that had been scattered by the earlier Roman and Jewish persecutions of Christians. St. Helena built the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the Church on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus was entombed and rose from the dead three days later.
(One of Constantine the Great’s daughters, Helena, later became the wife of the Emperor Julian, Emperor from 361 AD to 363 AD, and helped continue the Christian beliefs. There is often confusion because of the repetition of family surnames so often.)
So strong was the belief of Constantine the Great and his mother, Helena, in Christianity, that the Emperor allowed his mother to place one of the Nails from the Cross of Jesus in his helmut and one in his saddled on his horse. In the early days of Christianity following Jesus’ crucifixion, relics of his death were cherished and kept and moved from believer to believer. In 327, St. Helena returned to Rome with the remnants of the Cross used in the crucifixion of Jesus which are displayed till this day in the Basilica of the Crucifixion, which was her original Palace in Rome.
The early Christians were Jews who did not convert but who expanded their Jewish beliefs to include Christian inspired stories about Jesus and his life. They dominated the new “Christian religion” for the first 75 years after the crucifixion. But by the year 135 AD, the majority of the Christian leaders were Greeks as the religion moved to Antioch and to Damascus and began spreading through the Mediterranean later under the shepherding of Constantine and his mother and successors.
Ever since, there have always been close ties between Christians and Jews because of the conversion and because of the sharing of religious beliefs.
The rise of Islam in the Arabian peninsula and its spread throughout the Middle East, and the wars over control of the Holy Land, sparked great animosity between Christians and Muslims, although after a period of Muslim persecution (where Christian sites were converted to Muslim sites), the Ottomans in what is today Turkey, accepted Christians and Jews as “People of the Book” and ordered that they be respected and treated fairly.
The rise of Zionism at the end of the 19th Century and its militant calls for the destruction of non-Jewish presence in the Holy Land, called “Palestine” by Romans from the time of Constantine, created a conflict and renewed persecution by the new State of Israel (1948-?) of Christians and Muslims living there.
Today, Christians continue to celebrate Easter under the brutal military occupation of Israel’s modernday army, terrorized by Israeli soldiers who have confiscated Christian, and Muslim, lands in order to force the expulsion of non-Jews and make the land “Jewish only.” Israel has been building illegal Jewish-only settlements in Palestine, confiscating Christian, and Muslim, lands and oppressing non-Jews in the hope that they will flee.
The persecution of Christians by Israel remains a part of the Christian liturgy, a religious protest against the persecution of Christians which should remind all Christians that they remain victims of persecution around the world.
Today’s Orthodox Christians observe 40 Days of Lent (which begins on Clean Monday) prior to Easter, and fast from Palm Sunday until it ends the night before Easter, called Lazarus Saturday). On Easter, Christians break their fast and celebrate with a feast that usually includes Lamb, rice, vegetables. Orthodox Christians decorate eggs, as do other Christians, to symbolize the Birth of Jesus, but Orthodox Eggs are colored Red, reflecting the colorization process used in ancient times, Henna, a reddish dye.
Orthodox Christians greet each other on Easter with the “Paschal Greeting” phrase “Christ has Risen!” to which a person responds, “Truly, He has Risen!”
Ironically, and despite the intense persecution of Christians by modernday Israel today, Easter and Passover often occur at the same time. Orthodox Christians refer to the Paschal Greeting, or the paschal celebration. Paschal is believed to possibly be a derivative of the Hebrew word Pesach, or Passover, an important Jewish holiday that was still observed by many early Christians following the Crucifixion.