Eastern Orthodox Christians mark Easter Greek observance to culminte tonight

April 13, 1996|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Tonight, as the midnight hour approaches, the parishioners of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Highlandtown will gather in a darkened church.

"Come, receive the light, the unwaning light," the Rev. Manuel J. Burdusi will chant in Greek as he lights the paschal candle from the eternal vigil light at the tabernacle. The flame will spread and multiply as each person in the church lights a small candle, a glow filling the room, illuminating the icons along the front of the sanctuary.

Thus St. Nicholas, in the heart of Baltimore's Greek community, begins its celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus in a ritual handed down over nearly two millenniums. Parishioners will join with the 250 million Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide, and nine other congregations in the Baltimore area, in the celebration of Easter.

"Easter is the hinge that the whole year swings on," said Father Burdusi, who grew up in the neighborhood and has been pastor of St. Nicholas for five years.

Although the Council of Nicea in the year 325 set Easter on

the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the spring equinox, the Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar to determine the equinox. And Orthodox Easter comes after Passover.

"We always celebrate Easter after Passover, because that's the way it was" in Biblical tradition, said Helen Johns, a parishioner and Sunday school teacher.

The importance of tradition and the link to past generations is a refrain often heard at St. Nicholas. Although some English is used in the services, most are in Greek and sung by cantors or by a choir.

"It's a small community, but it's so dedicated to tradition," said George G. Perdikakis, president of the parish council. "We all are very much committed to what our grandfathers and fathers have taught us."

Yesterday afternoon, the congregation gathered for the Holy Friday service, in which members re-enact the body of Christ being removed from the cross and wrapped in a white cloth, just as biblical tradition says Joseph of Arimathea claimed the body of Jesus, wrapped it in a linen shroud and placed it in his own tomb. The service was filled with children, who can't stay up for the evening services, which go late into the night.

A tapestry of the body of Christ is taken in procession around the church, accompanied by incense. Some reach out to touch the tapestry, all cross themselves as the tapestry passes. Then, in a sort of burial ceremony, the tapestry is placed in a sepulcher that is covered with flowers. A book of the Gospels is placed at each end of the tapestry and, one by one, members of the congregation come forward to kiss the books in veneration. Then, many crawl under the sepulcher to receive a blessing.

Father Burdusi stressed the solemnity of the day as he addressed the congregation. "In the monasteries, they do not even speak. Not even hello, not even goodbye," he said. "We do not need to talk about trivial matters. We need to wait to hear the Lord is Risen."

The joy will come tonight. After lighting the candles, the congregation will go outside to hear the reading of the Gospel. Ponca Street will be blocked off and all semblance of mourning will vanish.

"Some people have the tradition of lighting firecrackers," Father Burdusi said. Someday, he mused, he might arrange for some fireworks.

Easter is a holiday and holy day that gives the community a sense of its history and culture, as well as its spiritual heritage. This is especially strong at St. Nicholas because so many of its members live near the church, in the neighborhoods anchored by the Greek restaurants and coffeehouses along Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown. About half of the 1,100 families at St. Nicholas live within three miles of the church.

Pub Date: 4/13/96

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