Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter with processions

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On most days, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral blends into its historic campus surroundings in Oakland, but during Holy Week it's impossible to miss the nighttime outdoor processions when parishioners mark Jesus' death and their faith in his Resurrection.

Today is Orthodox Easter. The main celebration occurred at midnight, as hundreds of parishioners carried candles to the small park by the church, declaring to all who passed by on Forbes Avenue that Jesus had risen. On Friday they carried an enormous bier, decorated with 800 white carnations, gardenias and Asiatic lilies, passing beneath the bier as they returned to the cathedral as a sign that they had passed from death to life because Jesus had died for them.

"In all of the services, the idea is to create the feeling that we are taking the journey with Christ," said the Rev. Christopher Bender, dean of the cathedral.

"It helps us understand what he did on our behalf and express our gratitude for God's loving kindness and mercy. It also helps us look forward to being with our Lord in his kingdom through the Resurrection. For me it's a way to affirm that life is more powerful than death and good is more powerful than evil."

On Friday morning a group of women and teenage girls from the youth group spent hours decorating the bier. The first task was to cut long stems from the carnations and insert toothpicks. They carried boxes of flowers into the church, where the bier stood in front of the icon screen.

Beautiful even undecorated, it was intricately hand carved in latticework from limewood -- a Greek wood unrelated to the fruit -- in the form of a Byzantine church. That morning its arches had been covered with Styrofoam, into which the workers stuck flowers.

The flowers express love, in the same way that any funeral bouquets do, Father Bender said. But they also add to the atmosphere of "harmolypis" -- mingled joy and sorrow -- in Holy Week.

"When we sing hymns and process in front of the tomb of Christ, the joy has already begun to break through," he said. "Even though Christ is in the tomb, we know he can't be contained there."

This was the first year that Catherine Kolias of Cranberry organized the decorating, taking over from a longtime leader who retired last year.

"Between my love of flowers and love of the church, it's a good fit," she said. "It's a huge honor."

White flowers are a tradition at St. Nicholas, but other parishes use colored blooms. In Greece, young women gather wildflowers for the bier, said Debbie Leventopoulos of North Huntingdon, one of the volunteers.

Young women have an important role in the Good Friday and Easter services, representing the women who came to prepare Jesus for burial and then announced his Resurrection.

On Good Friday, after the priest blesses the tomb and the parishioners with rose water, young women robed in white cast rose petals on the tomb. Then the tomb is carried outside in the procession.

"We proclaim to the world, 'Pay attention: The Lord is in the tomb,' " Father Bender said. The service ends with Ezekiel's prophecy of dry bones that came back to life. As the congregation leaves, everyone is given a flower from the tomb. Most place them in front of icons in their homes. Because they were blessed, withered flowers must either be burned or buried in a garden.

The main Easter service begins at 11 p.m. with the church in total darkness except for a vigil lamp. At 11:45 at St. Nicholas, Metropolitan Savas, the bishop of Pittsburgh, emerges from behind the icon screen and lights the large Easter candle. He sings, "Come receive the light, from the light which knows no night, and glorify Christ, who is risen form the dead."

Light from the Easter candle is passed to the young women, who pass it to everyone,

"The young ladies help us spread the light to the whole congregation because the myrrh-bearing women were the first to go to the tomb and the first to proclaim the Resurrection," Father Bender said.

Once all the candles are lit, the congregation carries them outside to hear the gospel story of the Resurrection read in as many languages as they can find people to read it. In Greece this is so deeply embedded in the culture that "even the communists come," Father Bender said.

On Friday, teens from the parish were busy with preparations.

Theodora Contis, 15, took the day off from Upper St. Clair High School to decorate the bier.

"It's an art," she said. "It makes me feel closer to Christ."

A couple of teenage boys helped with the flowers, but then joined five others to fit at least 600 long, white candles into protective plastic candleholders. They finished in a record 25 minutes.

Ted Hages, 18, who was also taking a day off from Upper St. Clair High School, said helping prepare for services "gives you time to reflect on how great a sacrifice Christ made for you. It's also a way of giving back to the church that has done so much for you. We have a fantastic youth program."

It's the highlight of his year, as it is for all Orthodox, he said.

"We spend a week here during Holy Week. The altar boys see each other every day and the girls help with the decoration. You take your focus away from school and focus on your spirituality and on giving back."

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Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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