Written by Marisa Hazakis
On the evening of Holy Saturday, we celebrate the miracle of the Holy Fire and Christ’s Resurrection at the midnight Anastasi Service. Traditionally, an Anastasi meal follows the service, where the faithful break their fast. On Easter Sunday or Pascha, families gather to enjoy the “Feats of Feasts”.
Holy Fire from the church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
Every year, thousands of Orthodox Christians travel to Jerusalem to witness the ceremony of the Holy Fire or Agios Fos, the most renowned miracle of Eastern Orthodoxy. According to church tradition, each year on the day before Orthodox Easter, a blue light glows from the stone bed Jesus was said to have been buried on, in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The flame is captured by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, who first enters the tomb with 33 flaming candles in each hand (representing the 33 years of Christ’s life on Earth). It is said that the Holy Light forms a column of fire from which candles can be lit and that the Holy Flame does not burn. More than 10 000 expectant pilgrims burst into cheers as the flame emerges. Bells chime and within minutes the Holy Light is spread amongst the crowd. The Fire is flown to Athens on a specially chartered flight and received by the Metochi of the Holy Sepulchre church in Plaka where candles are lit and then dispersed to churches throughout the region in time for the start of resurrection services. The Holy Fire also travels by air to other countries with large Orthodox Christian communities, in specialised containers designed to transport open flame in pressurised cabins, where it is traditionally welcomed with great ceremony by the faithful. To the hundreds of millions of Orthodox believers, the Holy Fire symbolises the resurrection of Jesus, and the appearance of the flame inside his tomb is an annual miracle whose arrival is anticipated and celebrated.
You can watch the ceremony of the Miracle of the Holy Fire here.
Anastasi Service (observed at midnight on Holy Saturday)
Before midnight, a huge congregation arrives at church for the climax of the Orthodox year, the Anastasi service. In preparation for Anastasi, it is customary for people to buy a new outfit, symbolic of new life after the Resurrection. Some godparents buy new clothing for their godchild, as well as a decorated candle (Lambada) for Anastasi. A few minutes before midnight, the church lights are turned off and the Orthros of the Resurrection begins in complete darkness, symbolic of Christ’s tomb. When the clock strikes twelve, the priest takes light from the holy altar and joyfully proclaims, “Come receive the light from the unwaning light, and glorify Christ who rose from the dead.” The Holy Light is given to the congregation and parishioners pass it along to each other; in moments, the church is aglow with the light of Christ. Every Christian holding a candle does so as a symbol of their vivid and deep faith in the Resurrection of Christ. The faithful wait in anticipation for the priest to start the hymn of Resurrection and then join in triumphantly. From this moment the service takes on a joyous Easter atmosphere with the entire congregation singing, “Christos Anesti” in unison. As everyone leave the church, they greet each other with, “Christos Anesti” (Christ has Risen) and respond with “Alithos Anesti” (Truly He has risen) or “Alithos o Kirios” (Truly the Lord) and exchange the kiss of Resurrection. This is a time of forgiveness, peace and joy.
Listen to the hymn of Resurrection, Christos Anesti, here.
Even though it is past midnight, a traditional Anastasi (Resurrection) meal follows the service. Instead of a prayer, Christos Anesti is sung three times in honour of the Trinity. Red eggs, symbolic of the Resurrection, are cracked large and to large end and small end to small end with competitors saying “Christos Anesti” and “Alithos Anesti.” The red colour symbolises the blood of Christ shed on the cross, the egg symbolises new life and the cracking of the shell symbolises the sealed tomb from which Jesus rose. Through the process of elimination, a “champion” unbroken egg is left. The winner is said to have good luck all year. Traditionally, mayeritsa, a Easter soup made with lamb offal is served. It is considered a gentle way to introduce meat back into the diet, while also using the leftover parts of the lamb to be served at lunch the following, ensuring nothing is wasted. Nowadays, many families substitute the meat for chicken or other parts of the lamb.
You can find a recipe for mayeritsa here.
Pascha/ Easter Sunday
A day of love, happiness and delicious food, Easter finally arrives after the arduous journey through the Triodion (the period of Lent and Holy Week)! The Great Vespers of Agape (God’s love) takes place on Easter Sunday, encouraging love, forgiveness and reconciliation. Often called the Feast of Feasts, the church considers Pascha to be the most important feast day of the year. Families gather and enjoy a decadent spread of Greek delicacies. Traditionally, a lamb on the spit is served. Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins, making Him the “Lamb of God,” so eating lamb honours this.
Christos Anesti & Kalo Pascha!
- “Great and Holy Pascha.” Greek Orthodox Diocese of America, www.goarch.org/pascha. Accessed 19 Apr. 2020.
- “Holy Week.” OrthodoxWiki, https://orthodoxwiki.org/Holy_Week. Accessed 19 Apr. 2020.
- Rouvelas, Marilyn, and George Papaioannou. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Nea Attiki Press, 2002.
- “How a Sacred Flame Spreads across the World despite the Pandemic.” National Geographic, 19 Apr. 2020, www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2020/04/how-sacred-flame-spreads-across-the-world-despite-coronavirus-pandemic/.
- “Holy Fire.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Nov. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Fire.
- “The Game of Cracking the Greek Easter Eggs | Tsougrisma.” Greece by a Greek, 1 Apr. 2015, greecebyagreek.com/2015/04/01/the-game-of-cracking-the-greek-easter-eggs/.
- “Holy Fire Ceremony To Mark Orthodox Easter Held In Near-Empty Jerusalem Church.” NPR, www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/04/18/837883795/holy-fire-ceremony-to-mark-orthodox-easter-held-in-near-empty-jerusalem-church. Accessed 19 Apr. 2020.
- “The Holy Fire and the Roots of the Celebration of Pascha.” Greek Boston, 21 May 2009, www.greekboston.com/culture/modern-history/holy-fire-pascha/.
- “Greek Orthodox Easter Religious Service Overview.” Greek Boston, 14 Mar. 2004, www.greekboston.com/religion/pascha-service/.
- “Things to Know About Greek Orthodox Easter If You’re Not Greek.” Greek Boston, 2 Apr. 2010, www.greekboston.com/culture/modern-history/orthodox-easter/.