Fourteen-year-old Stephanie Vandenberg of Gilbert has always felt sorry for other Christians. "You don’t celebrate Easter at the right time," she has told those who wonder why her Easter, or Pascha, is always "a week late."
"You used to celebrate Easter at the same time we do, but you changed your minds and changed your calendar."
At her church, St. Katherine’s Greek Orthodox Church in Chandler, and for 216 million Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide, the zenith of the Christian year is reached this weekend with colorful, richly symbolic services to celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Great Week, or Holy Week, comes to an end with a night of ancient traditions, the resurrection service of Holy Pascha. From 11 p.m. today to 2 p.m. Sunday, churches will be packed, and the gloom of Christ’s death will be transformed to great joy.
For 40 days, they have greeted one another with "Christos Anesti" and responded "Alithos Anesti," or "Christ has risen" and "Truly, he has risen."
"I think that Western Christianity has more emphasis on the celebration of Christmas, while Eastern Christianity really looks at the resurrection as being the ‘Feast of Feasts,’ so it is the primary celebration of the year because it speaks to the reality of life after death," said the Rev. Philip Armstrong, longtime pastor of St. Katherine’s.
Orthodox Christians use the term "Pascha" instead of Easter, because it is the Hebrew word for "Passover." It conjures the Exodus story about how the angel of death passed over the homes of the Israelites in Egypt where the blood of lambs was poured over doorposts and spared their firstborn sons. Orthodox Christians believe Pascua represents their being spared from ultimate death because of the blood of Christ shed for them.
"Christ is risen from the dead, and we who have faith in him believe that we, too, will rise on the last day," Armstrong said.
The Council of Nicea, the first ecumenical council, meeting in 325 A.D., set an official Easter date. Easter was to be the first Sunday following the first full moon of the vernal equinox after the end of the Hebrew Passover.
That held for 700 years until the Great Schism that split Christianity into Orthodoxy and Catholicism in 1054. While the two churches then followed different formulas to determine Easter, it became irreconcilable with the adoption by western churches of the Gregorian Calendar in 1582. Orthodoxy continued to use the old Julian calendar until 1923 when an attempt to adopt the Gregorian time caused yet more problems.
In the end, Orthodox churches stayed with the Julian calendar for Easter, but the Gregorian calendar (of the West) for Christmas. Add to that, Eastern and Western Christians determine the equinox and full moon from different points on the planet. Proposals have been studied to find a compromise that would get all of Christendom on the same calendar.
St. Katherine’s Greek Orthodox Church is one of 16 Valley Orthodox churches, each distinctive by its national origins. They include Russian, Antiochan, Serbian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Ukranian, Coptic and Armenian. Combined, they serve about 20,000 families.
About 40 percent of St. Katherine’s congregation is Greek by ethnicity. Others are converts and have come via intermarriages. Armstrong estimated his congregation has tripled in membership in the past nine years.
Holy Week has included a 7 p.m. service each night, with Monday and Tuesday designated as the "bridegroom" service in which the priest represents Christ and the congregation symbolizes the bride waiting for the bridegroom. A service of Holy Unction, or anointing for healing, took place on Wednesday.
The Institution of the Eucharist, commemorating Christ’s Last Supper began Thursday morning and went 2 1 /2 hours. It featured 12 gospel readings referring to the "passion of Christ." It is traditionally held early in the day, unlike the Western Christians’ evening Maundy Thursday, because a church day officially begins at sundown. So, Good Friday begins Thursday night.
Three services were held on Friday: The Royal Hours of Holy Friday in the morning; a 3 p.m. service called "Taking Down From the Cross"; and the "Lamentations" evening services that serves as a funeral service for Christ.
The congregation creates and decorates a sepulchre or "epitafios." Red and purple flowers speak to the passion and the suffering, while white flowers symbolize the resurrection. The epitafios is carried outside the church in a half-hour procession with people bearing candles, crosses and fans and the priest and choir following behind.
"When we get back to the church, we lift the canopy high and the people pass under it," Armstrong said. "It is symbolic of them renewing their baptismal commitment of Christ — so it is like the renewal of dying to yourself and rising again with Christ."
More pageantry makes up tonight’s resurrection service when Armstrong will chant, "Come receive the light . . . the unwaning light of Christ."
Girls dressed in white, called mirror bearers, will quickly take candles and light those of congregants. They will proceed outside where the mirror bearers will "discover the tomb is empty." Singing will break out — joyful music sung without instruments.
To the chant of "Christos annesti," Armstrong will give out red-dyed eggs to the believers.
"Red is the color of the suffering and the egg shell is a symbol of the tomb of Christ," he said. When recipients break open their eggs, it will symbolize that "life breaks through the tomb" and the "plot of Pontius Pilate cannot quiet the resurrection of Christ."
Because that service ends at 2 a.m Sunday, the congregation won’t gather again until 4 p.m. for an agape vespers service with resurrection hymns. Afterward, a fellowship feast will take place in the community hall.
For Ginger Vandenberg, mother of Stephanie and first vice president of the parish council, Holy Week builds to a crescendo.
"We slowly unfold the story, starting on Palm Sunday," she said. "It kind of gives you a feel for the mood of what the people of those times must have been feeling."
"I feel very fortunate to be able to share traditions with my daughter," Vandenberg said. "She stays home from school, and we go Friday morning and we decorate the epitafios together. We have been doing that since she was 5-years-old and was big enough to take a scissors and cut the stem off a carnation." Now, Stephanie serves as a mirror bearer.
Meanwhile, her 19-year-old brother, Daniel, is part of the young men’s group that is helping past presidents carry the epitafios.
"It is a very big honor," Ginger Vandenberg said.