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Easter: An Orthodox Perspective

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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The genius of the Orthodox Church, Balkan, Greek, Middle Eastern and Russian, lies in its ability to reveal glimpses of the divine through the drama of the liturgy, which in Greek means, “work of the people.”

“Christianity is a liturgical religion,” wrote Georges Florovsky, a pre-eminent Orthodox theologian. “Worship comes first, doctrine and discipline second.” According to the saints of the church, both Catholic and Orthodox, humanity was created to know, love and serve God – literally the meaning of worship. Through the “work of the people,” the church commemorates the life, death and resurrection of her founder, Jesus Christ.

To understand the Orthodox conception of Jesus Christ, a grasp of Orthodox christology is imperative. He is the God-Man in Orthodox theology. “The Church,” wrote Vladimir Lossky, a notable Orthodox lay theologian, “will always show in its liturgical hymns and icons the God-Man preserving his majesty even in humiliation.” The icon of the crucifixion best illustrates this christology.

In traditional Catholic iconography, depictions of the crucifixion emphasize Jesus’ agony and death. His body swoons from the pain of the nails piercing his hands and feet; blood pours from his side. Crowned with thorns, drops of blood flow from his brow. Below the corpse, Mary collapses; often she is depicted in the arms of the apostle John.

Byzantine-inspired icons of the crucifixion do not depict agony and death, but primarily reveal hope. “The Cross is the very image of the Redemption,” said Lossky, “which is the economy of the love of the Trinity toward fallen humanity.”

Jesus’ body hangs gracefully from the cross. There is little blood, no gore. Mary and John stand below him calmly pointing toward the suffering Redeemer. The power of death, represented by a cavern beneath the cross, is vanquished by Jesus’ death. Adam’s skull, a symbol of fallen humanity, fills the void.

Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of Orthodox christology takes place during Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday and culminating with the Easter Vigil on Great (Holy) Saturday.

In pre-revolutionary Russia, Palm Sunday was a welcome relief from the rigid fasting of Lent. A gala for children, eggs were dyed, pussy willow branches were cut and decorated (these replaced palms) and toys were distributed.

In honor of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, great processions were held in all cities and towns, even in the poorest hamlets. Carrying their decorated pussy willows, clergy and laity processed to the church, singing not mournful lenten hymns, but joyful anthems. Jesus’ triumphant entry as “King of the Jews,” not his passion, was commemorated.

On Great (Good) Friday, solemnity replaces the joy of Palm Sunday. In Jerusalem, Orthodox churches of all nationalities and rites have for centuries converged on the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of the crucifixion and resurrection.

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Tags: Christianity Orthodox Church Icons Easter