By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun
April 20, 2014
On Sunday morning, as Christians in the region and around the world take part in the Easter traditions they enjoy, an observer might be tempted to ask: How do the ways they celebrate the holiday reflect its meaning?
Children pet bunnies and gobble jelly beans. Wal-Mart sells more than 500 types of Easter confection, including unicorn- and space alien-themed baskets. Just a few of them allude to Christianity.
How does eating a package of Peeps recall the man Christians believe redeemed the world by rising from the dead nearly 2,000 years ago? Balancing Easter's secular and religious sides can be a challenge for area churches.
Some Roman Catholic congregations schedule egg hunts to help draw families with children to Easter services. Certain Baptist ministers, meanwhile, skip such activities to emphasize the spiritual significance of the holiday.
And on Saturday, St. Paul Lutheran Church in Catonsville found creative ways to explain the Resurrection story to kids before letting then loose to hunt for colored eggs. The egg shells, church leaders said, symbolize the tomb where Jesus was placed, and the treats inside represent his gift to the world of saving mankind from sin.
"We're trying to help the children learn the Easter story," said Barb Haar, the church's minister of parish life.
At St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Highlandtown, the elements of fun and faith also come together. There, as at Eastern Orthodox churches worldwide, a single, striking symbol evokes the Resurrection in all its mysterious glory: a hard-boiled egg dyed red.
"Pascha would be unthinkable without red eggs," said the church's spiritual leader, the Rev. Michael Pastrikos, using the Greek word for Easter. "They represent Jesus' suffering and death on the cross, which happened in blood and brought us eternal life. Cracking [the eggs] means the end of the old and beginning of the new. And, to be honest, they're just a lot of fun."
Every year, at the end of the Pascha service on Saturday night, well after midnight, Pastrikos turns to several baskets of the red eggs, blesses them with a prayer, and hands one apiece to the 400 or so people who come up and meet him at the altar.
"Christos aneste!" ("Christ is risen!") he says each time.
"Alithos aneste!" ("He is indeed risen!") they respond.
And everyone flocks to the basement, where they crack the eggs in playful hand-to-hand combat the Greeks call tsougrisma ("clicking together"), hug, and sit down to the feast that, for Eastern Orthodox Christians, brings weeks of fasting to a festive end.
If bunnies and marshmallow candy are the symbols of modern secular Easter, the red-egg tradition blends fun and religion in a way that has unified communities — and satisfied worldly and religious appetites — for centuries.
"It's a tradition of the people, and everyone enjoys that, but it has to be part of the liturgy. It represents something spiritual — the resurrection of the Christ, which gave us the possibility of salvation," Pastrikos said.
An age-old symbol
There's no consensus on the origins of the practice, though most agree the egg has been a pagan symbol of springtime fertility, life and rebirth since pre-Christian days.
Early Christians later adapted the symbol to their faith, with the shell representing the mortal world.
When it cracked, that was like the world dying away; what remained meant rebirth just as the Crucifixion gave rise to eternal life.
"Just as Jesus Christ broke the bonds of hell and rose from the dead, so too, with the egg, we break its bonds and partake of its fruits," said the Rev. John Vass, pastor of Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church in East Baltimore, which also blesses and hands out red eggs.
The Orthodox faithful trace the red dye to the legend that Mary Magdalene — one of Jesus' followers — wandered the Roman Empire preaching the Resurrection, carrying eggs as a sort of visual aid.
When she encountered the Roman emperor, Tiberius, the story goes, he was skeptical.
He told her he'd believe that Jesus rose from the dead if the eggs in her basket turned red. And they did.
"When people see a miracle happen before their eyes, it can change their minds," Vass said.
Secular meets religious
Other Christian congregations also seek a balance between the holiday's popular symbols and its meaning.
Most Roman Catholic parishes, for example, sponsor an Easter egg hunt to encourage family and social togetherness. At those events, priests might casually remind the faithful of their obligation to attend Mass.
"We don't see the two as either-or; it's more of a both-and," said Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "The [secular side] can reinforce the religious side and vice versa."
Ministers at St. Paul in Catonsville took that approach Saturday, putting on activities before an Easter egg hunt to focus children's minds on Jesus' crucifixion.
This year's events focused on the rock that rolled away from Jesus' tomb, so kids were asked to use their feet to fish little stones out of water. Haar said they called the game "Silly Sphere Pool."
At Faith Baptist Church in East Baltimore, the Rev. Greggory R. Maddox said he and his staff play down Easter egg hunts in favor of outings in the community, where he said children can bond and "enjoy wholesome entertainment."
There were no bunnies in sight when he took a group bowling this week, but the kids did hand out fliers containing directions to their church.
"We consider Easter a part of how we minister to youth both inside and outside the church," Maddox said.
Notably, the candy companies that have made billions over the years selling secular treats have begun to incorporate religious imagery.
Seven years ago, Hershey started producing a chocolate cross for Easter baskets, and Russell Stover now makes a Christian fish stamped with the name "Jesus."
An Alabama company called Scripture Candy attaches Bible verses to its confections year round, and Easter has become one of its two best-selling seasons.
"Nowadays you can see inspirational candy sprinkled in with the secular stuff," company president Brian Adkins said, adding that his business has nearly doubled in size over the past decade.
Egg dyeing experts
There was no such sprinkling going on Wednesday night, though, as St. Nicholas members Maria Theoharis and Aspasia Charalambopoulos met in the kitchen to do the job they've been doing each year: dyeing 500 eggs red for use on Pascha night.
Theoharis filled several large pots with water, a Greek red dye and vinegar, placed them on the stove and, at about 8:30, began dunking two dozen eggs at a time into the beet-colored mix.
When she took them out 20 minutes later, they were crimson in color.
She handed them to Charalambopoulos, who rubbed each egg with oil-soaked paper towels.
"It gives them that lovely shine," she said, placing them in cartons to dry.
Both see the job as a privilege. Charalambopoulos took it up in 2004, just after her father died, as a tribute to him.
Theoharis joined her, vowing to do the coloring every year.
"I do it for the health of my children, and I'll do it till the day I die," she said.
The process was both serious and fun. The friends discussed how they'd improved their technique over the years — they use brown eggs, not white, because they learned white eggs come out fuchsia — and the significance of the color red and its relation to Christ bleeding on the cross.
Fellow member John Korologos said much of the fun of the tradition has to do with the egg-cracking game.
After the Easter service, every man, woman and child has a red egg, he said, and the custom is to hold it in one's fist as though in an egg cup.
The member then approaches someone else and taps the top of their egg against the bottom of their foe's.
If your egg cracks, you're out; if not, you go on to your next victim. The last one holding an intact egg is the winner.
"It means your faith is the strongest. It means you have bragging rights. You're the man," Korologos said — adding that women and children actually win as often as men.
Those who had been fasting for Lent might not have eaten eggs, meat or dairy products for weeks. So when they eat their eggs, it represents the completion of a sacrifice and the reward of a fuller life.
If bunnies and baskets obscure the real meaning of the day, the red egg embodies it.
By eating that egg, Pastrikos said, believers become one with Easter.
"It's the holiest of holy times," he said. "To us, that isn't just symbolic. It's something you experience."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun