Baltimore City

Baltimore worshipers mark the eve of Orthodox Easter with noise, bay leaves and prayer

At the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore on Saturday morning, the Very Rev. Constantine Moralis encouraged the congregation to be loud.

"This is a time to rejoice," he said, before leading a procession through the nave of the West Preston Street cathedral while chucking handfuls of fresh aromatic bay leaves onto the red carpet. As he walked, about 250 congregants heeded Moralis' call, drumming their hands on the backs of the pews in front of them.


The Saturday morning vigil service is held each year before the day Orthodox Christians observe Easter Sunday, known as Pascha. The service recognizes "the first resurrection of our savior and lord Jesus Christ," Moralis said.

An estimated 300 million people from the United States, Eastern Europe and the Middle East often celebrate Easter later than the Western Christian observance. The holy day for Orthodox Christians usually comes later than for other denominations, because Orthodox Christians follow the Julian calendar — created by Julius Caesar in 56 B.C. — not the Gregorian calendar many Western nations have observed since the late 1500s.


The holy week concludes the 40 days of the Great Lent, which, as in Western Christian denominations, includes regular praying and fasting. Greek Orthodox Christians are to refrain from eating meat and dairy — "a vegan fast," Moralis said.

Every day of the week leading up to Orthodox Easter, the Great and Holy Week, holds significance, starting with Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday last weekend. The Cathedral of the Annunciation and others have held services and rituals for each day.

The bay leaves used Saturday symbolize the doors to the gates of Hades opening, when, according to believers, Christ was resurrected from the dead, Moralis said.

At this point in the service, parishioners are encouraged to make noise. Even the youngest attendees at the service participate. Two little girls wearing matching pink jackets stood on the pews so they could slap the seat in front of them as Moralis made his way around the church from the adorned iconostasis, which separates the altar, then around the church and back, distributing three baskets' worth of bay leaves.

Tina Courpas' son, Peter Salame, 8, collected a bunch of leaves that he neatly stacked on the pew.

Courpas said they came came from Connecticut to celebrate Pascha with her family in Baltimore. She grew up attending services at the Cathedral of the Annunciation, and continues to attend Easter services every year. Pascha, she said, is the "culmination" of her faith.

"It's very meaningful, very special," to share the service with her son, she said. Peter and the other children love the service for the rituals that allow them to make noise in church.

Courpas said they will spend Sunday at a big family gathering at her sister's Reisterstown home, where they will eat lamb from a spit and other traditional dishes.


Kyriakos Papanicolaou of Baltimore brought his 2-year-old daughter to the morning service. "It's about keeping the faith and keeping traditions," he said.

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The morning service was to be followed by a second service at midnight, during which the cathedral is completely darkened and Moralis will carry a candle from the altar, which is passed to the parishioners.

From there, the group proceeds outside "to pronounce the resurrection of our Lord to the faithful," Moralis said.

The church gets a permit from the city to shut down the street and block traffic to accommodate the hundreds of attendees, he said.

"Christos aneste!" ("Christ is risen!") is called out.

Fewer children attend the later service, Moralis said, since it's so late. A few even fall asleep in the pews, but he said he doesn't mind — as long as they come.