Orthodox Easter arrives, with bells, chants and rose petals

A moment as mysterious as the sacred idea it celebrates – the crucified Christ's decent into Hades before his resurrection – arrived Saturday morning at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in a cascade of rose petals and a cacophony of bells, hands drumming on wood pews and a church elder chanting in his ancestral tongue.

It was a rich, even raucous moment affirming belief in Christ's conquest of evil and heralding the arrival of the church's most significant holiday.

This year, the Eastern Orthodox Church — the faith of an estimated 300 million people from the United States through Eastern Europe and the Middle East — celebrates Easter a month after the Western Christian observance, capping 40 days of fasting and a week of services marking different stages of the paschal narrative.

Holy Saturday falls between mournful Holy Friday, the day Christians believe Jesus died on the cross, and joyous Easter Sunday, the day of his resurrection.

The morning vigil service at St. Demetrios presented another part of the story — Christ's decent into the realm of Satan and the souls of the departed held captive there.

To commemorate this, the Rev. Louis J. Noplos, in shimmering white vestments, cradled a basket of red and white rose petals and tossed handful after handful toward his parishioners as he walked the aisles of his ornate church, atop a hill in the leafy Cub Hill area of Baltimore County. The petals fell on heads, on shoulders, on carpet and on the wooden pews.

The gesture symbolized the paving of the way for Christ's triumphant resurrection. Laurel leaves are often used. "But", Noplos says, "I prefer rose petals."

As the pastor tossed them, he chanted in Greek, rejoined by his chanter, Sotirios Mitilineos.

"How long will you judge unjustly and accept the sinners?" Noplos sang. "They have not known nor understood they walk in darkness. All the foundations of the earth shall be shaken."

"Arise, oh God, and judge the earth," Mitilineos responded.

But the two men could hardly be heard over the tolling of bells and the drumming of hands on pews by dozens of couples and families dressed in their Saturday best.

This went on — bells, drumming, chanting — for several minutes until Noplos had emptied the basket of the rose petals.

The noise made by the parishoners is meant to represent the sounds Christ made in cracking open the gates of Hades, or hell, says the Very Rev. Constantine "Dean" Moralis of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore.

In 2008, a Greek Orthodox publication explained the meaning of Holy Saturday service:

"It is a day centered on a mystery beyond our comprehension. Christ is dead, His body lies in a tomb. Yet, at this moment of Death's apparent victory over Life, Death is being put to death. Christ's soul descends to Hades. He is both God and Man. Hades has no power over Him. It tries to hold Him, as it has held every other soul since Adam and Eve, and fails."

As Noplos pointed out, the story appears in many icons of the Eastern church, often with a Christ figure stepping over collapsed doors, fetters and locks while reaching for the hands of sinners to free them from hell.

While the Saturday service was rich with ritual and liturgy, Easter was to arrive fully at midnight at the four Greek Orthodox parishes in the Baltimore area. From darkened sanctuaries, the priests carry a single lighted candled from their altars to their parishoners outside, on sidewalks and in parking lots.

"It is the most meaningful moment for me," says Moralis, who expected 1,000 or more people to attend the service at the cathedral. "It can be very emotional."

"We carry a single light from the altar table and give it to the people, saying, 'Come, receive his light,'" says Noplos. "It is a powerful moment."

Soon hundreds of candles are lighted and Easter services commence, into the morning hours, followed by an offering of traditional Greek foods for those who have fasted through the season.


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