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"Lowering of the Body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" ceremony was held at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation.
"Lowering of the Body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" ceremony was held at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation. (CHIAKI KAWAJIRI / BALTIMORE SUN)

They've been abstaining from meat, dairy and egg products for weeks, and this weekend they'll dive into a feast like no other on their religious calendar.

Orthodox Christians observe Easter this Sunday, a week later than most of their fellow Christians around the world. But in spiritual and gastronomic terms, most see the delay as well worth the wait.

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"[Easter] is the most important day in the world," says the Rev. Michael Pastrikos of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Greektown. "Christ busted up death — he abolished death — by breaking out of the tomb during the Resurrection. It's the cause of our greatest celebration."

The holy day comes a week later than it does for other Christian denominations because Orthodox Christians follow the Julian calendar, one created by Julius Caesar in 56 B.C., not the Gregorian calendar many Western nations have observed since the late 1500s.

Like tens of thousands Orthodox Christians in Baltimore and more than 350 million worldwide, Pastrikos' congregants will mark the end of their 40-day Great Lent — and the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter — with religious observances that last from midnight Saturday through Sunday morning, culminating in a massive dinner that includes all the food groups they've been expected to shun since the Monday seven weeks before.

This week has been Great and Holy Week for Orthodox Christians, starting with Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday last weekend and continuing through Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter (or Pascha, as it's known in the Orthodox tradition).

Orthodox clergy and believers mark each day with services and rituals particular to that day, including a sacrament of unction Wednesday, a symbolic nailing of Christ to the cross on Thursday and, on Friday night, outdoor processions in which congregants carry and venerate an Epitaphios, an embroidered winding-sheet that represents the linen in which followers wrapped Christ's body.

The Christian church was a fully unified enterprise, Orthodox believers say, for roughly the first millennium after Christ's death. That changed in the mid-11th century when the Roman Catholic Church asserted universal papal authority, among other beliefs the Orthodox couldn't accept.

Rooted in the Eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor, Orthodox Christianity— also known as Eastern Christianity or Eastern Orthodoxy — spread into the Baltic region, across Asia, as far south as Ethiopia and, in the 1790s, into North America by way of Alaska.

Eastern Orthodoxy attempts to preserve the forms of worship Jesus' apostles practiced, from the consumption of bread and wine (communion) to the veneration of religious icons, much of it described in the Book of Acts.

"We're the oldest Christian religion in the world. We're the ones that started everything," Pastrikos says.

Several branches of the faith developed, including the two largest, Russian and Greek Orthodox, as well as Antiochan, Romanian and others.

Several branches are represented in Baltimore. The Greek church includes four houses of worship claiming a total of about 3,100 families as members, Pastrikos says.

Russian, Antiochan and Ethiopian Orthodox churches also dot the area.

Though a few cultural distinctions have developed — Ukrainians have a tradition of elaborately painting Pascha eggs, for instance, while Greeks and others dye them bright red to represent the passion of Christ — all Orthodox Christians observe the same essential religious traditions.

About 2,000 people will attend the Epitaphios procession at St. Nicholas on Friday night, Pastrikos says. Another 4,000 will pack a Pascha vigil that includes a midnight resurrection service, a procession around the church with members bearing candles, a re-entry to a fully illuminated sanctuary and finally a huge feast, usually featuring lamb, and a formal Easter service.

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Similar events will take place at Orthodox churches across the Baltimore area.

Nearly 17 centuries ago, in 325 A.D., Christian leaders gathered in what is now northwestern Turkey to standardize various matters of worship. This First Council of Nicea decreed that Easter should be celebrated after the Jewish Passover.

The Orthodox hold onto that requirement long after the rest of Christianity abandoned it. That, combined with the disparity in the calendars, means Western and Eastern Easter rarely fall on the same day, with the Orthodox version falling as much as five weeks later.

"We have the right date," Pastrikos says.

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