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Absent traditional gatherings due to coronavirus, Maryland’s Orthodox Christians prepare for quieter Easter

Absent their traditional gatherings and tactile rites, Orthodox Christian clergy such as the Rev. Michael Pastrikos of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Highlandtown, prepare for their biggest holiday, Easter, at a time of social distancing. Pastrikos gives communion in this 2019 photo at St. Nicholas.
Absent their traditional gatherings and tactile rites, Orthodox Christian clergy such as the Rev. Michael Pastrikos of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Highlandtown, prepare for their biggest holiday, Easter, at a time of social distancing. Pastrikos gives communion in this 2019 photo at St. Nicholas. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

If this were a normal year, the Rev. Michael Pastrikos would lead a procession of thousands through the streets around his Baltimore church Friday night, then prepare himself for a dramatic service in a sanctuary full of people at midnight Saturday.

Instead, the Greek Orthodox priest led his denomination’s traditional Epitaphios procession inside the church, accompanied by two cantors, and he’ll conduct the holiest services of the year nearly alone in an otherwise empty building.

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In this, his 14th and final year as pastor of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Highlandtown, Pastrikos will celebrate Orthodox Easter in a manner drastically out of keeping with his denominational tradition — without the company of celebrating throngs — and instead through the lens of a livestreaming camera.

“I’ve been in the priesthood for 44 years, and I’ve never experienced anything like this, being this lonely in the church," Pastrikos said Friday between streaming services. “And [our worshipers] are sad and very lonely that they can’t be here in person to see everything that’s visible to them during Holy Week services.”

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"But we know that they are the church, they are the body of Christ — and we’re continuing to go with the flow.”

Orthodox Christians observe Easter, the most sacred day on the Christian calendar, on Sunday, seven days after their fellow Christians in the United States did this year.

The holy day comes a week later 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.

Thanks to those calendars, Orthodox Easter can fall on any Sunday between April 4 and May 8, while Easter for Catholics and other Christians lands between March 22 and April 25. They overlap on rare occasions.

The holidays represent the same thing — the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and the hope it embodies for believers.

In Eastern Orthodox tradition, though, liturgical and cultural practices on Easter make generous use of tactile experience to connect believers to the divine, whether it’s Holy Week or not.

Orthodox Christians — whether they’re part of Greek, Ukrainian, Antiochian, Ethiopian or Russian traditions, all of which are represented in the Baltimore area — venerate icons, or painted images of religious figures, by kissing or touching them, smell the aroma of incense in church, and enjoy feasts on special occasions, including in the early morning of Easter, or Pascha.

So, when government officials mandated social distancing and limited gatherings to 10 people last month to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Orthodox churches obeyed. But it has caused considerable pangs.

The spiritual leader Metropolitan Evangelos of the Metropolis of New Jersey, which governs parishes in Maryland, declared all churches closed after the World Health Organization designated the coronavirus crisis a pandemic. That left clergy to livestream services that normally call for attendance in person and, at times, hands-on involvement.

Priests accustomed to pews full of faces, offering Holy Communion in person, and shaking hands to convey encouragement and blessings, found themselves delivering homilies and conducting liturgical rites, elaborately robed, from the altars of empty churches.

The Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore, St. Mary Antiochian Church in Cockeysville, Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church in East Baltimore and Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church in Linthicum and others have been livestreaming services for weeks and will do so this weekend and beyond.

That pain of separation has been especially acute during Holy Week, which began with “Lazarus Saturday” last weekend and has continued with more than a dozen liturgies as the week unfolded.

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Pastrikos and St. Nicholas, one of four Greek Orthodox congregations in Baltimore, have gone online for the first time this year. As Holy Week has progressed, the 65-year-old priest said the webcasts have drawn between 900 and 1,200 viewers.

The services, he said, have felt strange to perform, even physically taxing.

Holy Week liturgies are meant to reflect for worshipers the experiences of Jesus Christ in the final days of his earthly life and ministry, from the hope represented by the resurrection of his friend, Lazarus, to the terror of his grisly death, to his removal from the cross and his triumphant ascent to heaven.

In many cases, Orthodox Christians symbolically but physically reenact the events. On Great Friday, after the Royal Hours, a two- to three-hour service including chants and scriptural readings, priests perform the Apokathelosis service. They take a colorfully woven cloth that bears a representation of Christ’s body, or Epitaphios, down from a cross, place it in an elaborately decorated wooden bier known as a kouvouklion, and later that evening, help carry it outdoors in a procession of candle-carrying believers.

Pastrikos, sexton Stanley Cavourus and cantor Demetrius “Jimmy” Apostolou performed the so-called Deposition of Christ in an otherwise empty sanctuary Friday afternoon. The event was livestreamed on YouTube via a link from the church’s website, with an array of icons visible in the background.

They conducted the limited indoor procession Friday evening. The rite typically draws between 2,000 and 3,000 people.

Because its regular Epitaphios is so heavy, the church devised a smaller one that Pastrikos and company carried this year.

Early Friday, Pastrikos said he wasn’t expecting the rite to have its usual feel.

And as for the Easter service — it traditionally begins in darkness, then culminates amid candlelight as worshipers cry “Christ is risen” — that, too, won’t feel quite the same.

“You have to be in church to experience what it’s like, to see the faces, to feel the spiritual atmosphere everyone is in,” Pastrikos said. “And the ascension of Christ from the cross — you should see how emotional that is. It’s not the same [seeing it] on Facebook as when you see it in person.”

In a typical year, up to 300 people cram the church for the remainder of the night, partaking of a Pascha feast that features eating lamb and cracking together traditional red-dyed eggs that symbolize both Christ’s death on the cross and the spiritual rebirth it’s believed to represent.

This year, worshipers will feast more quietly, at home.

Pastrikos is to retire this year, which means his last Holy Week and Pascha in Baltimore will be one where believers could not meet.

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A strange development, he said, but it strikes him as less of a hardship when he recalls how Ottoman Turks oppressed Greek Christians from the middle of the 15th century through 1832, when a Greek national state was established. During that period, many Greek Christians were forced to worship in their homes, and they kept the faith alive.

He expects the same in 2020 in Baltimore and beyond.

“We’ll miss that feeling of being in the Lord’s house,” he said. “But we’ll have it all back by this time next year.”

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