For Eastern Orthodox congregations in Harford, Holy Week is a busy time

The Orthodox and Western Christian churches parted ways, calendar-wise, more than 400 years ago

For Sts. Mary Magdalene & Markella Greek Orthodox Church in Darlington, this week is the busiest of the year.

The church's parishioners, and their priest, are in the middle of Holy Week, getting ready to join at least 200 million Orthodox Christians around the world in observing Easter on Sunday.

"Christmas has got nothing on Easter," Father Gregory Gilbert, pastor at Sts. Mary Magdalene & Markella since last fall, said jokingly, explaining the centrality of the holiday for Orthodox Christians.

The peculiarities of different religious calendars also mean the church will observe Easter this year more than a month after Catholic and Protestant churches, which celebrated Jesus' resurrection on March 27.

The Orthodox and Western Christian churches parted ways, calendar-wise, more than 400 years ago, when Pope Gregory instituted a new calendar in 1582, replacing Julius Caesar's Julian calendar.

The Gregorian calendar became the world's major civil calendar by the early 1900s. Most Orthodox churches, however, continue to use the Julian calendar for movable feasts.

In the case of Easter, Orthodox Christians are especially committed to the old calendar because the Gregorian calendar moved Easter out of alignment with the spring equinox, used to determine the Jewish holiday of Passover.

The Orthodox Church adheres to the decree of the First Ecumenical Council, held in 325 A.D., that Easter computation must be linked to the Jewish calendar. Passover began on Friday, April 22 this year.

The 12-year-old Sts. Mary Magdalene & Markella will be one of two Harford County Eastern Orthodox parishes celebrating Easter on Sunday, along with Four Evangelists Orthodox Church, which opened in 2010 and is constructing its own building on Hickory Avenue in Bel Air.

The week leading up to Sunday's midnight celebration of the Great and Holy Pascha, as it is known in Greek, is a demanding one, Gilbert explained in an interview last week.

Holy Week consists of 17 services, Gilbert said, starting with Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, which were this past weekend.

"It's very intensive," he said.

The church also used Lazarus Saturday, which marks the story of Jesus' raising Lazarus from the dead, to offer parishioners an Easter egg hunt and a chance to fold palm crosses for Palm Sunday, commemorating Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem.

The services of Holy Week include "the longest service of the year" on Thursday night, Gilbert said, which is three hours long and includes 12 Gospel readings.

The next day brings what may be the most prominent part of Holy Week, a candlelit procession outside the church with the Epitaphios, a special icon used for the service.

The Epitaphios is placed on a "kouvouklion," a carved canopy that Gilbert said is covered in flowers the night before by women in the church.

On Easter morning, the entire church goes outside at midnight for the service, with the observance largely over by the time dawn rolls in.

"The one time we don't show up for church is Sunday morning," Gilbert said with a smile about the holiday.

The month-long distance between the Catholic Easter and the Orthodox Easter throws into sharper relief the differences in Christian traditions.

With Easter being a movable holiday, "this is the latest it can be" in the year, Gilbert explained.

Although it is convenient for local families when the Orthodox and Catholic Easter lines up, Orthodox parishioners are used to appearing a bit distinctive in Harford County.

Also, "sometimes it helps us to focus it on a religious holiday, if it's later, not just think of it as bunnies" or more secular symbols, Gilbert said.

The services themselves can be "rigorous" and "exhausting," Gilbert said, noting in Greece, everything shuts down for two weeks for the holiday.

Families also celebrate the end of Holy Week with a lamb roast, as they would have spent Lent fasting from meat products, he said.

The congregation, which has about 100 families, has been looking for a new church site in the Bel Air area, closer to where most of its members live, Gilbert said.

Sts. Mary Magdalene & Markella has a high percentage of ethnically Greek families, as most parishioners moved from Baltimore's Greektown area, he said.

Gilbert, who is not Greek, pointed out, however, that the Eastern Orthodox church is not limited to certain ethnicities. Four Evangelists in Bel Air is part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church but has few ethnic Ukrainian members, Father Gregory Czumak, the parish's priest, said in an earlier interview.

"Even without Easter, we are a Greek Orthodox church in a not very Greek place," Gilbert said, adding: "The Greek Orthodox church is for everyone. It is not an ethnically based church."

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