Faithfully carrying out centuries-old traditions


The church basement was rich with meaning -- almost everything there a symbol of faith: the polished eggs, the blood-red dyes, even the parishioners' actions as they carefully, almost prayerfully, prepared each egg for their most holy celebration of the year.

This is Easter, Greek Orthodox-style, with its age-old customs practiced reverently by believers. And on display at Baltimore's Cathedral of theAnnunciation are the traditions and faith that have kept the cathedral alive for nearly 100 years.

"The traditions are a way of seeing and feeling the past events," explained Kerry Agathoklis, one of the church's volunteers. "It's a way for us to live out the old Easter story."

While the holiday has already passed for Western Christians, Eastern Orthodox churches -- including more than 200 million Greek Orthodox Christians across the world -- follow the Julian calendar and will celebrate Easter tomorrow.

Yesterday, a few of the Greek Orthodox faithful spent their morning preparing in the North Baltimore cathedral, hunched over a lunch table, inspecting a sea of crimson eggs.

Many had labored the day before, steeping the eggs in hot red dyes, and rubbing them down with oil.

"It's a painstaking process," said Nick Kiladis, 70, leader of a senior citizens group in charge of the egg dyeing.

The trick, he explained, is turning up the heat slowly -- keep the red waters simmering but never boiling so much as to break the shells.

"We did a total of 1,080 eggs," he paused. "Well, a few cracked, so maybe 1,050."

Handling the finished products yesterday, the church's elderly women chatted but worked with caution while they wrapped each egg in thin white decorative netting.

For Greek Orthodox, they explained, red eggs are a part of the paschal mystery, the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. The shell represents his three days in the tomb. At the Easter service early tomorrow morning, the eggs will be blessed by priests and handed to the congregation. They in turn will crack them open, the broken shell a symbol of new life through the resurrection.

But that would happen on Easter, and this was still Good Friday. Broken eggs today would be disasters, not symbols.

"We're trying to be careful," said Agathoklis, one of the volunteers. "So far, so good."

But moments later, a loud "Crack!" was heard.

Distracted by conversation, Julie Klicos, 82, had dropped a egg.

The loud Greek chatter stopped as the women broke out in wide grins.

"Uh, oh, someone's going to get excommunicated," Agathoklis said jokingly.

In the sanctuary, the Very Rev. Constantine Moralis, prepared himself for the afternoon's Good Friday service.

"The eggs and traditions have their place, but the services are the crux of the Easter holiday," he said.

Near the altar stood a crucifix with a painting of Jesus nailed on top. During the Good Friday service, the image would be taken down and wrapped in a white linen shroud, re-enacting the first Good Friday.

And later tonight, the Easter vigil service will begin and stretch into the early hours of tomorrow.

But on Good Friday, while the afternoon's light was still streaming through the stained-glass windows, Moralis explained the importance of this year's services. Next year will mark the cathedral's centennial, and this weekend's Easter ceremonies will launch a yearlong commemoration of the church's rich history.

"The church has overcome much in the last century," Moralis said.

Founded March 18, 1906, the parish is the oldest of Maryland's Greek Orthodox churches.

"The people's faith was what kept the church standing," Moralis said.

During his 1997 visit to the cathedral, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the worldwide spiritual leader of Orthodox Christianity, said:

"The treasures of the Orthodox faith ... are the inexhaustible wealth of truth that springs from the unbroken tradition of the church."

And the tradition endures.

In the church lobby, Anastasia August practiced one of the centuries-old Greek Orthodox custom -- decorating a wooden structure, the symbolic tomb of Jesus Christ.

"You don't do it out of obligation. It's an act of love," said August, 48.

All around her, women worked with quick, precise hands, poking flowers into the ornately carved box. The lobby was strewn with petals, scissors and discarded stems.

"This is the kouvouklion -- the tomb of Christ," said volunteer Anna Z. Pappas, pointing to the wooden box.

On the first Good Friday when Jesus was buried, she said, the women who followed him could not prepare his body for a burial befitting their savior. With the approaching Sabbath, they did not have enough time and could not work during the holy day.

So now, centuries later, the women of the cathedral were doing what those first followers could not, decorating the tomb with thousands of carnations, orchids, lilies and gardenias.

But they too were pressed for time. With two hours left before the first Good Friday service, the women were only halfway done.

In the end, they finished with time to spare, and the flower-bedecked tomb made it to the service without a hitch.

As Moralis began the Good Friday service, the tomb decorators and egg dyers relaxed in their pews. Their part was done, and Easter was almost here.

"It is a beautiful thing, no?" Pappas said, before bowing her head to the choir's haunting chants in Greek.

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