Christo Ha Resucitado! En Verdad Ha Resucitado! Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!
Orthodox Christian families have many small traditions that they keep from year to year to commemorate the Resurrection of Christ, or Pascua in Spanish. For me, some of these little “t” traditions include attending the Holy Friday night service as a child. As my sisters and I walked around the church with our candles, we competed to see whose candle could last the entire night without going out. On Holy Saturday, my mother always made sure we took a nap during the day so that we could stay awake for the Resurrection service at midnight. We usually joined the community afterwards to eat Avgolemono (traditional Greek chicken soup) and Magheritsa (lamb soup), and traditional Pascha bread, Tsoureki. Thomas, as the son of a priest, remembers going to church with his father every day during Holy Week and often serving in the altar. Following the Liturgy on Holy Saturday morning, the Manuels would put on Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 “Jesus of Nazareth” while food for Pascua was prepared. Someone also had the unlucky task of picking up the fifty piece chicken tender platter from Chick-fil-A for consumption afterwards of course!
Many of us have memories that we associate with such feast days, whether it is singing our favorite hymns and songs, or a special dish our mother makes. The beautiful thing about these “small t” traditions is that they vary from culture to culture and can be altered with time. This year, we learned about many of the Pascua traditions practiced by the Guatemalans in the village of Aguacate. Being that the village is home to a seminary, the cathedral was filled with the faithful every day of the week, beginning with the procession through the village on Palm Sunday. Processions have been practiced by the church for centuries to publicly celebrate and commemorate feast days. Normally in parishes in the States we process indoors, so it was a really beautiful experience to walk through the village with our palms singing, “¡Hosanna en las alturas, bendito es Él que viene en el Nombre del Señor! — Hosanna in the highest, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”
We were extremely humbled and impressed by the amount of love and dedication of the priests, seminarians, and faithful throughout the week. Every day the seminarians helped decorate the cathedral, practiced hymns, and helped Father Evangelos (the local priest and Vicar of Guatemala) prepare for the next service and the upcoming events. Each day we plugged into the life of the seminary, assisting the seminarians with their tasks and preparations. We chanted alongside the choir as the congregation joined in for the hymns and responses. Many of the women know the Liturgy by heart and never miss a service! We were especially moved by the fervent piety of the faithful who, at every service, including morning Pre-Sanctified Divine Liturgies, filled the cathedral.
From Holy Thursday through Pascua we were blessed with the visit of the Archbishop of Mexico and Central America, Athenagoras. The community welcomed him with traditional songs and joyful greetings, and of course, fireworks! On Holy Friday night traditionally the Lamentation hymns are sung as we commemorate Christ’s death and burial. The female choir’s singing of the Lamentations was the most beautiful rendition that either of us had ever heard! We processed again through the village with the decorated tomb holding the icon of Christ, the Kouvouklion or “Tumba,” in Spanish. We sang the thrice holy hymn in Spanish, huddling close around each other so that our candles would remain lit. On Saturday morning, people from nearby villages traveled to celebrate the Liturgy. There had to have been over easily 700 people! Going back to the early Church, baptisms are traditionally done on Holy Saturday after the Liturgy. In fact, the whole Lenten period was originally a time of preparation for those preparing to be illumined by Holy Baptism on Pascua. That morning we had the blessing to witness and participate in 22 baptisms and 1 chrismation. Glory to God!
On Sunday morning, we went with His Eminence Archbishop Athenagoras to a community in Chiapas, Mexico to celebrate Agape Vespers (Vísperas de Amor). With us came the whole seminary, missionaries and the Vicar as well. We were all graciously and lovingly greeted by hundreds upon hundreds of Orthodox Christians representing around 25 communities in the state of Chiapas! We celebrated the Vísperas de Amor with joy and following the service his Eminence greeted representatives from each of the communities. Following our departing lunch, his Eminence Archbishop Athenagoras looked to us and said, “This will be a Holy Week and Pascua that you will never forget.” And certainly he is right!
In life we are often confronted with change and new chapters. It is hard to let go of old traditions, but we can keep them in our memories and pass them onto the people we encounter. We can also adapt to new traditions and carry them with us. The beautiful thing about the Orthodox Church is that no matter where you are in the world, the little “t” traditions may vary, but we all follow the same teachings that have been passed down from the Apostles. This is an important thing to remember as missionaries. Sometimes it is hard to see new things when you have been doing them the same way your whole life. Regardless of how a hymn is sung, what kind of flowers are used, or how red the Easter eggs are dyed, Christ still rises on the third day. What we must not forget is the reason why we celebrate, that Christ went into Hades to destroy death for us and for those in the tombs, by His death, and then rose on the third day, so that we one day might rise with Him. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:7-8)