Why don’t Eastern Orthodox churches always celebrate Easter on the same day that we do in the Catholic Church? And what about Easter Week celebrations? Are they different as well?”
In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and for some Byzantine Catholics, the date for Easter (called Pascha in Orthodox traditions) often differs from the Western date. This is because the Orthodox East uses a 19-year cycle in calculating the date, whereas the West uses an 84-year cycle. Also, the Orthodox East utilizes the Julian calendar to calculate the date, but the West uses the Gregorian calendar, which is 13 days ahead. This year, Orthodox Easter, and Easter for some Byzantine Catholics, will be May 2.
In Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches, Holy Week or “Passion Week” is the holiest week of the year. It begins on the evening of Palm Sunday with a matins service (prayer service) called “Bridegroom Matins.” Holy Monday through Holy Wednesday has Bridegroom Matins services every evening. The general theme of these is the return of Christ, our bridegroom and judge, at the end of the world.
Holy Thursday morning sees a Vesperal Liturgy (a combination of Great Vespers and “the Divine Liturgy” — what the Western tradition calls “the Mass”). This commemorates Our Lord’s institution of the Eucharist. Holy Thursday evening has a matins service where 12 Gospel readings about the Passion and death of Our Lord are chanted.
On Holy Friday morning, a special service, called “the Royal Hours,” offers Gospel passages on Our Lord’s Passion, along with related Old Testament passages. Holy Friday’s afternoon vespers commemorate Our Lord’s burial. During this service, a cloth with an icon of Our Lord’s body painted on it (called “a winding cloth”) is transferred from the altar to a tomb in the center of the church. The tomb is adorned with flowers. In the evening, during another matins service, the cloth is carried in a candlelight procession around the outside of the church.
On Holy Saturday morning, at another Vesperal Liturgy in anticipation of Our Lord’s Resurrection, the clergy change from dark to white vestments. All decorative cloths are changed from purple or black to white.
The Paschal Vigil on Holy Saturday night is a joy-filled climax of Lent and Holy Week. It has three services which flow together: Nocturnes (midnight prayer service), matins and the Divine Liturgy for Easter. It begins in complete darkness followed by a candlelight procession three times around the church while the bells peal.
The procession ends with the joyous proclamation: “Christ is Risen!” The church shines with light. The matins service and Divine Liturgy are fast-paced and exuberant. At the conclusion of the vigil, fasting ends and we celebrate a banquet.
On Easter afternoon, a simple celebration of the Resurrection, called “Agape Vespers,” takes place. For the next week, called “Bright Week,” every liturgy and vespers service is celebrated with the exuberance of Pascha. The Royal Doors (the main doors a priest uses to exit the altar with Communion) of the iconostasis (a screen or wall adorned with icons) remain open all week. The Deacon Doors (also in the iconostasis for deacon and servers) remain open all of Bright Week.
Cabey is the child and youth faith formation director and ecumenical officer for the Green Bay Diocese. He is a former Eastern Orthodox priest who was officially received into the Catholic Church in 2016.