This year I will be in Bucharest, Romania for Orthodox Easter. I happen to be teaching at a Romanian university the week after Easter, so I decided to go and celebrate Easter there as well in addition to celebrating here in the United States. The Roman Catholic Church and the majority of Protestants celebrated Easter on March 27 based on the Gregorian calendar, while the Orthodox Church celebrates it on May 1 based on the Julian calendar.
Even though I am a Baptist minister, I have always had a great appreciation for the Orthodox celebration of Easter. This affinity and appreciation had to do with the priests, the pageantry, and the theology of Easter.
The Orthodox priest in our village was one of the nicest priests that one could have. It was not easy for him to preach every Sunday in the Orthodox church, while his wife was a communist leader and the director of the local school. The local Orthodox church was poor, so the priest needed to have an additional job as an accountant at the local agricultural cooperative. Whenever he saw me on the street, he was kind and he would greet me. One cold winter day told me that I should wear a hat so I would not get sick. His concern has always stayed with me.
The pageantry of the Easter vigil is one of the highlights of the Orthodox Easter celebration. The service starts late Saturday evening and goes into the early hours of Sunday morning. It is not for the faint of heart! People stand for hours, because most Orthodox churches do not have seats. At midnight, the people leave the sanctuary and go into the courtyard. Outside, the Exchange of the Psalm starts–“Open so that that King of glory may come in!” After the antiphonal answer, the people gather in the sanctuary again and sing the resurrection songs.
The Orthodox celebrate Easter for two days, on both Sunday and Monday. On Monday the Resurrection is celebrated in the cemetery. I remember going to the cemetery as a young child and listening to the priest shout that because our Lord Jesus Christ rose from the dead, there will be a day when all these graves will be opened and our loved ones will rise from the dead. I remember looking at the graves of our family members and the thousands of crosses above the graves of those who were buried and thinking that one day all graves will open and the dead in Christ will come back to life.
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Fifty years later, when I do a burial service, I hear the words that were uttered in that village cemetery and unite my voice in proclaiming that death is not victorious. The victory belongs to our Lord Jesus Christ.