We went to visit the Greek Orthodox Church, Holy Trinity – St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, on Monday, April 29, 2013. We received information from both the secretary from the Holy Trinity Community Center, who was, surprisingly enough, a Catholic, and one of the maintenance men who actually belonged to the church. We learned about some of their beliefs and how they differ greatly and not so greatly from some of our own (Austin and I are Catholic, Naomi is Protestant). I also then spoke with a friend of mine, who is of the Greek Orthodox religion and received additional information.
One of the first things we learned was that the Greek Orthodox don’t believe in saints – they have icons. From what we saw inside the Church, they resemble saints and their images are everywhere, though they do not create statues of their icons. After speaking with my friend, I learned that icons are, in a way, even more significant than saints. In fact, anyone who is named after an icon celebrates a Name Day once a year. Each icon has one day a year that is dedicated to them and people who are named after the icon take that day to celebrate their namesake, similar to a birthday. It is their way of paying respect to the Greek icons. Icons are held in very high regard in the Greek Orthodox religion; they are windows to the spiritual world, a means by which God is revealed.
The Greek Orthodox community receives the Eucharist – the Body and Blood of Christ, just like every other Christian denomination. However, whereas in the Catholic and Protestant denominations we receive the bread and wine separately, in the Greek Orthodox Church, the bread is submerged in the wine and put on a spoon for each congregation member to receive. In this way, they receive the Body and Blood of Christ at the same time rather than receiving them separately. Each person receives from the same spoon, much like each person in the Catholic Church sips wine from the same chalice.
In the Greek Orthodox Church, women are not permitted on the altar. Only the priest is permitted in the sanctuary and on the altar. When receiving the Eucharist, women must remain on the first, lowest step leading up to the altar and is not permitted any further. The reason for this is because it is believed that women are not “clean”, not “pure.” Therefore, the altar remains a place reserved for males alone. In accordance with this belief, after a woman gives birth, she is not permitted inside the church (or anywhere outside her home) for 40 days. This is called “churching,” a way to cleanse the woman and the child. This practice is not only to spiritually purify the mother and child, but it is also to ensure that they both regain health and immunity prior to being exposed to germs and illness. After 40 days, they are both permitted inside the church. The woman, at first, is forced to stay behind the doors to the church, in the narthex, while the baby is celebrated by the congregation and consecrated. It is not good luck or in good health for the mother and child to be out of the home (or in the church) before 40 days has passed.
One of the final beliefs we learned about is that a child receives all of the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confirmation) together. This usually occurs when the child is under 1 year old, though the age is irrelevant. The child must receive Baptism before receiving any of the other sacraments, and even before entering the church. Unbaptized Greek Orthodox Church members are not permitted inside the nave of the church (the church’s main body). When being baptized, the child’s head is covered with holy oil and then the child is immersed in water three times; Baptism must occur before the child can be further introduced into the faith in any way.
Some of these beliefs are vastly different than beliefs of other Christian denominations. The Greek Orthodox Church is still very religious and sacred and they continue to practice very traditional customs. For example, while many people in other Christian denominations can and will go to Mass looking presentable in jeans and a nice shirt, the Greek Orthodox dress their finest for Mass; going to Mass means going to God’s home and it is their place to pay him respect. Part of that respect is displayed in the way they dress.
Even though there were many Greek traditions practiced by the congregation at Holy Trinity, their traditions are not that different from other Christian organizations. Even though they celebrate Easter six weeks after the Roman Catholics and Protestant denominations, they have a Holy Week preceding Easter Sunday, which is common to many other Christian Denominations. Like the Roman Catholics, they believe in the transfiguration, and approach the priest to receive communion. At this particular congregation they have a fellowship hour after service, which is a common practice in many other christian denominations. Fellowship hour is a time after service when the congregation members gather when they have snacks and drinks for the congregation to eat and talk after the service. Fellowship hour is a practice which is common in close knit congregations. At Holy Trinity, this practice further reinforces the congregation’s desire to stay close, and preserve their culture and traditions as immigrants in America.
Even though Holy Trinity is a Greek Orthodox church, there are other denominations in Greece. One such denomination is the Greek Evangelical Church, which is a protestant denomination. However, denominations of christianity are not the only religious institutions which exist in Greece. Greece is home to Jewish congregations, Hellenic Neo-paganism (which is the original ethnic religion of the Greek people), and Islamic congregations (most of the Islamic people in Greece, are of Turkish descent, but who are living in Greece as Greek citizens). As you can see, the religious history of Greece is a diverse one.
Greek Easter, called “Pascha” or “Πάσχα” in Greek, is a holiday in the Greek Orthodox Church to celebrate the death and resurrection of their Savior, Jesus Christ. This celebration lasts for a week and a day, starting with “Saturday of Lazarus” and running through the following Sunday. Unlike the Western Church’s celebration of Easter, the date of Pascha is based on the Julian calendar, as opposed to the Gregorian calendar. In addition, Pascha must be after the Jewish celebration of Passover, and the holiday must fall on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.
The first day of celebration, called “Saturday of Lazarus,” is the day before Palm Sunday. It celebrates the resurrection of Lazarus of Bethany. Jesus brought Lazarus back to life four days after his death. It is one of the most prominent of Jesus’s miracles. On this day, children go door to door collecting money and eggs. Spice breads, called “Lazarákia,” are traditionally eaten. On Palm Sunday, Greeks celebrate the day Jesus was welcomed as the Messiah and King. Palm was waived in the air as a symbol of Christ’s victory over evil and the devil.
The next major celebration leading up to Pascha is Holy Wednesday. In the evening, the Orthodox Church administers “Holy Unction,” one of the “Holy Mysteries” or Sacraments. “Holy Unction,” which consists of being anointed with blessed holy oils, renews physical and spiritual health. This “Holy Mystery” is unique to the Orthodox Church, and can, therefore, only be received by Orthodox Church members. Holy Thursday, an important day in the Easter Tritium, marks the day of the Last Supper. The Last Supper is the last meal that Jesus had with his Apostles before he was betrayed, sentenced to death and crucified. It was at this meal that Jesus first transformed the bread and wine into his Body and Blood. Thursday evening, during the Passion service, there is a reading from all 12 Gospels, which depict the last supper through Jesus’ burial.
Good Friday is one of the most solemn days within the Church. This is the day that Jesus’s death is mourned. During Friday’s service, the priest removes the body of Jesus Christ from the cross, wraps it in a white sheet, and places it onto the altar while chanting a mourning hymn. A cloth that is painted or embroidered with the Body of Christ is carried and processed around the church, before being placed into the Sepulcher, which is a structure that symbolically represents the Tomb of Christ.
While there is a common misconception that Holy Saturday is a “day off of sorrow” between Good Friday and Pascha, the opposite is true. While Jesus’s physical body is lying in the tomb and it appears that Death has overcome Life, the reverse is occurring. Orthodox Christians believe that Jesus’s soul descends down to Hades during this time, is unable to be held, and eventually rises. This symbolizes that Hades’ hold on Jesus’ soul, as well the souls of the people, is no more and the souls are free. During Saturday evening’s service, the Church is covered in dark colors, and all of the hymns end with a verse announcing the resurrection.
At a midnight service on Pascha, the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates the rising of their Savior, Jesus Christ. As midnight approaches, the “Odes of Lament” of the previous day are repeated. At this time, the Church is in complete darkness and the members are holding candles. When midnight strikes, the priest lights the vigil candle, and then proceeds to light those of the attendees while singing the hymn “Come ye and receive light from the unwaning life, and glorify Christ, who arose from the dead.” The congregation gradually joins in. The candles symbolize their deep faith in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. From that point on, the Church proceeds in a joyous atmosphere with readings proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection.