Joy embraces Russians as Easter celebrations get underway

Russia is celebrating Easter, Christianity’s most important and joyful feast when the Church commemorates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Tens of thousands of people flocked to the country’s churches to attend solemn midnight processions with crosses and icons, as well as evening and night divine services throughout the country.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church, led the Easter service in downtown Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. It was attended by several thousands of people, including President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.

In a statement to those celebrating Easter, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote that Easter celebrations “fill hearts with joy, hope and love.”

He also congratulated Christians in his Twitter account.

“Congratulations to all Orthodox Christians and everyone celebrating Easter,” Medvedev wrote.

The Resurrection of the Savior symbolizes his victory over sin and death and the birth of a new world redeemed by his Passion. This year, it is marked by the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Anglican churches on the same day, which sometimes happens although the churches use different calendars.

After midnight and for the next 40 days after Easter Sunday, Orthodox Christians greet each other with “Christ is risen!” and the reply is “He is risen indeed!” followed by three kisses. They also exchange Easter eggs.

Preparation for Easter celebrations begins in the Russian Orthodox Church on Holy Saturday – the last day of Holy Week, also known in Russia as Passion Week. On that day, people come to churches in great numbers to have paschal cakes and eggs blessed by priests.

The Easter divine service starts shortly before midnight. At midnight, the solemn festive procession with crosses and icons starts, with priests and believers going around the church and glorifying the Resurrection. The procession is often attended by nonbelievers attracted by its splendor. The service lasts into the early hours of Sunday.

Easter is preceded by a long period of fasting. The fasting period before Easter in Eastern Christianity lasts 48 days. The first 40 days of the period are called Great Lent, symbolizing Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness before being tempted by Satan. In the Orthodox tradition, all days are included into the day count.

The 40 days are followed by Lazarus Saturday, commemorating Jesus raising Lazarus of Bethany from the dead, and Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, and then by Holy Week, the last week of the fasting period. Holy Week lasts until Easter Sunday but does not include it.

During those 48 days, believers abstain from meat, fish, eggs and dairy products and spend time in prayer. The true purpose of fasting is to help people cleanse their souls of sin and learn to control their desires. In this way believers prepare for Easter.

In Western Christianity days are counted differently. The fasting period starts on Wednesday, called Ash Wednesday. The fasting period is called Lent, and Sundays are not included in the count. This way of counting makes the number of days from the start of the fast until its end exactly 40.

Some significant days of Holy Week include Holy Thursday and Holy Friday. On Holy Thursday, also known as Clean Thursday in Russia and Maundy Thursday in Britain, the Church remembers the Last Supper of Jesus and the Apostles. On that day, bishops wash the feet of priests in commemoration of Christ washing the feet of his 12 disciples as a sign of humility.

Great and Holy Friday, also known as Good Friday, is considered the most sorrowful day of Holy Week and of the liturgical year because Christians remember Jesus being crucified and accepting his death on the cross.

According to the New Testament, Christ was resurrected on the third day after being crucified, which is on Sunday if Friday is included in the day count.

The Gospel of St. John says: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

There is no liturgy in Christian churches on Holy Friday. In Orthodox Christianity, an icon or embroidery of the Shroud is taken out of the chancel in the afternoon and placed in the middle of the church, with believers remembering the Passion of Christ; the Shroud remains there until the beginning of Sunday’s Easter liturgy.

A group of pilgrims delivered on Saturday evening the Holy Fire from Jerusalem to the central Russian cathedral. The Holy Fire that is lit every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem on the day preceding Orthodox Easter is believed by Orthodox Christians to be a miracle.

From Moscow the Holy Fire, which pilgrims say does not burn in the first minutes after it has been lit, is “distributed” among churches in containers similar to those used to transport the Olympic flame.

Russia’s Easter traditions include painting and coloring eggs – normally red as a symbol of the blood of Christ – and cracking them. The tradition of giving each other paschal eggs dates back to the first century A.D.

Church legend has it that Mary Magdalene came to Roman Emperor Tiberius with a preaching of faith and gave him a chicken egg. Tiberius did not believe her story of Christ’s resurrection and said: “How can anyone be risen from the dead? This is as impossible as if this egg became red now.” And the egg turned red, showing the emperor the truth of the Christian faith.

Many Russians on Easter Sunday visit the graves of loved ones, a tradition not welcomed by the Church, which has special days to commemorate the dead and says Easter is a time of joy rather than sad reflection.

MOSCOW, April 24 (RIA Novosti)

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