Of course, Christians all over the globe join together on Easter Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, and one could probably go to an Easter service anywhere and recognize (to some degree) what was taking place. But there are also many differences in the way Easter is celebrated in different parts of the world. In particular, there are differences in the way Western Christians (Protestants and Roman Catholics) celebrate Easter and the way Eastern Orthodox Christians (members of the churches which descended from the Greek-speaking wing of the early Church) celebrate it. Perhaps it will be interesting to us in the West to learn about some of the customs related to the celebration of Easter in the East (and especially in Russia).
The most obvious difference is that Easter is normally celebrated on a different Sunday in the East and the West. Ever since the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325), Christians have celebrated the resurrection of Christ on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox (March 21). For most of Christian history, the church used the old Julian calendar (invented in the time of Julius Caesar in the first century B.C.) to determine when the vernal equinox would be. But in the sixteenth century it became clear that the Julian calendar was lagging behind astronomical time, and a new calendar (the Gregorian) was proposed. The Western Church accepted this new calendar, but the Eastern Church rejected it. At present, the Julian calendar is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, and is gradually losing more and more time. That means that whereas we calculate the date of Easter from March 21 by our Gregorian calendar, the Eastern Church calculates it from March 21 by their older calendar, which equals April 3 by our calendar.
The Eastern Church also insists that Easter must follow the Jewish celebration of Passover in any given year, and that celebration is based on yet a third calendar. Depending on when the full moon occurs and when Passover takes place, Eastern Easter can fall on the same Sunday as Western Easter, or it can follow it by one week, four weeks, or five weeks. Normally Eastern Easter is one week later, but ironically, this year is one of the rare times when they fall on the same Sunday. The last time that happened was in 1990, when Easter fell on April 15 as it does this year.
A second big difference has to do with the hour of the day when Easter is celebrated. Of course, we are familiar with Easter sunrise services. But in the East (especially in Russia), Easter services last all through Saturday night. The congregation gathers in the church or cathedral on Saturday evening and takes part in an Easter vigil commemorating the buried Christ. Orthodox church buildings have an inner sanctuary blocked off from the sight of the worshipers, and at this point the door to that sanctuary is closed, signifying that the way to God is closed. But at the stroke of midnight, the priest throws the doors open and emerges, shouting, "Christ is risen! Christ is risen! Christ is risen!" After hours of silent anticipation, the congregation comes to life and shouts back, "He is risen indeed!" This custom powerfully demonstrates the way Christ’s resurrection has opened up for us the way to God.
One of my favorite Russian Easter customs has to do with dyeing Easter eggs. In Russia, children always dye the eggs red, never using other colors. The red dye, of course, symbolizes the blood of Christ. Furthermore, people crack the eggs open using nails, in order to remind themselves again of the death of Christ. As the eggs are cracked and the whites are exposed, people remember that the blood of Christ cleanses us from sin. Although our sins were as scarlet, we have been made as white as snow.
A mainstay of our Easter celebrations is the family Easter dinner following our worship services. In Russia, the corresponding dinner is actually a picnic, in which the entire congregation celebrates together. People bring food to the church on Saturday evening and ask the priests to bless it. Then after the long Easter vigil through the night and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper on Easter morning, people eat together on the lawn outside the church building. They believe that such an important celebration cannot be merely a private or family affair, and the worshipers are reminded by this communal picnic that all members of the body of Christ belong to one another.
Perhaps these tidbits about the celebration of Easter in Russia will not simply be interesting to us in America. Instead, they may also give us some ideas which we can incorporate into our own Easter celebrations, ideas which may help to re-focus our attention on the great truth which we all celebrate this Sunday: Christ is risen!