“Enjoy ye all the feast of faith; receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.”
(From the Paschal Sermon of St John Chrysostom, read at Paschal Matins)
Orthodox Easter, called Pascha (The Greek term for the Hebrew ‘Pesach’, meaning Passover) is the Feast of Feasts, since it is by far the most liturgically and theologically important Orthodox celebration of the year. For all Christians, the Lord’s Resurrection is the most sacred of days, but among Eastern Christians the feast is observed with a special solemnity and then great rejoicing.
In part, our rejoicing is due to the fact that Pascha is also uniquely a culinary delight for us. While many Protestants and Roman Catholics may choose to fast, prolonged periods of fasting are no longer the norm in the praxis, or normative and guiding practice, in these Western Christian traditions. All Orthodox Christians in good medical health are expected to adhere to an ancient fasting discipline throughout the year, handed down for centuries in the inner discipline of the Church. This includes abstaining from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays in remembrance of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and His crucifixion, although following the Lord’s Resurrection we do not fast at all for a set period, and so the Paschal season for us is one of spiritual, and literal, feasting and rejoicing!
This is because Orthodox Christians keep an especially rigorous fast during the lengthy ascetic period of Great Lent, the 47 days preceding Pascha. During this time, we abstain from all meat, fish, olive oil and dairy products as a means to help us grow spiritually. We essentially go vegan for this time period. Not intended to serve as legalistic rules, the fasting guidelines for each person will differ slightly depending on the advice of one’s spiritual mentor, but among those Orthodox Christians who are not in grave or terminal illness or pregnancy (under these conditions any fasting is strictly forbidden) generally most observant Orthodox Christians will follow the fasting guidelines closely. Thus, Pascha is doubly joyous for us because our strict fasting gives way to a culinary feast without any restrictions in diet!
In the Russian tradition, decorated kulich – tall, cylindrical loaves of sweet bread baked with raisins and poppy seeds – are rich in taste and theological symbolism. Marked with ‘XB’, the Cyrillic initials for ‘Christ is Risen’, along with Orthodox crosses, their very decoration and height call to mind the Resurrection.
Made with the rich dairy from which we abstain during Great Lent, these are baked during Holy Week and blessed and consumed immediately after the midnight Paschal liturgy. They are cut horizontally, and paskha (a rich, sweet cream formed into a pyramid, made with cottage and ricotta cheese) spread on them.
I took the above image around 5am this morning in the parish hall after the Paschal Divine Liturgy at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St John the Baptist, the parish I attend here in Washington.