Preparing for Pascha at Saint Nicholas Church

Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church

In today’s Seacoast Sunday newspaper…

Preparing for Pascha
All ages help to ready church for Greek Easter

By Amy Kane

Portsmouth, N.H.- There’s one Seacoast church celebrating Easter today rather than last Sunday. It’s not just different, it’s original.

In 325 A.D., the early Christian churches agreed on the formula for determining the celebration of Christ’s resurrection each spring. Centuries later, the Western branch of Christianity, based in Rome, began using a different calendar and altered the formula; the Eastern Orthodox Church did not change.

“It is not a church that changes with time,” said Father Angelo Pappas, pastor of Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Portsmouth. “The liturgy has been the same for 1600 years.”

Easter is observed the Sunday after the first full moon in spring, said Father Pappas, and after Hebrew Passover to maintain the biblical sequence of events.

“Our word for Easter is ‘Pascha’ and it comes from the Hebrew ‘pesach’ for Passover because Easter is the
New Passover,” said Father Pappas.

This year, the 260 families that attend Saint Nicholas are celebrating Easter a week later than their Catholic and Protestant neighbors. Some years it can be nearly a month apart. Next year, all Christian churches will be celebrating on the same date.

“It can be awkward,” said Father Pappas. “I’m always explaining it to people.”

The children who attend Saint Nicholas explain differences to their non-Orthodox friends, too.

“We don’t eat meat or dairy for the 40 days of Lent and the seven days of Holy Week,” said Nicole Daphnis, 13.

“Sometimes my friends give up ice cream or something like that for Lent,” she said. “But they don’t know what it’s like to really fast.”

Nicole said the families of her non-Orthodox friends are nice about it, though. When they invite her for dinner they make sure to serve things she can eat.

On Friday morning, which was Orthodox Good Friday, the children were dismissed from their various schools in the Seacoast to go to Saint Nicholas for a day of work, fellowship and church services.

With rakes, shovels and wheelbarrows outside, and dust rags, mops and vacuum cleaners inside, roughly 50 children of all ages worked through the morning and early afternoon spring-cleaning the church in preparation
for Pascha.

Nicole, Sarah Panteleos, 13, and Melina Minichello, 13, dusted and wiped down pews.

“It’s fun, but it’s hard work too,” said Sarah.

Stephen and Nicholas Damianos, 12, and Nicholas Minichello, 10, raked leaves and picked up fallen branches. Then they helped prepare a lunch of lentil soup and pasta.

“I like to come and work for the church, and give back. It’s really important to me,” said Stephen.

“It’s about stewardship,” said Melina. “We’re doing this for what God did for us.”

More than 250 million Orthodox Christians worldwide celebrate Pascha. Many members of Saint Nicholas are second-, third- or fourth-generation Greek-Americans, said Father Pappas, whose parents came from Greece.

Greek foods are sold as a fund-raiser and children attend Greek school a couple of days a week.

“The New Testament was written in Hellenistic Greek,” said Father Pappas. But he emphasizes that anyone is welcome to attend. He has read the gospel in other languages, depending on who is there, including Chinese, Romanian and Russian.

Whereas the pope is the bishop of Rome and worldwide leader of the Roman Catholic Church, bishops known as patriarchs lead the Eastern Orthodox churches. Though Eastern and Western Christianity split in 1054 A.D., they are in dialogue now and maintain a good relationship, said Father Pappas. “In our roots, we were all one,” he said.

At Saint Nicholas, much time is devoted to church attendance during Holy Week, with daily services beginning on the Saturday of Lazarus, followed by Palm Sunday, Holy Monday and Holy Tuesday.

The Sacrament of Holy Unction takes place on Wednesday. Thursday begins with the Vesperal Liturgy of Saint Basil and ends with Service of the Twelve Gospels, the longest service in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Good Friday begins at 8 a.m. with a service called the Royal Hours.

At 3 p.m., after cleaning and lunch, the community gathered in the church for the Vespers for the Descent from the Cross.

Father Angelo removed the icon of the body of Jesus from the cross, and wrapped it in white linen to signify preparation for burial after the crucifixion.

“When He gets taken off the cross, it’s upsetting,” said Nicholas Minichello, 10. “The sad part is imagining His mother watching. But you don’t really mind because you know He’s going to come back on Easter.”

On Good Friday evening, lamentations are sung during the Epitaphios service, symbolizing the burial of Christ, and there is procession with altar boys and girls carrying flowers.

A cloth embroidered with the image of Jesus surrounded by angels is placed inside an open-sided structure decorated with flowers called “the Tomb.” The congregation lines up to venerate the Tomb.

To venerate the Tomb is not the same as worshipping it, explained Father Pappas.

Symbolic objects are an important part of Orthodox Christianity. The colorful images painted in the interior of Saint Nicholas Church are visual reminders of important figures like saints and apostles and they tell stories like the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

“The icons seem so alive and well-painted, it looks like their expressions change,” said Stephen. “The way the church is at the moment, happy or sad, is the way they feel too.”

Good Friday is a sad day, said several of the children. But they were looking forward to the Easter resurrection service at midnight the next day, followed immediately by a feast.

At 11 a.m. on Easter Sunday morning, Saint Nicholas Church celebrates the Agape service, or service of love.

“It’s a journey we go through, like Jesus’ journey, and so we feel close to Him,” said Stephen.


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(These two photos are by staff photographer Rich Beauchesne.)