Five weeks after most Christians celebrated Easter, members of Orthodox churches gathered last Saturday to proclaim, "Christos Anesti" -- Christ is risen.
At Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Massachusetts Avenue at 36th Street, the resurrection service began near midnight when the church was darkened as the assistant priest sang a hymn heralding the dawn. The door of the iconostasis, the icon-covered screen dividing the sanctuary and the nave, then opened.
The priest appeared with a lighted candle as he said, "Come . . . take light from the light that never wanes." Members of the Saint Sophia parish council, who earlier had seated or found standing room for the overflow crowd of worshipers, waited to receive the holy light. They in turn passed down the aisles lighting more tapers until hundreds of individually held candles illuminated the church and were reflected in the gold of the mosaics overhead.
Three white-robed acolytes carrying large candles led a colorful procession toward the vestibule of the church as the chanters and the choir in the dome asked that God make all worthy to glorify the resurrected Christ.
More acolytes, whose red cloaks were embroidered with gold, followed. Some were carrying gold-and-silver processional fans symbolic of celestial angels. Others held ornate crucifixes.
Two more, wafting incense with censers whose smoke carry prayers aloft, preceded other acolytes holding the flower-bedecked icon and the wooden banner of the resurrection.
The priest, wearing an embroidered blue phelonion or cape, held the resurrection candle and the gold-covered gospel high as he walked slowly through the church. After the rest of the procession, he returned to the chancel floor that at Saint Sophia represents the site of the resurrection.
There, after reading the gospel that told of the myrrh-bearing women who discovered Christ's empty tomb, he triumphantly proclaimed, "Christos Anesti." Making the sign of the cross with candles in hand, the congregation joined in the singing of the resurrection hymm and repeated again and again the joyful phrase, "Christos Anesti."
"The date for the Orthodox Easter observance is based on the ancient Julian calendar and a decision remaining in effect to this day that was taken at the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325 AD," explained the Rev. John Tavlarides, dean of Saint Sophia Cathedral and parish priest. Most other Christian faiths in 1582 adopted the Gregorian calendar upon which their April 3 Easter date was set this year.
In America the Greek Orthodox church maintains its centuries-old traditions with a few exceptions. Here pews have been added allowing the congregation to sit during part of each service rather than to stand during its entirety. Sunday schools, unknown in Greece, have been established.
The major change is the use of English during some or all of the liturgy. The language usage is up to the discretion of the parish priest based upon the needs of his parishioners.
"But here the church always has had another function in addition to its religious one. It has been the most important instrument through which Hellenic culture has been maintained," said P. Thomas Koinis, Sunday school teacher who often lectures on Greek Orthodoxy and guides visitors through the cathedral.
At Saint Sophia and the other Greek Orthodox churches in the area, Greek language classes are held regularly. The church of Saints Constantine and Helen has the only Greek parochial school where 95 children are enrolled in classes that take them through the sixth grade.
The parish of Saint Sophia was established in Washington in 1904 by a group of 35 Greek immigrants. Their first services were held in a rented house at Seventh and Louisiana streets NW. Later they met at Adas Israel Congregation. In 1913 they bought a site at Eighth and L streets NW, where they built the first Greek Orthodox church that has since been demolished.
The cathedral of Saint Sohpia -- or Holy Wisdom -- was built in the mid-1950s. "We have plans for an education and activities center," said Tavlarides, "once our iconographic work has been completed."
Demetrics Dukas, who worked as a student on the restoration of the mosaics at Haghia sophia in Istanbul, is recreating 9th to 11th century Byzantine liturgical motifs for the interior of the cathedral.
In the Orthodox ecclesiastical calendar, Easter is the most important time of the year. Services held each day during holy week that began on Palm Sunday commemorated the events leading up to the passion of Christ and his resurrection.
On Good Friday, at midday services, the figure of Christ was removed from the cross. The epitaphion, an embroidered icon representing the dead Christ, then was placed in a large flower-bedecked bier that stood on the chancel floor.
At the end of the lamentation service that evening commemorating Christ's burial, the flowers were removed from the bier and distributed to the parishioners as a remembrance of Christ's sacrifice.
"The theological dramas that we reenact during holy week had their origins in the passion plays of the early Byzantine era," said Tavlarides. "Through them we teach the meaning of our faith. Our ceremonies and symbols are intended to assault all the senses, allowing Christ to enter through sounds, sights, scents and tactile impressions."