A wooden structure, decorated with flowers, represents the tomb of Jesus during the Easter season at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Washington. (Elias Souri)

This story is part of an occasional series on world religions.

For 48 days each spring, Sophia Fakhoury keeps all meats and cheeses off her plate and — with mixed success — out of her mind. She doesn’t touch a bit of bacon or lamb, two of her favorite foods, and she says the only dairy product she consumes is milk, “because it gives me vitamin D that I need while I’m growing.”

The fast, as this special diet is called, is done in preparation for Easter, Christianity’s most important holiday. Children usually start the practice during middle school.

“It’s my favorite time of the year,” says 12-year-old Sophia, a seventh-grader at Irving Middle School in Springfield, Virginia. “It’s more about giving back than taking for yourself. It brings our whole community together.”

Sophia attends St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in Northwest Washington, where her father is an usher and her mother helps lead community-service projects for teenagers. St. George Antiochian (an-tee-OH-kee-an) is part of a group of churches with roots in the ancient city of Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, Turkey.

Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Eastern Orthodox Christians. The Antiochian Orthodox church is one of several churches within the wider community of Eastern Orthodoxy. (Osman Orsal/AP)

These churches, known as Eastern Orthodox, trace their roots to the very beginning of Christianity and have traditions separate from the faith’s Catholic and Protestant branches. St. George’s services often feature burning incense, which fills the sanctuary with a spicy smell, and songs and chants performed in English and in Arabic.

Many backgrounds, one faith

“Ninety percent of our people here are really Christians of the Middle East,” says Father Joseph Rahal, the church’s priest. Sophia’s father was born in Jordan; other churchgoers are from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Ethi­o­pia and the Palestinian territories.

In the Orthodox Church, Easter is commonly known as Pascha (PASS-kuh), the Greek word for Passover.

“It is a joyous time,” Rahal says.

The holiday celebrates the resurrection, or rising from the dead, of Jesus, whom Christians consider to be the son of God.

“If it wasn’t for that resurrection, we wouldn’t be Christian,” Rahal says. “Everything in our tradition is centered around this. You could call it the church of Easter.”

A traditional Orthodox Easter egg painted with the image of Jesus is displayed at a museum in Bucharest, the capital of Romania. (Bogdan Cristel/Reuters)

Not all Christian churches celebrate Easter at the same time. Its date is determined in part by the phases of the moon, but Eastern Orthodox churches also set the date based on the Jewish holiday of Passover. This year, for the first time in three years, Eastern Orthodox churches and their Protestant and Catholic counterparts are celebrating Easter on the same date: April 16.

St. George’s has been preparing for weeks. The Easter season kicks off with a 40-day period known as the Great Lent, when kids and adults avoid certain foods, focus on prayer and reflection, and give back to the community. Sophia is helping to make blankets that will be donated to the homeless, and she was among a group of kids who visited Charlie’s Place, a Washington homeless center, to prepare and serve soup and other foods.

A marathon week

During Holy Week — the period just before Easter — Sophia and other kids, including Aaron Johnson, a 12-year-old from Fairfax County, Virginia, go to church services each evening. The services are “very beautiful and sad at the same time,” Aaron says.

The Friday evening service ends with a reading known as the vigil, when some of the church’s older kids stay up all night and read the Bible from front to back. Kids and teenagers take turns, sleeping when they become tired, and finish on Saturday afternoon. The reading occurs in front of a wooden structure — it represents Jesus’ tomb — that Aaron and others help decorate with flowers.

Sophia says she’ll probably stay up until 2 a.m. to prepare for the late-night Saturday service, which ends at midnight with an Easter feast that can last for two hours. She usually eats eggs and bacon during the celebration, but just a little bit, so her stomach doesn’t get woozy after going without meat for so long.

There’s one more big service Sunday morning, when Bible passages about the resurrection are read in six or more languages. Kids hunt for colored eggs, a symbol of new life, “and then we go and sleep,” Aaron says. It’s a happy day, but “we’re all very tired.”

Words to Know

Passover This Jewish holiday celebrates the Jews’ being freed from slavery in ancient Egypt. It occurs around the same time of year as Easter.

Bible The sacred text of Christianity. Certain books in the Bible are also part of Jewish scripture, and some stories also appear in different forms in the Koran, the sacred text of Islam.

Palm Sunday A part of Holy Week that is celebrated one week before Easter. The service traditionally features the waving of palm branches, because according to the Bible, tree branches were laid before Jesus when he entered Jerusalem shortly before his death.

Holy Friday The Friday before Easter, also known as Good Friday. The death of Jesus, who was nailed to a cross, is commemorated in church services on this day.

Kaak (KAH-yak) A crown-shaped Middle Eastern cookie, made from semolina and dates, that symbolizes the crown of thorns placed on Jesus before his death. Sophia’s family makes these each Easter.

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