A Funeral for Jesus: Stumbling into Orthodox Easter

easter funeral good friday greek orthodox orthodox

Emily Six's love for the unreached and unengaged led her to move to Salt Lake City, Utah, and join a church plant in 2015. There, she met her husband Philip, and led worship and community groups alongside him for several years. In March 2023, Emily and Philip embarked on a "Sabbath year" to travel the world and explore new cultures while continuing to work remotely and spread the light of Christ. Emily is a communications consultant with a BA in Anthropology and Psychology from Texas A&M University.

“Spectacle” is the best way I can think to describe the entirety of my experience witnessing Greek Orthodox Easter in Greece. The timing happened as a pure coincidence; my husband and I are currently traveling and decided to meet my best friend in Greece for my 30th birthday, on April 15. As the (Julian) calendar would have it, Greek Orthodox Easter fell on the same weekend. Our curiosity pulled us into some of the traditions and our vacation plans kept us away from some of the others, but we couldn’t have avoided this holiday if we tried.

Why is the date different than Protestant Easter?
The Greek Orthodox Church follows the Julian calendar, contrasting with the Gregorian calendar used by most countries today. In the Orthodox Church, Easter is celebrated after the first full moon following Passover, because the New Testament records Jesus celebrating Passover before He died (Matthew 26:17-30). The Western church celebrates on the first Sunday following the first full moon on or after the spring Equinox. Sometimes, we celebrate Easter before Passover—a tradition that confuses the Orthodox Church.

Are the two holidays the same?
Theologically these two holidays celebrate the same thing: the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and therefore the reconciliation of sinful man with the one Holy God.

Practically speaking, Orthodox Easter is expressed more like Protestant Christmas. It is the primary holiday of the Church—and, from my experience, permeates deep into the culture. Easter candles filled toy stores, a restaurant owner served us special Easter cookies made by his mother, and many Greeks we encountered were on or looking forward to Easter vacation.

Just like Christmas in the US, Orthodox Easter spills from a sacred faith experience into the secular sphere with somewhat smudgy boundaries. There are quite a few clear celebrations with spiritual focuses, like the holiday church services. There are also some celebrations that happen through the Church that are a little… less spiritual. How does a youth group’s white elephant gift exchange fit in? How about shooting an effigy of Judas in the church courtyard? What about a funeral procession for Christ?

Jesus’ funeral
On Friday, we found ourselves in a traffic jam. We were trying to grab takeout from one of the more local towns on Santorini, called Pyrgos, and we ended up at a police barricade, navigating a detour down what used to be a two-way street but was now full of parked cars on both sides and a constant stream of people walking in a singular direction. While we paused to yield to oncoming traffic, we rolled down our window and asked a woman where she was going. She told us that we had stumbled across the local Good Friday service.

Back at our villa, we could see the walls of Pyrgos Kastillis Castle alight with fire and we decided to venture out to see if we could find the celebration. Immediately, we felt the stillness and the quiet. Then we heard the drums.

We watched as the mournful parade came toward us and turned into the tight streets of Pyrgos. The Epitaphios, a symbolic funeral bier for Jesus that is covered in flowers, stopped in front of us. The bearers held it high, and we joined the crowd to kiss the Epitaphios, duck, and walk under. The mood was both mournful and rejoicing—and I found myself genuinely moved.

We followed the funeral procession through the narrow, winding streets toward the Castle. I contemplated this ritual, this acknowledgment of loss and death, and realized I was tearing up. I was struck by the loss and separation of the Cross, even as I know its victory.

As we got closer, residents were on their balconies or patios, splashing us with incense, Holy Water, and whispered blessings. The lights that we had seen from afar were giant cans of kerosene, blowing wildly in the wind. The streets were getting tighter, the stairs steeper, and the flames closer. We held on to each other for support. The procession moved to a single file line and the mood shifted into near silence, with a feeling of heaviness that seemed to blanket everyone.

The parade terminated at the Church, where we listened to the recitations in Greek and observed the crowd. Here, it felt like an even mixture of reverence and routine. The somber atmosphere of the procession had shifted to something more akin to uneasy anticipation, and I could feel the restlessness of all ages present. After some time, the readings were complete, and the crowd moved to take flowers from the Epitaphios and head out.

We stopped for gelato on the way back, where we observed a group of teenagers setting off cherry bombs and explosives. It was late—nearing midnight—and the once somber, quiet town had turned into the kind of party where bombs go off and no one blinks.

Holy Saturday, the Pascha Vigil, and Shooting Judas
We didn’t directly participate in the rest of the weekend’s activities. But Santorini is a small island, and it was impossible to miss the fireworks and explosives that continued for days. On Holy Saturday, the Orthodox Church hosts the Pascha Vigil—a candlelight service that ends with the midnight announcement “Christ is Risen!” and shifts into midnight Mass. Churches ring their bells, ships blast their horns, and firecrackers are set off. Then, churchgoers carry their lit lambada candles home and break their 40-day fast.

On Sunday, at precisely 11:00 am, we heard resounding booms as the effigy of Judas was shot in Pyrgos Square, a symbolic punishment for his betrayal. We heard continuous fireworks from the beach where we observed several whole lambs on spits, roasting over carefully tended fires.

Is it true worship?
To be frank, we asked ourselves this question pretty much nonstop during our participation in the funeral parade. We tested the events with the Spirit, and we chose to abstain from certain aspects we didn’t fully understand. The language barrier presented another challenging layer since we couldn’t make sense of the real-time events around us. However, this essay isn’t a deep dive into the differing theologies between the Protestant and Orthodox churches and I can’t make sweeping generalizations about either church.

What I can tell you is this: I have never been as emotionally moved by a Good Friday service as I was during the funeral procession in Pyrgos. I have participated in services that both enter into lament and ones that focus on victory—and this was the first Good Friday where I have truly felt the weight of loss. A long journey through the dark, crowded streets, the air heavy with silence and smoke, the steps steep and narrow, the anxiety of not knowing where we were headed or what we would do when we got there… I felt the weight of loss. The confusion of Peter. The heartbreak of Mary. The devastating knowledge that it was my sins that necessitated this sacrifice.

The juxtaposition of loss makes the victory of Easter feel so much richer. There wasn’t a formal “service” for us to celebrate the next day (since we opted for a beach day instead of an hours-long mass in a different language). Instead, the joy was found in personal reflection and conversation. We spent many days debriefing our overall Greek Orthodox experience, and one thing kept coming to the surface for me: the sweetness of victory after feeling the sting of defeat.

Following God into the Unknown
My friend and I are just normal people. Our timing in Greece was a smattering of coincidences involving my birthday and the cheapest international flights from DFW. We found ourselves in that traffic jam because we were looking for a highly recommended local restaurant. We missed the spectacle of the lighting of the Castle but found ourselves on just the right street corner at just the right time to see the funeral procession headed our way. We were admittedly hesitant to join the parade; we did very little research ahead of time and couldn’t understand a single word, so we truly had just the barest understanding of what was going on. We didn’t know the time commitment (long) or how far we would walk (far) or how close we would be to open fire billowing dangerously in the wind (very close). But I am so glad that we took the leap.

In the weird, in the unknown, in the spectacle, I came to understand a foundational truth of Christ’s love in a deeper way.

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