Hundreds of teachers and prophets have been sent by God, but only Jesus Christ "sealed his teachings and prophecies with his own blood," according to the leader of Salt Lake's Greek Orthodox community. For that reason, the upcoming Easter celebration is more significant than any other day to members of the community.
The Very Rev. Joachim Hatzida-kis, dean of the Greek Orthodox community, said his congregations celebrate the significance of Easter and the resurrection for more than 90 days. That celebration is a tangible, often acted-out reminder of Christ's sacrifice and love."He loved his people that much and showed it by example," the Rev. Hatzidakis said. "The resurrection is the most brilliant feast of the church. It is the hope of the life to come. Life does not stop in the grave and that is what Christ showed."
The Greek Orthodox Church celebrates Easter this weekend, a week later than many other Christian churches. It can be as much as a month later, but the argument is not about the calendar. "For most Christians, the celebration takes place on the first weekend after the full moon after the spring equinox," the Rev. Hatzidakis said. "But we add one further condition. The Jewish Passover should be past. Christ celebrated Passover with his disciples. So we wait."
For 48 days before Easter, the Orthodox celebrants have a fasting observance, where certain foods are not eaten. This week, Holy Week, members have observed a strict fasting period punctuated by special services each evening, readings from the gospel on Thursday, and the removal of Christ from the crucifix Friday, a scene re-enacted to remind the congregation of Christ's sacrifice. Friday night, the church held a lamentation ceremony to grieve, through prayer and song, for the death of Christ. At the end of the service, the entire congregation took an "Epitaphios," a flower-bedecked grave marker, around the block surrounding the Holy Trinity Cathedral.
At Saturday midnight, Greek Orthodox members will celebrate the Service of Resurrection. A priest will provide lights which many people will take with them, "to bring the light of Christ into their homes." Then the church will celebrate Eucharist, followed by 50 days of "joyful activities" to mark the 50 days of Pentecost.
The Greek Orthodox Community has two churches, Holy Trinity Cathedral on Third South and Third West and Prophet Elias Church at 5335 Highland Drive. The four priests and one deacon rotate between them. "It is a community of several thousand families - Greeks, Russians, Ethiopians, Albanians, Romanians, Armenians. They have joint programs and parishioners go to either church."
The Rev. Hatzidakis is the senior priest, dean of the community and responsible to the archbishop in Denver.
The Greek Orthodox Church began on the day of Pentecost in 33 A.D., when "the Holy Spirit established the church." After 600 or 700 years of unity, the Orthodox religion split. The Bishop of Constantinople and Eastern Europe went one way; Western European countries followed the Bishop of Rome. And they established their own traditions, keeping common roots. Doctrine is based on the Bible and "holy traditions," which are as important as the gospel.
Orthodoxy, he said, is based less on culture than on language roots. At the time of Christ, Roman was the official language, Hebrew was local and Greek was spoken everywhere. The New Testament and other important documents have been translated from their original Greek.
The past decade has been a fascinating one, the Rev. Hatzidakis said. World changes have touched the church deeply. Many areas that were communist and officially atheist, like Eastern Europe, have reauthorized religion. In places like Romania and Yugoslavia, religion is generally Orthodox.
"Religion is not a part of the law. It is part of the heart of the people. Atheism is a Communist Party thing. But the people had religion. And we are proud of the countries prohibited to practice it. They have perpetuated their religion even with the unfair ban."
The Greek Orthodox Church has a strong missionary force, visiting the Third World, the Middle East and Africa. There are missionaries in Japan, Iraq and Kuwait, Lebanon, Damascus, Libya, Turkey, Brazil, Buenos Aires and Panama.