New York. By Vicki James Yiannias
Reverend Robert Stephanopoulos kindly took a moment during the almost continuous services of Holy Week to answer some questions about the celebration of Pascha.
Father Robert, who is Dean Emeritus of the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, spoke from St. Fanourios Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where he has been interim priest for several years.
GN: What should Orthodox Christians be thinking of this week?
FRS: This is the holiest season, the season of concentration on the Passion of Christ, of all that leads up to His crucifixion, and the ultimate vindication of Resurrection. It’s the quintessential holiday of the Orthodox Christian calendar. As in much of Christendom, we Orthodox Christians have a tradition that goes way back to the New Testament times.
GN: I remember the excitement and anticipation of Holy Week in my house as I was growing up. Do you think that in general people become as immersed today or are the distractions too great?
FRS: I think that for every Orthodox household, whether people are really observant or not, this is a very, very important time. This is evidenced by the fact that people are turning out, offering their prayers and following the great drama that’s been unfolding, building up to t The Royal Hours on Holy Friday morning, the Great Vespers and Unnailing of Christ from the Cross in the afternoon, the Lamentations and Procession on Holy Friday evening and the Paschal Divine Liturgy, the Resurrection of our Lord at 12:00 midnight on Saturday, the culmination of Pascha, and Christos Anesti!… I think there are very few people who don’t know what’s going on at that moment.
GN: What is important to tell non-Orthodox Christians that come with us to our services?
FRS: To come with an open attitude, an expectation that what happened then is important now for each and every one of us, personally and as a community. That we’ve continued these traditions from their ancient beginnings; that this is a message we have always received, and that we have been building up to with the Great Lent for almost fifty days now.
GN: Is there anything else you’d like to say to newcomers to Orthodoxy about this holiday?
FRS: What I try to tell people who are already Orthodox Christians: Keep the Faith, and spread the Faith. We’re getting more converts as time goes on. Circumstances bring people to the Church, and these are not easy times for many of us but there’s a tradition there that goes back to the beginning, and we have to be very proud of it, especially in these times. When the country of our origin is being severely tested, and so forth, it’s a good time to share that faith with the people that are obviously suffering in Greece… throughout the world, for that matter.
GN: Some writings about their experience of the Paschal celebration by non-Orthodox Christians or by converts to Orthodoxy are very moving, such as Hans Christian Andersen’s observations of Pascha in Athens [in this issue of the GN], or noted Eastern orthodox theologian, David Hart’s article, “An Orthodox Easter” in the Wall Street Journal [Friday, April 9, 2004]. he writes, “At the moment of highest drama, at midnight, all the lights in the church are extinguished, and the faithful wait in total darkness. The priest then bears a lighted candle in through the central door of the great icon screen behind which the altar is hidden, as a symbol of the risen Christ departing from his tomb, and summons the congregation to light the candles they have brought with them from this flame. Thereafter, the liturgy is all light and joy, punctuated by frequent repetitions of the great Paschal hymn–“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs restoring life!”…. “As I have said, one must experience such worship to understand its profundity. I can say only that, in my two decades of being Orthodox, the power of these services has not diminished in the least; and every year, at one point or another, I become entirely lost in the glory of the Gospel being announced and portrayed before my eyes.”
FRS: Those descriptions are often very, very encouraging for those of us who might take it for granted. I think at this time of year, whether you’re an old hand or not, it’s a very impressive time, and people will come.
GN: Are you finding that church attendance is staying the same, increasing or decreasing?
FRS: Attendance is always higher at this time of the year. There are people who come that ordinarily wouldn’t during the course of the year. And throughout Holy Week it builds up. I’m surprised that how many different people will show up during the evening services in particular.
GN: What is your recent history with St. Fanourios Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey?
FRS: I’ve been coming here for several years. It was really an interim assignment, as the priest at the time had passed away rather suddenly. The Metropolitan knew that I was retired from the Cathedral so asked me if I would fill in until a replacement was found. That was years ago, and they still haven’t found one!
GN: They’re probably very happy with you.
FRS: They’re happy with me and I’m happy with them. I’m here every weekend but there are times in the year when we have to be away–most of the summer we’re away–and they have to fill in with other people, but it’s been very gratifying.
GN: They’re a lucky congregation to have you.
FRS: We’re grateful to be with them and they’re very fine people. It’s a small congregation, but they’re very nice people.
Reverend Robert George Stephanopoulos PhD served as Dean of the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity beginning in September 1982. He retired following 25 years as Dean of the Holy Trinity Cathedral. His was the second longest tenure in the 105-year history of the Cathedral. Prior to that time he served as pastor of St. Demetrios Church, Fall River, MA; the Church of Our Saviour, Rye NY and as Dean of Saints Constantine and Helen Cathedral, Cleveland, OH. He was born in Neohorion, Elias, Greece, and came to the United States with his family when he was five years old.