Glorious Pascha! The Baltimore Sun gets the key parts right

I keep saying this year after year, but it's true. One of the greatest challenges for religion-beat specialists, season after season, is the long, steady march of feature stories that editors want you to produce linked to the major holy days in the various world religions.

Easter was always one of the biggest challenges for me, in part because it's always on Sunday morning (or in the ancient churches, at the stroke of midnight and on into the early hours of morning).

That sounds really obvious, but think it through. That means this story has to appear above the fold on A1 in the biggest newspaper of the week, which means editors have to think very highly of this story. It will also need large and spectacular color photography, for the reasons just mentioned. From the point of view of most secular editors, Easter is also a much more explicitly RELIGIOUS season than, let's say, Christmas. That's a problem.

But back to the art issue.

Do you see the problem? How do you get large, spectacular Easter art when that art must be produced BEFORE the holy day itself? And what are most churches -- liturgical churches, at least -- doing in the days before Easter, when you need to shoot these photos? They are observing the rites of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday -- beautiful, but solemn observances that, literally, offer visual images that are the exact opposite of what editors are going to want for that happy, happy Sunday A1 art.

In other words, it's easier to report about Easter before Easter than it is to photograph Easter before Easter. You almost always end up with something that looks very fake and staged.

All of this is to say that I was rather surprised when I awakened from my post-Pascha (the Eastern Orthodox term for Easter) coma this morning (the service began at 11:30 p.m. and ended at 3 a.m., followed by a giant feast) and discovered that The Baltimore Sun had a produced a quite solid Pascha-Easter story for A1, a package that was way better than the norm.

The focus of the story was on the role of eggs in various Easter rites, but with the major emphasis on the beautiful "red eggs" tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy. The A1 art was a lovely picture of some children lighting beeswax candles at an icon stand on Holy Saturday, with lots of egg art inside the paper. This art was shot earlier in the week when the eggs were being dyed.

The story started with a general overview, before hitting the major themes:

Children pet bunnies and gobble jelly beans. Wal-Mart sells more than 500 types of Easter confection, including unicorn- and space alien-themed baskets. Just a few of them allude to Christianity.

How does eating a package of Peeps recall the man Christians believe redeemed the world by rising from the dead nearly 2,000 years ago? Balancing Easter's secular and religious sides can be a challenge for area churches.

So you have your Catholic Easter egg hunts, symbolism-free Baptist services and mainline churches with hints of the ancient rites. Then:

At St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Highlandtown, the elements of fun and faith also come together. There, as at Eastern Orthodox churches worldwide, a single, striking symbol evokes the Resurrection in all its mysterious glory: a hard-boiled egg dyed red.

"Pascha would be unthinkable without red eggs," said the church's spiritual leader, the Rev. Michael Pastrikos, using the Greek word for Easter. "They represent Jesus' suffering and death on the cross, which happened in blood and brought us eternal life. Cracking [the eggs] means the end of the old and beginning of the new. And, to be honest, they're just a lot of fun."

Every year, at the end of the Pascha service on Saturday night, well after midnight, Pastrikos turns to several baskets of the red eggs, blesses them with a prayer, and hands one apiece to the 400 or so people who come up and meet him at the altar.

"Christos aneste!" ("Christ is risen!") he says each time.

"Alithos aneste!" ("He is indeed risen!") they respond.

And everyone flocks to the basement, where they crack the eggs in playful hand-to-hand combat the Greeks call tsougrisma ("clicking together"), hug, and sit down to the feast that, for Eastern Orthodox Christians, brings weeks of fasting to a festive end.

Then there is the statement of the major theme:

If bunnies and marshmallow candy are the symbols of modern secular Easter, the red-egg tradition blends fun and religion in a way that has unified communities — and satisfied worldly and religious appetites — for centuries.

"It's a tradition of the people, and everyone enjoys that, but it has to be part of the liturgy. It represents something spiritual -- the resurrection of the Christ, which gave us the possibility of salvation," Pastrikos said.

Now, let me be clear: The Greek traditions are undeniably crucial at this point. However, there is more to the Eastern traditions of Pascha than a few Greek traditions that are photographed and reported in newspapers every now and then.

Baltimore, in particular, offers churches containing a wide, wide variety of believers. I have just come from a noon Sunday service in which portions of the Gospel were read in more than a dozen languages spoken in our largely convert parish. At one point we were singing "Lord have Mercy" in Indonesian. (The video above is from the main Pascha service earlier.)

So I was happy that reporter Jonathan Pitts visited a very traditional Russian Orthodox parish, as well. So we are back to the egg symbolism:

Early Christians later adapted the symbol to their faith, with the shell representing the mortal world. When it cracked, that was like the world dying away; what remained meant rebirth just as the Crucifixion gave rise to eternal life.

"Just as Jesus Christ broke the bonds of hell and rose from the dead, so too, with the egg, we break its bonds and partake of its fruits," said the Rev. John Vass, pastor of Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church in East Baltimore, which also blesses and hands out red eggs.

The Orthodox faithful trace the red dye to the legend that Mary Magdalene -- one of Jesus' followers -- wandered the Roman Empire preaching the Resurrection, carrying eggs as a sort of visual aid. When she encountered the Roman emperor, Tiberius, the story goes, he was skeptical.

He told her he'd believe that Jesus rose from the dead if the eggs in her basket turned red. And they did.

This is a very long story and the non-Orthodox elements are given space as well. The feature even gets into a few of the details of the fast of Great Lent and why that Pascha feast is a really, really, big deal (think no meat or dairy for 50-plus days).

Read it all. A tough assignment, but well done.

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