This past Saturday Orthodox Churches remembered the miracle of the resurrection of Lazarus by Jesus Christ, a week before Easter.
Righteous Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, was brought back to life by the spoken command of Christ four days after his death. The event, the last among the supernatural miracles of Christ in his earthly life, testified to His divine nature and promised a future resurrection of every person to eternal life. The miracle convinced many to place their faith in Christ, but also aroused indignation among Jewish elders.
According to historical records Lazarus lived 30 years after the miracle and served as a bishop in Cyprus, where he was buried. At the end of the 9th century, his tomb was found with the inscription “Lazarus, a friend of Christ”. Upon his tomb’s discovery the Byzantine emperor moved his relics to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey).
Of course palms are not grown everywhere in the world so Orthodox peoples who live in areas without palms use pussy willow branches in place of palms for this event. Russian Churches call this Sunday as Вербное Воскресенье (Pussy Willow Sunday). Some churches hand out small crosses made of palms to be kept in the icon corner of your home.
Saturday Lazarus services are timed in Orthodox churches to mark the Entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia led the Russian service in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. In Russia the Saturday before the week of Easter is also named Willow (Palm) Sunday in memory of the greeting of Christ with branches of trees. During the liturgy, pussy willow branches are blessed with sprinkling of holy water.
For 40 days before the great event, Eastern Christians observe the Great Lenten fast in which no meat, meat products, milk, eggs, alcohol or oil is consumed in meals. This tradition which is marked by all the Orthodox churches worldwide calls believers to prayer and repentance and is a small illustration of the isolation and plain diet which Christ experienced in the wilderness during the 40 day period prior to his resurrection.
The fasting begins with Maslenitsa (Масленица): This is also known as Cheesefare Week, Butter Week, or Pancake week and combines both a religious and folk holiday. It is celebrated during the last week before Great Lent—that is, the seventh week before Pascha (Easter).
Maslenitsa signals the coming of the fast and celebrates with feasts of pancakes. Sometimes it is called “Cheesefare” week, the last week when cheese is okay for consumption. The previous week was called “Meatfare” week for the same reasons.
During Maslenitsa week, meat is already forbidden to Orthodox Christians, making it a “myasopustnaya nedelya” (мясопустная неделя) “meat-empty week” or “meat-fast week”. During Lent, meat, fish, dairy products and eggs are forbidden. Furthermore, Lent also excludes parties, secular music, dancing and other distractions from the spiritual life.
Setting aside certain foods, parties and celebrations, (some couples choose to abstain from sex, or curtail frequency during the fast), etc, have to do with self discipline, a key Eastern principle almost completely unpracticed by Christians in the West. Western Christians are often surprised at the strictness of the routine but their Eastern brothers and sisters refuse to practice the kind of “cheap grace” faith so often found across the West.
This also helps baffled Westerners understand why a normally nonreligious person will join in the Pashka (Easter) fast 40 days before Easter and again in the Orthodox Nativity fast for 40 days before Christmas. Its part of the Eastern mindset that self discipline is good for the body, good for the soul, and good for mental health.
In countries such as Russia, Bulgaria, Belarus, Armenia, Greece and Ukraine, etc, the government changes it’s diet for the Easter fast. In Moscow the Kremlin kitchens are among the nation’s largest producers of Easter bread & cakes. The Easter celebration is by far the most important in the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Orthodox Lenten fast, which is entirely vegan (no meat or animal products), is of sufficient popularity that most restaurants advertise “fasting” menu options during this time.
The week before Easter, Palm Sunday, is called “Pussywillow Sunday.” The cold climate of Northern Europe and Eastern Asia doesn’t allow for too many palm trees, and traditionally pussywillows, which begin to bloom right around Easter, symbolized triumph and victory, just like palm trees did in ancient Palestine. Leading up to Palm Sunday, you can buy pussywillows from small street vendor kiosks in just about any town.