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East and west churches meet as one this Easter Sunday Unlike most years, two branches of Christianity celebrate the resurrection on the same day

One Christian's Easter is another's Pascha when churches today mark the resurrection of Jesus.

No matter what they call it, Christians around the world are celebrating their most important feast of the year at the same time.

That isn't always the case.

In some years, Easter and Pascha, the Orthodox term for the Christian "feast of feasts," are celebrated as much as five weeks apart because Eastern and Western churches calculate the date of the holiday using different calendars. Prior to 2001, Christians went a whole decade without celebrating Easter and Pascha on the same day.

The discrepancy -- rooted deep in history -- has long been a source of concern among some Christians, particularly in countries where Christianity is a minority religion and among families with mixed marriages.

The World Council of Churches declared in 1997 that by not recognizing Easter and Pascha at the same time, churches were giving a "divided witness" to the great mystery of the resurrection, "compromising their credibility and effectiveness in bringing the Gospel to the world."

So far, a proposal by the council to adopt a common date has gained little traction.

The issue usually gets little attention in the United States, where the overwhelming majority of Christians are Catholics and Protestants.

While sounding a hopeful note for greater unity, many Christians here don't dwell on a common date.

"The younger you are, the more in tune you are with that difference," said Sam Cygalj, who attends St. Stephen Serbian Orthodox Church on Abbott Road in Lackawanna.

Orthodox children, for example, often inquire about why they're not celebrating Easter at the same time the holiday is being promoted in popular culture, he said.

"It's been going on for so long," said John Aren, a member of St. Mary's Orthodox Church on Losson Road in Cheektowaga. "If everyone believes in Christ, that's the only thing that matters to us. The important thing is we all believe in the resurrection of Christ."

This year's coinciding dates are a "wonderful sign of unity" among Christians, said the Rev. Joseph Bertha, a Catholic priest in the Byzantine Rite, which uses a liturgy similar to the one used in Orthodox churches.

"I think people on the ground level don't really sense that," he added. "It's so complex a compilation, I think most people are just happy to celebrate when their church is celebrating."

The Rev. Christos B. Christakis, pastor of the Hellenic Orthodox Church of the Annunciation on West Utica Street and Delaware Avenue, would prefer to see a common date.

"We're celebrating the resurrection of Christ, which is fundamental for all the [Christian] traditions," he said.

Of the estimated 2.1 billion people who comprise the world's largest religion, 240 million are Orthodox Christians. Fewer than 1 million Orthodox reside in the United States, and perhaps 10,000 are affiliated with seven Orthodox churches in Erie and Niagara counties that make up the Council of Orthodox Churches on the Niagara Frontier.

They have long been accustomed to being a minority among other Christians -- some even joke that the biggest difficulty is finding enough lilies to fill their churches, because they're usually sold out before Pascha. Many Orthodox take a measure of pride in their distinctiveness and would prefer to keep the old calendar for calculating Pascha.

Christakis acknowledged it is no simple matter to bring all Christian groups together for the resurrection feast. Particularly in Orthodoxy, where the calendar is seen as tied to the origins of the faith, changes won't come easily.

"I don't want to pretend that we're all the same. We're not," he said.

Christians remain deeply divided over more than incongruent calendars and dates of holidays.

Orthodox Christians reject the primacy and infallibility of the pope and permit most priests to marry. Theologically, they oppose a Western change to the Nicene Creed known as the filioque, Latin for "and the son."

The Catholic Church and Protestant traditions allow Orthodox Christians to receive the Eucharist, but the same privilege is not granted in the Orthodox Church to any non-Orthodox.

"To have a fully unified Christianity would entail a lot more than just celebrating on the same day," said the Rev. Herman Schick, pastor of St. George Orthodox Catholic Church on Nottingham Terrace.

Still, when the dates align, a common heritage shines through.

The members of St. Mary Orthodox Church were busy last week making nearly 500 dozen pierogi for the season -- most being purchased by their Losson Road neighbors at St. Philip the Apostle Church.

As Bishop Edward U. Kmiec of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo blessed urns of oil during a special Chrism Mass on Tuesday evening inside St. Joseph Cathedral, some area Orthodox churches were hosting Holy Unction, a healing service featuring sacramental oil.

And most churches, whether they be Orthodox, Catholic, Episcopal, Baptist, Presbyterian or any number of other Christian denominations, anticipated their largest crowds of the year for services Saturday and today.

Early Christians struggled with exactly when to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus, too.

The synoptic Gospel accounts -- Matthew, Mark and Luke -- claim that Jesus's last supper was a Jewish Passover meal, which would put his death on the day after Passover. But the Gospel of John has Jesus dying on Passover itself. Thus, some Christians celebrated Pascha on the Jewish Passover, regardless of the day of the week, while others celebrated it on the following Sunday.

Some couples say it's trickiest when the dates of Easter and Pascha coincide.

Michael and Diana Munich -- he's Serbian Orthodox, she's Catholic -- together with their daughter usually celebrate both Pascha and Easter in their respective Lackawanna churches, St. Stephen's Serbian Orthodox Church and Our Lady of Victory Basilica.

But this year, the Muniches will have to do things a little differently. They plan to participate in the Divine Liturgy at St. Stephen's and then gather for Easter dinner with Diana's extended family.

"The main thing is it's all about family," Michael Munich said.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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