The Holy Spirit reminds us ” not to reject the traditions of our elders, which they have learned from their fathers” (Sirach 8:9). Toge. ther with the Byzantine Rite, we have inherited many meaningful customs which make our liturgical worship inspiring, spiritually rich and close to the heart of our people.
Among these venerable customs we count the custom of blessing food at Easter.
In earlier times, meat and dairy products were excluded from the daily diet during the entire season of the Great Fast, beginning with Cheesefare Sunday. As the end of the strict fast approached, the people showed their joy and gratitude by taking their food to church to be blessed and eaten after the Easter Liturgy. This is the reason why the liturgical books prescribe the blessing of the food after the Divine Liturgy on Easter Sunday.
This venerable custom was brought to the United States by our fore-fathers. As we celebrate the Pasch, a feast of new life, we bless the food sustaining our physical life. Thus our custom has its meaning even today and, therefore, it should be piously observed.
1 Since the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ took place during the celebration of the Jewish Passover, which foreshadowed our redemption , it was only natural that some Jewish paschal themes and customs have been introduced into the Christian liturgical services. Even the ancient name, “Pascha,” was accepted from the Hebrew word ” pesach” meaning ” to pass over” ; hence the English name for the holyday is the Pasch or Passover.
Our traditional term , “Pascha,” in its liturgical application, has three various meanings: Firstly, it means the historical passover, the liberation of the Jews from Egyptian slavery and their crossing over the Red Sea into the Promised Land. In the New Testament, the term is applied in a typical sense to our liberation from the slavery of sin and our mystical passing ” from death to life,” and from earth to heaven (comp. In. 5:24; 13:1). Thus at the Resurrection Matins we sing: “The Passover is the Lord’s Passover, since Christ our God has brought us from death to life and from earth to heaven” (Irmos of the First Ode).
Secondly, the term is applied to the yearly commemoration of this event, the Feast of Passover. For us Christians it is a yearly commemoration of Christ’s glorious resurrection , which has been celebrated since Apostolic times according to the testimony of St. Paul: ” Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed , let us celebrate the feast” (I Cor. 5:7).
In our liturgy, the Pasch is described as ” feast of feasts and solemnity of solemnities” (Irmos of the Eighth Ode).
Thirdly, the Pasch is applied to the paschal meal at which the Jews feasted on the sacrificial lamb, which prefigured the ” Lamb of God,” Jesus Christ (In. 1 :29). Jesus Himself referred this term to the paschal banque,t, telling His disciples: “Go and make preparation for us to eat the Pasch” (Lk. 22:8). Thus, the Easter Canon extols Jesus Christ as our Pasch, since He ” willingly sacrificed Himself like a yearling lamb for all of us” (Troparion of the Fourth Ode) .
2 The connection between the paschal banquet of the Old Testament and our traditional blessing of the prepared foods on Easter Sunday is quite obvious. But the motive which prompted the custom of the blessing of the food is entirely Christian, based on the Scripture of the New Testament. We will only quote some passages: 1) After His resurrection Jesus Christ was recognized by two of His disciples in Emmaus at meal time, i.e., when He “took the bread, said the blessing, and broke it” (Lk. 24:30); 2) Our Savior convinced the Apostles of His resurrection after He “ate before their eyes” (Lk. 24:43); 3) Appearing to the Apostles after His resurrection the Lord on several occasions ” ate with them” (Acts 1 :3-4). That is why St. Peter also emphasized this fact, saying : “We have eaten and drunk with Him after His resurrection!” (Acts 10:41).
This “banqueting” of the Risen Christ with the Apostles was in complete harmony with His promise: “I have longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; and I tell you , I shall not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Lk. 22:15-16). By sharing food with the Apostles after His glorious resurrection , our Savior wanted to indicate that the kingdom of God already was inaugurated .
Our Lord described the participation in the kingdom of God as “a great banquet,” and one of the listeners reacted : ” Blessed is the man who will be at the feast in the kingdom of God!” (Lk. 14:15 ff.) . The Book of Revelation describes this heavenly banquet as the “wedding feast of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9).
Thus, liturgically eating the Easter food reminds us of our participation in the ” divine joy of Christ’s kingdom ” (Troparion of the Eighth Ode).
Here we should note that in the Bible food was usually taken as an expression of joy and happiness, especially when regaining a new life, whether it be spiritual (e.g., in the case of the Baptism of the jailer in Phillipp i-Acts 16:34), or bodily (e.g ., in the case of the raising of Jairus’ daughter-Lk. 8:55). The resurrection of our Savior brought us a new life, both spiritual (opening for us the gates of heaven) and bodily (in our expectation of the resurrection of the dead). Thus, when partaking with joy of the tasty Easter food , blessed beforehand in the church , we express at the same time our unshakable faith in the new and better life awaiting us in the heavenly kingdom.
3 The foods traditionally blessed for Easter can be reduced to three categories : 1) Easter bread, referred to by our people as “pascha” ; 2) Meat products, like ham, stuffed veal , suckling pig or lamb, sausage, bacon, etc. ; 3) Dairy products, like butter, cheese (” hrudka” -cheese cake) , eggs (” pisanki” ); etc.
What is the meaning of such variety?
Firstly, the Easter bread (pascha) is a large round loaf of bread, made of white flour and enriched by adding eggs, raisins, and milk.
On top it is decorated with a crown and a cross of various designs, made out of the same dough. It symbolizes our Lord Jesus Christ, the ” living Bread,” (In. 6:51) Who “came down from heaven to give life (eternal) to the world” (cf. Prayer for the Blessing of the Bread). Thus, the Easter bread (pascha) reminds us of the presence of our ” true Pasch,” Jesus Christ, Who “promised, without fail, to remain with us until the end of time” (Troparion of the Ninth Ode).
Secondly, the meat products symbolize the sacrificial animals of the Old Testament, foreshadowing the true sacrifice of our Savior, who became for us “a Lamb of God, taking away the sins of the world” (In. 1 :29). As we learn from the prayer of blessing, the meat products also symbolize the fattened calf prepared for the Prodigal Son (representing fallen mankind) on his return to his father (Heavenly Father). Thus, at Easter we celebrate our return to God and our joyous participation in the blessings of our Savior, Who promised to be our ” true food” (In. 6:55).
Finally, the dairy products remind us of the ” prosperity and peace” of the Messianic times which had been foretold by the Prophets (e .g., Is. 7:22 ; Joel 3:18, etc.). Metaphorically, the milk and honey in the Bible signify wealth, especially the spiritual wealth of God’s kingdom. Therefore, as he blesses the dairy products the priest prays: ” as we partake of them , may we be filled with Your generous gifts and unspeakable goodness.”
Eggs were always considered as a symbol of the resurrection , the emergence of a new life. At Easter our Savior came forth from the tomb as the chick after breaking the shell at birth . Because of this special meaning, it is fitting that Easter eggs be colored or decorated. They are the favored object of our national art and are known to us as “pisanki.”
4 The first of the Easter foods prepared are the gaily colored and intricately decorated eggs. By using wax on the eggs and passing them through various dies, the intricate patterns and beautiful coloring is achieved. Because of the patient work involved, the making of the ” Pisanki” starts weeks before Easter.
The pascha (bread), meat foods and the dairy foods (hrudka) are generally prepared the day before Easter. When all is in readiness, the foods are carefully placed in an Easter basket, one set aside exclusively for this purpose, together with a small container O’f salt and a blessed candle, which is lighted during the blessing ceremony. The foods are covered with a basket cover. This is usually a piece of linen embroidered with the picture of the Resurrected Christ and the words ” Christos Voskres!” ” Voistinnu Voskres!” (” Christ is Risen!” “Indeed He is Risen!”)
At the appointed time of the blessing of the paschal foods, the basket is brought to the church. Having prepared themselves during Lent and by making their Easter confession and receiving Holy Communion, the faithful eat the blessed food on Easter Sunday and the days following Easter.
5 We can see that the blessing of the Easter food has a deep liturgical and spiritual meaning. It is one of our most beautiful and most meaningful customs with which our devoted ancestors have enriched us. Let us preserve these customs.