01 April 2011

Of Symbols and Ceremony

Ceremony in different cultures and religions has always fascinated me, and today I picked this up at the online listserv of an eastern orthodox Catholic church my husband paints icons for. It's part of their very intriguing Easter (Pascha) ceremony.

The Pascha Basket

After the midnight Paschal Liturgy, we all gather together to bless the Pascha baskets. These baskets have been carefully prepared with many of the foods from which we've been fasting during Great Lent. There are several foods traditionally included in the basket. These are: a yeast bread, a bitter herb (horseradish)
, wine, cheese, meat, butter, salt, and a red egg. Each has symbolic significance:

Bread: The Easter Bread (Paska, Kulich, Tsourekia)~ A sweet, yeast bread rich in eggs, butter, etc. Symbolic of Christ Himself who is our True Bread as well as a symbol of the New Covenant: the Jews made unleavened bread, and we, the Children of the New Covenant, make leavened bread. Kulich is the traditional Russian bread, and Tsourekia is the traditional Greek braided bread, Paska is Ukrainian & Carpatho-Rusyn. The braided form of this bread is a display of the Trinity. Sometimes a round loaf baked with a golden crust decorated with a symbol indicative of Christ. A cross of dough is placed on top encircled by a plait giving it a crowned effect, or Greek abbreviations for the name of Christ. The letters XB indicate the Slavonic for "Christ is Risen." The Carpatho-Rusyn version often has a tunnel of sweet cheese dough baked in the center of the loaf.

Meat: Ham is the meat popular with Slavs as the main dish because of its richness and symbolic of the great joy and abundance of Easter. Others may prefer lamb or veal. This is usually well roasted or cooked as well as other meats prepared in advance so that the festivity of the day will not be burdened with preparation and all may enjoy the Feast. Meat is included in remembrance of the sacrifice of the Old Testament Passover, which has been replaced by Christ, the New Passover and Lamb of God. This is directly from the prayers said, we see that the meats represent our Lord Jesus Christ as the Lamb of sacrifice, obeying the will of the Father, as did Abraham who was ready to offer his only son to the command of God.

Sausage: (Kolbasi) A spicy, garlicy sausage of pork products, indicative of God's favor and generosity

Bacon: A piece of uncooked bacon cured with spices. Symbolic of the overabundance of God's mercy to us.

Soft cheese: (Hrudka or Sirets, or Russian Paska Cheese) A sweet custard-type cheese that is shaped into a ball or mould and decorated. The sweet taste is indicative of the moderation that Christians should have in all things. Also, creamed cheese can be placed in a small dish and both are decorated with symbols made of cloves, peppercorns or currants.

Salt: A condiment necessary for flavor reminding the Christian of his duty to others as well as a reminder that we are "the salt of the earth."

Butter: This favorite dairy product is shaped into the figure of a lamb or small cross or placed in a bowl and decorated with a cross. This reminds us of the goodness of Christ that we should have toward all things.

Eggs (decorated/colored red): (Pysanky - pronounced - pi-sun-ki) Hard boiled eggs brightly decorated with symbols and markings made with beeswax. Indicative of new life and resurrection. The red egg is likened to the tomb or sepulchre from which Christ arose. As the egg is sealed, but holds life in itself, and that life in the shell breaks it open and comes out as a new life, so was the grave of Christ sealed, but it contained life eternal which burst its seals and gave to us a new eternal life. This is because of the miracle of new life which comes from the egg, just as Christ miraculously came forth from the tomb. The red coloring of the egg recalls to us that by the blood of Jesus upon the Cross we were freed from sin and death. Tradition also says that Mary Magdalene gave the first egg to the Roman emperor Tiberius, when she was brought before him and accused of being a Christian. She took the egg and by it demonstrated the belief of Christians in eternal life, and by her presentation, was able to persuade the emperor to stop the persecution of Christians.

Horseradish or Horseradish mixed with grated red beets. This bitter herb ultimately serves as a reminder of the first Passover (horseradish is eaten as a traditional part of the original Passover meal) and of the bitter sufferings which Christ endured for our sake. Sometimes the herb is colored red with beets, symbolizing the Blood of Christ. The bitter herb is also to bring to mind the Jews' forty years of wandering in the wilderness.

Candle to place in the center of the Paska Bread. This can be festively decorated or a plain beeswax candle.

Wine: figurative of all the good things of life, wine reminds us of the earthly gifts that come from God.

Decorative cloth to cover basket These articles are placed in a wicker basket and a ribbon or bow is tied to the handle. A decorated candle is placed in the basket and is lit at the time of blessing. A linen cover usually embroidered with a picture of the Risen Christ or symbol with the words "Christ is Risen" is placed over the foods when brought to the church. In some places a large Easter Bread (Paska) is made and brought separately in a large linen cloth. Thus each of the foods in the Pascha basket have rich meaning, as does everything in Orthodoxy. Glory to God!
The first time I had horseradish and beets was at a Jewish home and it was served on whitefish. Excellent! You can see the crossover in traditions by that one condiment alone. I don't believe horseradish is an herb, and so am not sure why it's referred to this way. 


Lee Ambrose said...

This is very interesting, Dani!

Bettyann Schmidt said...

Dani, I enjoyed this so much! Interesting. You've got me thinking of something I can do for Easter for our sparse little church group (12 if we're lucky some Sundays). Hmmm, maybe one of those teeny-tiny little baskets with a colored hard-boiled egg. My pastor hates boiled eggs, ha! We love to torment him, lol.

I'm getting ideas. Thanks for posting this. b.

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