By Debbie Hovanasian
LOWELL -- Beginning on April 13, the Greater Lowell Christian and Jewish faith communities have a busy and sacred week of religious rituals, traditions and commemorations.
This year, Palm Sunday, the Jewish Passover, Christian Holy Week, Western Easter (Catholic and Protestant) and Eastern Orthodox Easter (including Greek and Russian) all take place within the same week. That means prayer, fasting, almsgiving, religious services, family feasts and the observance of ancient traditions will happen about three-fold in churches, synagogues, temples and beneath the roofs of Christian and Jewish homes.
The eight-day celebration of Passover or Pesach, which commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and God passing over the Israelites as told in Exodus 12:23, begins at nightfall on April 14 and ends at nightfall April 22. One of the most widely observed Jewish holidays, it features the Seder meal, family gatherings, the telling of the story of Exodus, eating matzah (unleavened bread), lamb and kosher foods, lighting candles and studying the Torah.
Palm Sunday falls on April 13, when Christians commemorate Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem for the Jewish Passover some 2,000 years ago. It is the start of the Christian Holy Week, which ends on Holy Saturday, April 19.
Easter Sunday, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, is celebrated on April 20 for both the Eastern and Western churches this year. The identical dates will happen again in 2017, but then not again until 2034.
The differences in the dates of the celebration across Christian and Jewish communities lie in the the use of different calendars and the paschal, or Passover, moon.
Passover is celebrated each year from the 15th through the 22nd of the Hebrew month of Nissan. The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, based on full or new moons. As the lunar cycle changes annually, so does the date of Passover.
The Eastern and Western churches both determine the date of Easter as the first Sunday following the first paschal full moon that falls after the spring equinox, explained the Rev. Peter Rizos, new pastor at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Lowell.
However, that is where the similarity ends. The Eastern Church, with the exception of the Armenian Apostolic Church, uses the older Julian calendar while the Western and the Armenian Apostolic Churches use the newer Gregorian calendar. Also, the Eastern church bases the date on the actual astronomical full moon and actual equinox as observed in Jerusalem. The Western church uses a fixed date for the spring equinox of March 21.
Making it even more complicated, only the Eastern church uses a formula that ensures Easter Sunday always falls after Passover, Rizos said. That's in accordance with the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, which indicate that Jesus was in Jerusalem for Passover just before his Crucifixion.
"We want to maintain the historical sequence of events, the Crucifixion and Resurrection following Passover," said Rizos, who succeeds the well-loved and recently retired Rev. Ernest Coulouras.
Formulas and calendars aside, the local faith community, along with the rest of the world, is in for a big week of religious celebration -- all centering on interconnecting events that took place thousands of years ago.
The parishioners of St. George look forward to celebrating Holy Week with their new pastor, said Kenneth Hawkins, parish volunteer. In Rizos, they have a "charismatic" new pastor and they are excited about his assignment, he added.
"He's gotten a very warm reception here. We've got a wonderful guy and I think he's going to reinvigorate the church," said Hawkins.
Though Rizos may be new to St. George, he's already home. A Lowell native who still lives in Lowell with his wife, Presbytera Alexandra (Manousos), also a Lowell native, asked to be assigned to a parish smaller than his previous parish in Woburn. St. George, with its magnificent dome ceiling, beautiful iconography and a quarter mile from his home, was the perfect fit.
"I am very happy and honored to serve this parish," said Rizos, who graduated from the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 1961, was married in October of 1966 and ordained two months later. He and Alexandra have a son, Demetrious, an internist, and a daughter, Aris Hatch, a venture capitalist, and two grandchildren, Nicholas and Effie.
If his face is familiar, that's understandable. From birth, he was a member of Lowell's Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church; he served as associate pastor at Lowell's Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church for 16 years; and after earning a Ph.D. in Human Learning and Religious Development from Boston University, he has taught Latin, modern Greek and history in the Lyceum of Lowell High School (1971-2004). He also taught psychology, sociology and group dynamics at Northern Essex Community College.
One of his main goals at St. George is to "communicate the faith in a contemporary, modern idiom that challenges our very secular culture," he said.
Rizos is also looking forward to celebrating Holy Week, "where we normally see more people," with his new parish. His life as a priest has been a happy and fulfilling one, he said, but he gives credit where credit is due.
"I have a good Lord and I have a good wife."