The smell of charcoal and roasting lamb wafting from a Hughesdale backyard on Orthodox Easter Sunday marked a return to normality for the Menidis family after last year’s lockdowns denied them their annual feast.
“[Last year] we had a barbecue, just my immediate family and Zoomed my parents who live around the corner and my brother who lives a couple of streets away,” said Jorge Menidis.
Jorge Menidis carves the spit-roasted spring lamb that he and his extended family enjoyed on Orthodox Easter Sunday.Credit:Chris Hopkins
“It wasn’t great. It’s a very, very big part of not only our religious but cultural calendar as well. The gathering of people, the gathering of families.”
Sunday marked the most important feasting day of Holy Week for an estimated 650,000 Orthodox Christians in Australia, including Greeks, Russians, Macedonians, Romanians and Bulgarians.
Orthodox Christians, who adhere to the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar to calculate dates, celebrate Easter a full month after other Christians.
Holy Week officially begins on Palm Sunday and ends on Easter Sunday a week later, but for the very devout the recognition of the death and resurrection of Christ is a multi-week affair.
This year the whole family could gather together.Credit:Chris Hopkins
“We have the 40 days of Lent and fasting before the big week of Holy Week,” said the Reverend Leonidas Ioannou from Presentation of Our Lord Orthodox Church in Coburg. After Easter Sunday then comes another week of reflection up until Thomas Sunday.
“There’s never a dull moment at the Orthodox Church,” he laughed. “We don’t like to rest, us Orthodox priests.”
Mr Menidis went to midnight mass with his family before getting up at 7am on Easter Sunday to prepare the traditional lamb spit roast to feed 25 of his family members and friends by lunchtime.
“Easter is surrounded around spring and rebirth … that’s why we go with a spring lamb,” he said. It’s a symbol of moving into a brighter, sunnier period.”
While all communities are celebrating a return to church gatherings and feasts after the COVID-19 restrictions of 2020, the occasion is especially poignant for Melbourne’s Greek community which lost an estimated 150 of their own to coronavirus, according to an unofficial tally kept by Australian Greek newspaper Neos Kosmos. More than 800 people died in Victoria overall.
“There was a lot of people that were lost through that year and it was pretty heartbreaking to see the death notices printed in the Greek papers every day,” said Mr Menidis, who is the director of the Greek Centre for Contemporary Culture in Melbourne.
“But it was no more difficult for us than so many communities around the world.
“I feel that we’re particularly lucky, I’m talking to my family back in Athens and they’re still trying to get out of [coronavirus] restrictions.”
With Victorian rules now eased to allow as many as 100 people within private homes, Greek Orthodox communities across the city gathered to eat, drink, crack red-dyed eggs and share tsoureki bread – a twisted bread that symbolises the Holy Trinity.
Mr Ioannou said having his worshippers back for the Holy Week was “very emotional” after last year when he and just one other priest delivered live-streamed services from an empty church.
“I can’t think of anything more depressing for a priest [than] to be left in a dark church alone,” he said.
Mr Ionnaou said although the use of QR codes, hand sanitiser, enforced physical distancing and outdoor services may have made the church feel slightly “like an airport”, it was a small price to pay for the community to be able to gather in person again.
“It was really good to have everyone there again – you could see the tears in people’s eyes when we all chanted, ‘Christos Anesti’ – Christ has risen.”
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