CHARLOTTE, NC – Father Vasileios Tsourlis, Dean of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Charlotte, North Carolina which consists of 957 active families, in an interview with The National Herald spoke at length about the services, traditions, and piety of Holy Week that lead to the celebration of the salvific Resurrection of Christ.
Fr. Vasileios, who is one of the most learned priests of the Archdiocese and the Orthodox Church, said that, “during Holy Week we celebrate with devotion and reverence, faithfully following the traditions of Greece. Due to the great number of faithful in attendance on Palm Sunday, Holy Wednesday, Holy Friday, and for the Resurrection, we hold two Services simultaneously on these days. One Service is held in the Cathedral and one in the Grand Hall of the Parish – with a congregation of 1000+ people. Additionally, 95% of the faithful remain until the end of the Resurrection Divine Liturgy – about 1,800 people receive Holy Communion.”
He continued, noting that, “on Holy Friday, we process with the Epitaphion through the streets, around the block the Church occupies. During the Divine Liturgy of the First Resurrection, we use the Epitaphion as the Holy Table – a tradition received from Jerusalem. The Resurrection Service takes place outside the Church and on Sunday the Gospel reading of the Agapi Vespers is read in over 10 languages. Immediately after the Vespers Service, the children anticipate a beautiful surprise – in the courtyard, the Easter bunny waits for the children and announces the beginning of the Easter egg hunt.”
Fr. Vasileios pays a lot of attention to the ministry to children and youth. He said that, “on the Saturday of Lazarus, we will have a special Divine Liturgy for children, where we will explain different portions of the Liturgy and also of the days of Holy Week. The children make the palm crosses that will be offered to the faithful by the priests the following day. They will also prepare meals and make crafts for about 30 elderly people who are unable to come to the Church. The children will learn how to make prosphoron bread, and even make small ones of their own. The Young Adult Ministry (YAM) prepares a fasting meal for the children.”
He continued talking about Holy Week at the parish. “On Holy Thursday, the Philoptochos Ladies paint red eggs and visit 30 elderly people and give them the traditional Easter egg, tsoureki, and other Easter gifts. On Holy Friday, the children will be actively involved in the Royal Hours service and the decoration of the two koubouklia. There will be catechesis teaching through crafts and explanations of the last hours of our Lord. The mothers of the Greek School students make Easter candles.”
Fr. Vasileios noted that one day each month the Parish cooks for 350 homeless people, and that throughout the year Philoptochos helps students in need and financially supports many charitable organizations.
“Tomorrow we will have a blood drive after the Divine Liturgy,” he said, another example of the parish’s philanthropic activity.
Asked if there is youth participation in the Divine Services , Fr. Vasileios said, “youth participation in the community is at a high level. It helps that we have an active presence at the local universities through OCF, and we have the YAM 21 to 35 years old program. And, of course, we have many young families. The Catechetical school has 400 students, as does the Greek dance program. The Greek afternoon school has 105 students and we have 35 soccer and basketball teams.”
Regarding the questions that young people ask about Holy Week and more generally about the Orthodox Church and Faith, Fr. Vasileios said that “the young people are interested in learning about our faith, its history, and how they can incorporate religious faith into their everyday lives, so that they become authentic followers of our Lord Jesus Christ. They are also interested in learning the differences between Orthodoxy and other Christian Confessions.”
He added that “it is very interesting that young people come very regularly to the Holy Mystery of Confession. They fast and want to live an authentic Orthodox Faith. They are fascinated by the depth of the texts and the services of Holy Week, to the extent that many are enlivened by the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord. We remember that once a young lady, who had chosen to change her way of life and to come close to God, at the time of Holy Communion – during the Resurrection Divine Liturgy – saw in the Holy Chalice real pieces of fresh meat and blood. She said the taste was very beautiful.”
When we asked the meaning of Pascha for him, he said, “Dostoevsky, In The Brothers Karamazov, said: ‘Without God, everything is permitted,’ but the Paschal celebration states ‘With God, everything is possible.’ I personally see and experience the endless love God shows to each person individually. With the same love, he gives the True Body and Blood of His Beloved Son, both to one who attends Church regularly and also to one who even comes for a few minutes to the Resurrection service. With the same compassion, God accepts the prayers of all people and offers the fullness of His mercy through the Oil of Holy Unction and the remission of sins through Holy Confession.”
Fr. Vasileios gets shivers when he reads the words of St. John Chrysostom’s catechical Pascha sermon, “If anyone be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast.” He has experienced “tears flowing from my eyes,” listening to these words: “The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously,” and contemplating the mercy of the Lord God when the great saint writes, “And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first,” about the moment when we will stand before Him, when, “yet no one should fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it,” a teaching reinforced by the Lord’s words on the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (Luke 23:34).
Fr. Vasileios said, “I could speak for days about how I feel during the Divine Liturgy, especially the Resurrection Liturgy. I am soaring. I feel like I am not touching the ground, repeatedly hearing ‘Christ is Risen’ and listening to the twelve tingling bells of the censer. The senses don’t operate in the usual way – the aroma of the incense is different, at that time, the light is different, heavenly. The joy that is visible in the eyes of the faithful and their loud voices full of joy, hope and awe. ‘Truly He is Risen’. I find myself in heaven, and I am grateful to our Lord, who has chosen me, his unworthy servant, to let him feel His living presence. I pray for all of you from my heart to have a Blessed Rest of Great Lent.”