From the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to the Russian Arctic, millions of Orthodox Christians have been celebrating Easter this weekend, in a passionate cycle of lamentation, anticipation and candle-lit jubilation. And part of the point of those festivities is that they remain exactly the same year after year, century after century. Local practices can vary, of course, but once a custom is established, people never want to change it. In places where the British flag once flew, such as the Ionian islands of Greece or the Palestinian territories, there can be a slight Anglo-Saxon tinge to the eastern Christian ceremonies, with parades by uniformed scouts and marching bands. (The Christians of Bethlehem love bagpipes; on the shores of the Ionian, where musical talent abounds, the preference is for brass and drums.)
But regardless of the local variations, many practices are set in stone. For example, shortly after the midnight proclamation that "Christ is risen", clerics everywhere re-read a sermon by Archbishop John Chrysostom, who died in 407. With a generosity of spirit that has not always been shown by Christian clergy, or even by Chrysostom himself, the sermon invites everybody to the feast, regardless of how well or badly they have observed the discipline of Lent.
"You rich and poor, enjoy the feast together. You temperate and heedless, honour the day. You who who fasted, and you who did not, rejoice today. The table is richly laden. All of you, fare sumptuously on it. The calf is fatted, let no-one go away hungry."
Despite the spirit of timeless universalism, every Orthodox Easter brings its share of contentious news stories, and this one is no exception. A Greek bishop who is known for his sharpness of tongue, Amvrosios of Kalavryta, gave an astonishing homily in which he compared the various disagreements between the church and the country's secular leftist government (which are mostly quite manageable) with the contest between the Hebrew prophet Elijah and the priests of the false god, Baal. (It ended badly for Baal's side.) May God "rot the hand" of education minister Nikos Filis if he appends his signature to measures downgrading the status of religious instruction in schools, the latter-day Elijah expostulated, in what people hoped was a rhetorical flourish induced by the rigours of Lenten fasting.
In another Paschal news flash, it was reported six of the refugees holed up in the Eidomeni refugee camp on the Greek-Macedonian border had been formally received into the Orthodox Christian church by the local bishop. The hierarch insisted to Orthodoxia.info, a religious news agency, that the refugees' conversion was far more than an impulsive gesture: they had requested and received elaborate instruction on the doctrines and practices of their new religion before undergoing the conversion ceremony, which involves being baptised and anointed with holy oil. All this is happening in a part of northern Greece where, in the 1920s, people gained the right to settle if they were Orthodox Christians on the run and lost it if they were Muslim. So the consequences could be complex if many more refugees follow this example. But for the meantime, the newly-illumined are probably enjoying their Easter lamb.