Eastern Christians deeply live the mystery of Christ’s resurrection and put their whole heart into it. Papas George Mifsud Montanaro, rector of the Greek Catholic church in Valletta, tells Simonne Pace about the oldest annual form of Christian celebration.
Papas George Mifsud Montanaro, the first Maltese rector of the Greek Catholic Church in Valletta, is looking forward to the Easter Sunday celebration with great eagerness.
"We pass through Christ’s resurrection from darkness to light and from death into life"
“Having a church full of people who are familiar with the Easter ritual and who know and sing the liturgical texts by heart simply carries you away. I have experienced this in Jerusalem and also in Russian churches,” the papas told The Sunday Times with a twinkle in his eye.
The son of Maltese parents, the soft-spoken priest, who has been rector of the Greek church in Archbishop Street for the past two years, has lived abroad for most of his adult life. He was born and educated in Malta and was always attracted to Eastern Christianity.
The Greek community in Malta is made up of not more than 20 families. However, many Maltese who are devoted Catholics attend the church regularly together with a large number of Orthodox followers mostly from eastern Europe.
A Rhodes scholar and a history graduate from the University of Oxford, the young Mifsud Montanaro began to study for the priesthood at the Oriental-Rite Colleges in Rome and was ordained in 1959. He belongs to the Melkite Greek Catholic Archdiocese of Galilee.
The Greek Catholic Church in Malta was founded by Greeks from Rhodes, who came to Malta in 1530 together with the Knights of St John, bringing with them precious objects and icons. Until about 1800, most of the papasi were members of the Greek community in Malta. After that, the papasi came from the Greek-rite community in neighbouring Sicily.
In the past, people would go to the Greek church and stay for the Easter service which started late on Holy Saturday night. At about 3 a.m., they would then take the statue of the risen Christ out of the church, running with it along Merchants and St Nicholas Streets and ‘Strada Reale’ back to the church.
During the procession, the papas of the time would stand on the steps of St Catherine’s monastery church in the lower part of Republic Street with his minor clerics around him, then go back to the Greek church, where the community “eagerly awaited the proclamation of the Easter tidings by the papas”.
Since statues are not in the tradition of the Eastern Church, the statue of the risen Christ was moved to the Jesuits church in Merchants Street in the time of Papas George Schiro with the permission and approval of the archbishop of the time, Dom Maurus Caruana, OSB.
“The Easter festival is all in the actual celebration of the Liturgy, which is full of symbolism and, while it has a very Biblical and theological character, it also has an immediate popular appeal. The resurrection is something Eastern Christians feel very deeply about, perhaps also because of a painful and often tragic historical experience. Furthermore, eastern churches have preserved much better the attitudes and spirituality of the early Church,” Fr Mifsud Montanaro explained.
“For Eastern Christians, the main theme and key note of every Sunday is the resurrection,” the papas said, adding that the Eastern Christian Paschal service – both text and chant – is “extremely beautiful… an explosion of joy inspired by patristic and heart-filling theology”.
The celebration of Easter in the Byzantine rite really begins on the Holy Saturday. Vespers are first celebrated together with the liturgy of St Basil the Great – “these are already a celebration of the victory of Christ over death – he has given life to the world” and it was at this point, historically, that baptisms were performed and the newly baptised also received communion.
The celebration took all the afternoon and evening. During the night takes place the joyous Paschal Vigil. Unfortunately, the night vigil cannot be observed in our local Greek church for practical reasons.
“It is very important that the celebration begins at night, because it is symbolic,” Fr Mifsud Montanaro pointed out. “We pass through Christ’s resurrection from darkness to light and from death into life. Darkness and light play an important contrast.”
The Easter service at the Greek Catholic Church has been taking place on Easter Sunday at 8 a.m. for at least the past 50 years.
“Traditionally, it should start at midnight between Saturday and Sunday. At the beginning of the service, the church is still in relative darkness with no lights on.”
The main celebrant lights the Paschal candle from the one light left alight in the sanctuary, turns to the people who are holding candles and invites them to light their candle, while he sings an invitatory text: “Come, take the light from the unsetting light”, the latter representing Christ.
A procession then leaves the church and gathers outside the church doors which have been closed, while the congregation sings: “Your resurrection, Christ saviour, angels sing in heaven, grant that we too who are on earth may, with pure hearts, give glory to you.”
"Having people who know and sing the liturgical texts by heart simply carries you away"
After the procession there is a reading from the gospel of St Mark, which refers to the appearance of the risen Christ to the holy women and to the apostles, followed by a litanical prayer and the Easter hymn, sung for the first time: “Christ has risen from the dead, by death he has trampled upon death and to those in the graves he has given life.” This hymn is repeated by the priest and people together not only on Easter Sunday but throughout the whole Paschal season.
“It is a hymn of exaltation and full of enthusiasm. It gives voice to all the patristic theology of the resurrection. Every symbol, phrase and image has its own power and theological density,” Fr Mifsud Montanaro explained.
Throughout the sung office, the priest greets the people with the ritual greeting: “Christ has risen”, to which the congregation replies: “Truly he is risen”.
Paschal Matins are followed by the Divine Liturgy (Mass) of St John Chrysostom.
It is the custom, especially in Slavic churches, but also in Greek churches, that at Mass the gospel is read in different languages “because the message of salvation is intended for the whole of humanity and it is our duty to proclaim the message to all nations”.
At the end of Mass, the papas blesses various foodstuffs – pastry, meat and dairy products – that members of the community bring along, including eggs that are painted red, often with a particular design.
This is an ancient custom – “from the egg emerges new life”. The eggs are painted red perhaps to symbolise that salvation materialised through the blood of Christ. The eggs are distributed at the end of Mass.
A specially baked loaf, known as the artos (Greek for bread), is also blessed. “A symbol of Christ, the bread of life”, this loaf is kept for a week in the sanctuary and is broken and distributed on the octave, the following Sunday.
Towards the end of the Easter hymn is a strophe which reads: “The day of resurrection! Let us be radiant for the festival and let us embrace one another. Let us say: ‘brethren’ even to those that hate us. Let us forgive all things by the resurrection…” At this point, people embrace and give each other the kiss of peace.
If only we could all, through the resurrection, be prepared to embrace each other, be reconciled with all and find a way to overcome differences and antagonisms both on a personal and national level.