In his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, Pope St. John Paul II wrote that “the Church must breathe with her two lungs!” Since I was raised by Egyptian Eastern-Rite parents and educated in Latin-Rite schools and therefore enjoy the richness of both Eastern and Western traditions, I couldn’t agree more with the late Holy Father. (For those who don’t already know, while most Catholics are “Roman Catholics,” there are 23 Eastern Rite Catholic Churches.)
During Lent and Eastertide, and most especially during the Triduum, my parents lament how much they miss these seasons in Egypt. Being a persecuted minority in the Middle East (at least since the 7th/8th centuries) creates a unity and a sense of urgency to take faith seriously. So while religious freedom was gained immigrating to America, the traditions, the tight-knit sense of community, and the intensity of devotion was somewhat lost.
The way my family lived Good Friday--the commemoration of the crucifixion of Jesus--was of special emphasis. In Egypt, Good Friday is called “Sad Friday” or “Mourning Friday.” My mom recalls the tradition of tasting vinegar on her tongue in remembrance of the scene St. John describes in Chapter 19:29-30 when Jesus fulfills the words of Psalm 69:21: The put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst.
Eastern Christians-both Orthodox and Catholic-fast and they fast well. My mom chuckles a little about the fasting/abstinence rules in the West because the East basically goes Vegan for the entirety of Lent; Sundays included. Christians are in church all day and often traveling and visiting neighboring churches. It was just part of the culture and everyone was in it together as an organic and leisurely way of being.
Other traditions include visiting cemeteries of deceased loved ones, not wearing makeup (Middle Eastern women don’t wear makeup at funerals--they have to look sad and wearing makeup or too much makeup can be seen as disrespectful and unfitting for the occasion.), and cooking Falafel. My dad recalls how relatives and friends would visit each other all day trading batches.
For those who want to celebrate this year with an Eastern flavor here are 5 tips from my childhood experience. Click here to read more at Aleteia.