Church celebrates Easter, Cinco de Mayo (video)

Standing at the altar of All Saints Orthodox Church, the Rev. Dimitri Cozby holds a lit, long-stemmed candle in the air and faces his congregation.

Wearing a crisp, white vestment and purple clergy hat, Cozby smiles and then shouts, "Christ is risen!"

For every other Western church in town, the celebration of Christ's resurrection has come and gone. Drugstores and grocers have marked down Easter candies, stuffed bunnies and woven Easter baskets to half price; little girls have hung up their Easter dresses for the year.

But for Orthodox believers, Pascha, or the Easter feast, arrived Sunday - a few weeks late.

Easter in Orthodoxy follows the Julian calendar, rather than Gregorian calendar, which is used in Western Christianity to determine the holiday dates. So Roman Catholics and Protestants will never celebrate Easter on the same Sunday as the Orthodox Church.

What Cozby didn't anticipate this year, however, is Pascha sharing the calendar with another annual celebration.

This year, that celebration was Cinco de Mayo.

"We all sort of laughed about it," Cozby said. "Cinco de Mayo isn't celebrated widely in Mexico, but in this country, it's a good excuse to drink beer."

Rather than ignoring the collision of the two dates, Cozby integrated a Cinco de Mayo message into the Pascha service.

"What does Cinco de Mayo celebrate? It's the anniversary of a battle. The Mexican Army defeats the French Army," he told his church. "We are engaged in a spiritual war. Part of the problem is that we're on the wrong side. We are fighting against ourselves."

Cozby emphasized in the sermon that the spiritual battle many are fighting can only be won when followers of Jesus allow themselves to submit to the death and resurrection of Christ and accept forgiveness.

Today, "Cinco de Mayo can remind us that we're involved in a spiritual warfare," he said.

Members of the small Orthodox congregation are widely international; there were almost as many nations represented as there were bodies in the sanctuary.

A passage from John was read by lay members during the service, detailing some of Jesus' first encounters after rising from the dead. At least five languages were spoken: English, Spanish, French, Latin and Greek.

Cozby said Sunday's vespers was not the official Pascha service.

They, like many countries abroad, celebrate Easter around midnight. The official service began at 11:30 p.m. Saturday and concluded at 2:30 a.m. Sunday.

"We have the service the night before because we don't really know when Jesus rose. We know the women were at the tomb in the early morning," Cozby said.

Even with little sleep, members were energized to sing and praise God during Pascha vespers.

Katerina Riley, of Athens, Greece, said Pascha is always a significant day for her. Riley has been a member of All Saints for more than seven years and said she enjoyed Cozby's Pascha message about spiritual warfare and how he related it to Cinco de Mayo.

"Cinco de Mayo was a fight for freedom. And with Christ, it was, is and will always be a fight." Riley said. "But if you have Jesus in your heart, it will never change you."

Riley said the traditions of Pascha in the Orthodox church are celebrated slightly different than Western Easter celebrations.

In Greece, where she grew up, there are typically no bunnies or egg hunts, but Orthodox members will dye hard-boiled eggs red, and people will crack them together and say, "Christ is Risen!"

"The traditions are not exactly the same in Orthodox church, but when I was raising my kids here, we celebrated both (Easter) holidays," she said.

Cozby said Easter egg hunts are catching on in American Orthodox churches, but they are not yet as popular.

"We still don't have bunnies," he said.

Following Sunday's vespers service, Cozby met a few members of the church for community dinner.

He said he's finally ready to celebrate the joyous season, which will last for the next 40 days.

"I'm just glad I can finally say Happy Easter. People would say it to me, and I would respond, 'Not yet, It's not until May 5, Cinco de Mayo,'" he said.