MOSCOW, April 19 (RIA Novosti) - Russia is celebrating Orthodox Easter, Christianity's most important feast, commemorating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Resurrection of the Savior symbolizes the victory over sin and death and the birth of a new world redeemed by his Passion. After midnight and in the next 40 days after Easter Sunday believers greet each other with "Christ is risen!" and the reply "He is risen indeed!" followed by three kisses and the exchange of Easter eggs.
Preparation for Easter celebrations begins on Holy Saturday evening with a long church vigil commemorating the buried Christ. The service culminates in a grand midnight procession with crosses and icons, which is often attended by nonbelievers attracted by its pageantry, and lasts into the early hours of Sunday.
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church, led the four-hour Easter divine service in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, where about 5,000 people, including President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, were reported to have attended the service.
Churchgoers and even some nonbelievers went to churches on Holy Saturday to have paschal cakes and eggs blessed by priests.
According to the New Testament, Jesus Christ was resurrected on the third day after being crucified and dying on the cross to save people from sin.
Holy Saturday was preceded by Good Friday, considered the most sorrowful day of Holy Week and of the liturgical year.
John's Gospel says: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
The fasting period before Easter in Eastern Christianity lasts 48 days. The first 40 days of the period are called Lent, symbolizing Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness before being tempted by Satan.
They are followed by Lazarus Saturday, commemorating Jesus raising Lazarus of Bethany from the dead, and Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, and then by Holy Week, the last week of the fasting period. Holy Week lasts until Easter Sunday but does not include it.
The purpose of the fasting period is for believers to prepare themselves, through prayer and fasting, for Easter.
This year, Roman Catholics and Protestants celebrated Easter on April 12 due to differences in the calendars used by Eastern and Western Christianity.
A group of pilgrims delivered on Saturday evening the Holy Fire from Jerusalem to the central Russian cathedral. The Holy Fire that is lit every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem on the day preceding Orthodox Easter is believed by Orthodox Christians to be a miracle.
From Moscow the Holy Fire, which pilgrims say does not burn in the first minutes after it has been lit, is "distributed" among churches in containers similar to those used to transport the Olympic flame.
Russia's other Easter traditions include painting and coloring eggs - normally red as a symbol of the blood of Christ - and cracking them on Sunday. The tradition of giving paschal eggs dates back to the first century A.D.
Church legend has it that Mary Magdalene came to Roman Emperor Tiberius with a preaching of faith and presented him with an ordinary chicken egg. Tiberius did not believe her story of the resurrected Christ and said: "How can anyone be risen from the dead? This is as impossible as if this egg became red now." And the egg turned red, showing the emperor the truth of the Christian faith.
Many Russians on Easter Sunday visit the graves of their late loved ones, a tradition tolerated but not condoned by the Church, which says Easter is a time of joy rather than sad reflection.