In our last installment the shipping strike had stranded me in Athens, diverting me from my pious intention to spend Greek Easter on a remote island.
Good Friday and Easter, observed in Athens
That evening I walked through the Monasteraki district to the Metropolitan Cathedral. The narrow streets of the old section were full of the sounds of antiphonal bells and the beautiful voices of priests reading the liturgy over loudspeakers from the Cathedral. It was Good Friday.
I entered the Cathedral by a side door and found inside that the golden fixtures and mosaics, whose beauty is to remind the faithful of the glory of Heaven, had their glory magnified by the glare of studio lights, as the service was being broadcast in its entirety over state television for a country of whose citizens 98 percent adhere to the Orthodox faith.
There were two choirs of seminarians, young men in black robes with red piping, and bearded priests, both bareheaded and crowned. Toward the front of the church and a little to one side was enthroned the Metropolitan, bearded and ancient, in one hand his staff with the twined serpents, looking like something that had grown out of the earth, making his sign over those who came for his blessing.
The altar is screened from the people by a low wall. In the Eastern Church it is called an iconostasis; in the Anglican Church it is called a rood screen, but such things were mostly abandoned in the West during the Reformation and nowadays you see them only in very old European churches. But in the Eastern Church there was no Reformation, and still today their priests enter a place set apart to address their prayers to God, as a Jewish priest of the Temple in Jesus’ time would have entered the Holy of Holies to address his prayers to the Most High.
What strikes the protestant eye as a riot of decoration in an Orthodox Church is in fact a disciplined and well-thought-out scheme devised in the Ninth Century for the instruction of the faithful. From his entrance into a church, the believer is confronted with a series of precisely placed illustrations which make clear the story of Christ’s earthly mission and its relation to the scheme of heaven, rising from the lives of the saints on earth, through prophets, angels and archangels, to a starry dome of heaven surmounted at its very peak by a portrait of Christ Pantocrator, Christ the Ruler of All.
But Christ Pantocrator was obscured by the lights of the state television and so I looked at the iconostasis, the icon screen, with its pictures of the Blesséd Virgin, the Theotokos, the God-bearer, on my left, and on my right of Christ Enthroned, staring straight at me with a level gaze that seemed at first severe but with familiarity became the confident and serene gaze of Christ the King, who had passed through the suffering of the flesh and come at last to his rightful kingdom.
I stood beside a column and saw a small silver casket, about a meter long. A sign tells us that the casket contains the remains of Gregory the Fifth, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, “who was hanged and thrown into the waters of the Bosporus by barbarian and impious persons.”
The service was in progress when I arrived and was in progress an hour later when I left. In the Western Church we celebrate the most significant events in the history of the world in roughly an hour and fifteen minutes, so that we may be on our way to attended to other, less significant matters. In the Eastern Church, with its surer sense of proportion, they devote the time appropriate. To be fair, while in the West our sense of piety requires that we sit still and pay attention to what’s going on in the service, in the East it is permissible to walk around or wander outside and stretch your legs or have a smoke. There, religion is not a thing separate, but a part of life, and if life must accommodate faith, so will faith accommodate life.
On the way back to my room I notice that a certain hotel was still a den of prostitution, as it had been on my first visit to Athens. Youngish women in short garments lounged in the stairwell, looking out with a bored expression. The name of the hotel had struck me as a pun, but I shall not mention it as this was a few years ago and the establishment may now have a new business plan.
I went back to my hotel on Athenai Street and read more of the book I had brought with me, Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Greek Passion, and was moved to tears when Yanokos realizes his sinful purpose and confesses to Father Fotis, and gave him Lada’s Turkish gold. I tried to be in the spirit of things.
Saturday passed uneventfully. Near my hotel on Athenai Street is a large indoor meat market and I see in the street Greek men returning home with a whole skinned lamb over their shoulder, wrapped in a sheet of plastic, for the Easter meal.
Later in the day I nap for a while, then up and dress for the Great Vigil of Easter, which will begin at 11:30 that night at the Cathedral. There will be long prayers and the church will be darkened and then the priest will come out from behind the icon screen with a candle and cry out, “Come, ye, partake of the never-setting Light and glorify Christ who is risen from the dead,” and light the candles of the people, who will pass the fire back through the church, each candle lighting another, and as they do so they will say Christos anesti, “Christ is risen”, to which their neighbors will reply, Alithios anesti, “He is risen indeed”.
But reality so seldom lives up to expectations. When I reached the Cathedral I found the Square cordoned off by hundreds of police and soldiers, and at that moment arrived a large limousine which someone in the crowd told me brought the Prime Minister. There were two military bands. It was the State at prayer.
I left Cathedral Square and walked across the old section of town to a small street a few blocks from Syntagma, to St. Paul’s Anglican Church, where they were also observing the Great Vigil, though without bands or prime ministers. In the small, old church of the English community of Athens, its walls hung with the banners of the Royal Navy and the RAF, led by a white-haired cleric with a booming voice, we said the well-worn words of the common prayers, and prayed for the health of the Queen. Afterward, when I walked out of the church it was a shock to find myself in Athens, so familiar had been the worship. It was as if I had walked out of my own church in California and found myself in Marrakesh.
On the way back to the hotel I passed the Cathedral. There were neither limousines nor military bands nor, so far as I could tell, any prime ministers. Just regular Christians. But they were still singing their glorious songs and there were priests in beautiful robes, there were icons gleaming in the haze of incense and joy on the face of the people. It was all completely satisfactory.
(More Easter in Greece to follow . . .)