Friday, April 17, 2009

Great (Orthodox) Friday

April 2007. Great and Holy Friday, as it is today in 2009. I am sitting with my mother in the "women's section" of the Orthodox church of Agios Nikolaos (St. Nicholas) in the sea town of Methoni in the province of Messinia, located in the hand-shaped Peloponnese of Greece. A row of women, perched like crows in their wooden seats, keep watchful eyes on everyone in the church. I am glad to be sitting behind and not before them; not all of them seem benign. We have each purchased a long, skinny, buff-colored candle, lit it just inside the church doors and pushed it down into a round tray of wheat berries to stand, burning in memory with dozens of others. It is 7:30 PM, and we will not leave the church until 11:00—even then, there will be one last ritual to observe. Contrary to expectations, the time passes quickly, awash in sacred sights, sounds, smells. In the center of the church, the epitaphios, symbolic bier of Christ; it is covered by a canopy of red and white carnations, a garland of more delicate white flowers (orange blossoms, perhaps) hanging in graceful loops around the perimeter. As mourners—for that is what we are here—come into the church, they purchase candles as we did. Their stream grows thick and swift, townspeople and relatives who've migrated to cities (but who always return for this holiest of days) pour into the small church; the sound of coins in the coffers as more candles burn—so many that a man appointed for this task routinely collects and extinguishes them to make room for more. The tide carries the faithful up the center aisle to pluck a handful of rose petals from the baskets of two girls, sprinkle them on the cloth effigy of Christ before planting a kiss. The surface of the bier is covered and re-covered in fragrant roses; a priest sweeps them to the head and foot of the epitaphios, leaving room for more—more rose petals, more kisses. Look up to the front of the church, and the flickering light of candles dances across the iconostasis, which incorporates icons so elaborately covered in metal that the only painted surface showing is a round, holy face. Medallion ribbons of purple and white decorate the sanctuary: white for light and life to come, purple the color of royalty, and of the cloak Jesus was made to wear in mockery on the day of his execution. Behind the icon screen, altar boys await their moment of participation; they stand or sit, move around casually in that sacred space reserved for men and boys alone. They wear light blue tunics with gold brocade over jeans or sweatpants; privilege means not having to make undue effort. A sense of excitement and expectation builds; the church is now standing room only, but without much space to stand. Communal ties, collective spirit are all palpable now within the walls of St. Nicholas. There is something comforting about a place that serves as the single repository for the entire town's history and faith. Always a dweller in large cities, I have never felt a sense of solidarity this strong with my neighbors, every last one of them, and I long for it deeply before reminding myself that the cost is diversity. Throughout everything, the cantors are chanting in biblical Greek, an extra layer of inscrutability added to my already flimsy grasp of mother tongue. I think it will be impossible to understand a single word, but in fact I can grasp five essential terms that themselves form a chant within the chanting, the touchstones I can comprehend in a sea of unintelligible sound: death, life, dead, love, resurrection . . . over and over again. The cantors chant in rotation. Priests come with ornate censers, cruets of rose water. Incense and perfume shower the congregation, refresh the air that is by now stagnant in the church's overcrowded space. The chanting reaches a climax, and in this moment, I feel something shift inside me; it is clear now I am listening to lamentation, and in a space deeper than intellect, I am aware of the funeral I am witnessing. The whole town is here now, and all across Greece, in every village or great polis, the death service is unfolding the very same way. And suddenly, I wonder: why does the reenactment of a funeral (without which there can be no life after) have no place in the Protestant traditions of my childhood? Is it Protestant or American, this desire to hold death apart, to pretend it doesn't exist? Even our crosses have no body upon them. Here, though, there is a body—symbolic, but no less present. At around eleven o'clock, two long poles are used to lift the epitaphios; four men carry it at the corners, and we all move outside. The air feels good, and in the sky stars burn brightly like the flames of the new candles we all hold carefully, sheltering them against the evening breeze. The town follows the epitaphios down one long street and up the one parallel, chanting the same lamentation repeatedly. Some people who live along the route take their candles home, open their windows and gaze down on the procession, still singing and lifting up light. We move along, with a couple of stopping places for prayers recited by the priest. Returning to St. Nicholas, we pass under the epitaphios, held aloft by its bearers, a line of worshipers ready to conclude the service. The evening ends, and as one body is left to lie in rest within the church's holy walls, two hearts continue to beat in a shared, reverent silence. Together my mother and I make the walk back to our hotel by the sea, arm in arm.

1 comment:

  1. Love this Allison! All the more for actually having experienced it and I have to say you captured the very essence of Greek Easter beautifully!! Thanks so much for sending it.
    V xx