Sunday, 19 April 2015

Greek Orthodox Easter

It was all a bit last minute. A friend, who had previously lived in Crete, suddenly found she was free over the Orthodox Easter period and decided to use this unexpected time-off to return to visit friends and join in the celebrations. As my only previous experience of Greece was a rushed and unplanned visit to Athens when I was inter-railing in Western Europe in the '80s, I couldn't resist tagging along. 

My previous trip had happened because someone had enticed me with the information that if I went to Athens I could sleep on a roof. Coming from Manchester where we not only sleep under a roof, but also under a thick duvet and preferably with the central heating on, the idea of sleeping on a roof was, at the time, way out there in terms of adventurous and wacky things one can do with one's life. This time, I was enticed by the slightly more academic reason of learning about a branch of Christianity I know very little about. Ok, thoughts of sunshine and raki had something to do with it as well, but only a little bit. Honestly.

Finding a last-minute cheap flight over the Easter period wasn't easy and so we ended up flying out early on the Saturday morning. The whole week leading up to Easter is celebrated in Greece much more than it is here, so unfortunately we did miss quite a lot. But at least we were there for the main event.

As we'd been up most of the night due to our early flight, once we arrived at our accommodation we had a bit of a snooze in order to gear ourselves up for the night. Consequently, the first I saw of Paleochora, the small town on the south-west coast where we'd chosen to spend the weekend, was after dark. The main street was lined with bars and shops and had mountains looming over one end and the church looming over the other. People were feeding into the main street from the  many side streets and flowing in an ever-growing crowd in the direction of the church. There was a frisson of excitement in the air, probably made more palpable by the dark shadows and my lack of knowledge as to what lay down the darkened narrow streets that peeled off to my left and right. 

We went with the flow and headed towards the church. We'd have known it was the church even without having a crowd to follow, as it was the brightest thing around. Illuminated by numerous spotlights, it glowed whiter than a white shirt in a Persil ad. As we got closer we could hear the chanting from inside and slipped in through the double doors to find out what was going on.

Inside, the church was bathed in a muted golden light. It shimmered off the gold chandeliers and gold-haloed icons. The icons, mostly painted directly onto the walls, covered every inch apart from a section of the ceiling. Men were choosing an icon and kissing it as they came in. Women were taking slim white candles from a box near the door, slipping a coin into the cash box slot, then lighting their candle and offering up a prayer before blowing it out. Children were playing hide and seek in the lectern and behind the curtains of the confessional. The priest was to one side, singing and chanting in the ancient Greek that is the sound of worship. Recent discussion brought up the idea of holding services in modern Greek so more people could understand them and ideally encourage more young people to attend, but this idea was dismissed as the ancient language adds a mystery and tradition far too important to be discarded for the sake of modernity and upping recruitment.

I grew up attending Catholic Mass. I always found it staid, boring and stiff. The service here was anything but staid, boring and stiff. People came and went as they pleased; moved around; chatted quietly to their neighbour; let their children play; all the while seeming to be involved in the devotion. The priest continued to sing. By the end he'd been going for several hours straight and how he wasn't hoarse, I don't know.

After a while, we left the church and wandered back down the main street. The church was getting more crowded now and we were going against the flow. The street was much fuller, but still everyone was going in the same direction. Except us. We went into a bar for a rejuvenating cup of mountain tea and sat on bar stools chatting to the bartender. Just before midnight we left our mugs in his care (he was very trusting as we hadn't yet paid) and went back down to the church.

Burning Judas

As midnight struck, the lights went out and people began to stream out of the church to join the crowd outside who hadn't been able to squeeze in. The priest came out, still singing, and continued his chants at a shrine in the church yard. Fireworks exploded above our heads and the bells donged noisily. On a cliff rising directly behind the church are the remains of the town's old fortress. It was here that the bonfire was lit. As we burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes on Bonfire Night, the Greeks burn a life-size effigy of Judas, Jesus' betrayer, on Easter Saturday night. Gazing up, I could just about make out the humanoid form in the flames. 

People leaving the church

It is at midnight that the candles are lit to symbolise the resurrection of Jesus and, no doubt, also symbolising the more pagan beliefs of the new life and light heralded by the onset of spring. This is no ordinary lighting of candles. No whipping out a Zippo or striking a match here. Instead, each candle is lit from a flame that originated in Jerusalem a few hours ago.

Waiting for the candlelight to be shared
Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre is believed by Christians to be the site at which Jesus was buried and resurrected. Believers claim a flame spontaneously bursts from his tomb on the day before Easter Day to show that Jesus has not forgotten his followers. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem is the main guardian of this ritual. Each year he enters the small tomb where Jesus is believed to have been buried and waits alone for a blue light to appear and ignite the flame. Before he enters, the tomb is checked to ensure that there is no way the flame can be lit by human hand.

The candlelight is spreading

The flame from this 'Miracle of Holy Fire' is used to light 33 candles - one for each year of Jesus' life - and from these the candles of the many worshippers who attend this ceremony are lit. Also lit are a set of lanterns that depart on a special flight for Athens. From Athens the flames are circulated to churches throughout Greece and it is at midnight that this flame is used to light the candles of the worshippers in each church. The light is passed from candle to candle; people chatting and smiling as they share the sacred flame. Seeing this I understood why the women I'd watched lighting candles earlier, had blown them out once they'd finished their prayer. 

Spreading the joy

Eventually all candles were lit, the flames of the bonfire died down, the bells stopped ringing and the priest stopped singing, the lights were back on and the fireworks had finished. People started to move away sheltering the flame of their candle with a cupped hand. Some would be travelling home in cars with their lighted candles. We weren't so reverential and, blowing our candles out, returned to the bar to finish our tea and pay our bill.

Guarding that flame!

I didn't take photos inside the church as it seemed disrespectful to be taking pictures during the service. I went back during the daytime hoping to get some photos, but it was all locked up.

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