Saturday, 14 April 2012

A time for reflection

It's Holy Saturday (Μεγάλo Σάββατο) in the Eastern Orthodox church: most Greeks are waiting to hear "Δεύτε, λάβετε φως" at midnight...

No Greek - wherever they may live - remains untouched by emotion at the beginning of the Holy Week, the last week of Great Lent before Easter, not even those Greeks who have renounced religion and do not allow it to impede the way they choose to live their daily life. Greeks abroad will feel uneasy as Easter approaches: for a start, calendar Easter will have come and gone. They will have taken their Easter holidays, but they know that they have not really celebrated Easter, because Christian Orthodox Easter does not always fall on the same day as calendar Easter - it is always later (and never before). 

For those of us Greeks who live in Greece, we cannot hide from the daily ringing of the church bells, the pre-dyed Easter eggs that suddenly overtake the supermarket shelves, the aroma of koulourakia and tsourekia wafting through the air and the sounds of happy children on spring break, in tandem with the fresh breezy air signalling the approach of summer, as Eastertime rings in. While such traditional images are overwhelmingly strong, they are just that, images that simplify reality, as well as obscuring it:
 "Ever since the fall of the Greek mainland to Roman invaders, well before Christ was born, Greece has had a dual identity: Historia and Mythologia, the real and the imaginary." (The Greeks, James Pettifer, 1993)
It was this obscuring of reality that made me forsake all Easter traditions not too long ago, after suffering a bout of illness and caring for other family members who were also seasonally incapacitated. Suddenly, all that fuss and bother over what went into our stomach and the traditions dictated by the season as a form of remembrance of 2,000-year-old events seemed insignificant in comparison to the breakdown of my family's health. During that particular Holy Week, I pretended that I could not see or hear the sights and sounds of the imminent arrival of Easter Sunday, and went about my routine as if the coming weekend would be just like any other.

Naturally, I did not spend any time dyeing red eggs that year. I bought half a dozen pre-dyed eggs, each one in a different colour, which were pre-packed and ready to go. Somehow, I felt I was cheating; on the other hand, I had a strong feeling that I was saving time and money, and most importantly, I was not wasting fresh produce. We never buy eggs for boiling or frying; we only use store-bought eggs to make cakes with. When you have tasted the difference, you will not be able to go back to eating fried or boiled store-bought eggs yourself. During Eastertime, I get given eggs by friends and relatives whose chickens are laying too quickly for them to use up the fresh produce. I could not bear the thought that these precious presents would be turned into an egg-cracking contest, where the actual food value of the product would be thrown away (ie turned into dogfood). So on Holy Thursday, when all the νοικοκυρές of Greece would be dyeing red eggs and placing them in tsoureki braids, I simply picked them up from the supermarket.

Instead of going to church the next day on Good Friday to hear "O γλυκό μου έαρ" sung by the village choir, I stayed at home and watched it playing on the television. It suddenly occurred to me that I was hearing the most beautiful rendition of this haunting tune and felt relieved that I did not have to listen to the cat-screeching cries of the local village choir, or the donkey-brays of the village priest. Nor did I have to look out for my hair (or my children's) getting singed during the customary village walk-around with the epitaph leading the way, from the lit candles held by the faithful, many of whom were chatting and laughing with their friends or on their telephones, prompting the priest to call out to them to hush themselves in the middle of the square, otherwise he wouldn't carry on with the service. Nor did I have to worry about being sprayed by the home-owners with their tacky perfume when the procession passed by their houses (another village custom). The previous year when I attended one of them had obviously run out of perfume, so he sprayed tsikoudia instead. The aroma was quickly noticed. Some people asked him to spray it directly into their mouths.

At the closing tune of "My sweet spring", one of those old-fashioned Jesus movies depicting the life of Christ right up to his resurrection began to screen. I felt as though I was getting my money's worth: not just a concert, but live theater to go with it. In many ways, the church services in the Holy Week are actually a theatrical re-enactment of the events that took place 2,000 years ago. The same films are played year after year during this holy period, but now that religion is not as popular as in the past, we tend not to watch them. Being stuck at home indoors, as the weather was cold and spring had not quite set in yet, those programs took on a new significance for me.

It still felt strange not to have gone to church to hold a yellow candle in my hand and walk behind the colourful epitafio decorated with chrysanthemums as it makes its way round the village. I felt guilty as I sat in the comfort of my home, as if I were missing out on the true religious experience of the re-enactment if I didn't attend the church service, if I didn't find myself amidst the congregation, if I didn't kiss the black cross where Christ's body would be missing because it was getting ready to be buried. But the film did much more than that - it transported me in time and place, showing the goriness of Christ's sufferings and conveying His feelings the moment when his hands and feet were being nailed to the cross, until the moment when he let out his last (pre-resurrection) breath.

On Holy Saturday morning, I felt a whole lot better. I made my milky morning coffee and ate some bread and cheese, as I heard the first church bells for the day ring at midday: Christ's tomb had been opened and was found to be empty. I checked on my family: they were all feeling better. I made some kalitsounia and prepared the kreatotourta, not because we were going to eat it on Easter Sunday, but because I wanted to maintain a look of normalcy in our house during what had been a difficult period for us. We contemplated going to church that evening at midnight - but we decided that since the children would be sleeping, only one of us would be able to go while the other stayed at home. This year, we would have to be content with hearing "Δεύτε, λάβετε φως" from the screen, while our κανδήλι would be burn with the help of a cigarette lighter. I was comforted to think that I would at least be safe from the moronic stupidity some of my compatriots display at this time of year with fireworks - inevitably, somebody is seriously injured after the first few strokes of midnight on Easter Sunday, some even fatally.

But I was secretly pleased that this year, I was not going anywhere that night. That year was the only one when I managed to watch the whole of  the 1959 production of Ben Hur, uninterrupted. While my children were sleeping peacefully for the first night in what seemed like ages, while my husband checked on his mother who had suffered a bout of thrombosis, I watched the greatest (and most expensive) film ever made. Ben Hur is screened every single year in the Holy Week in Greece, such is its power. You do not have to believe in Jesus Christ to be moved by the scene of a man dying of thirst being refreshed by a stranger. The chariot scene is bound to give everyone an adrenaline rush, and few people nowadays do not feel the terror of lingering danger during a lightning storm, or when the earth shakes for no apparent reason, as the last scene depicts when Christ was crucified.

That year, when the film finished, I had a cathartic feeling in my soul. It was as if the burden of my past, the way I was raised, my people's customs and traditions, and all that excess baggage we carry around with us by virtue of our cultural upbringing suddenly felt lighter, as I had shed most of it, without worrying where I had left it. I hadn't lost it, I simply put it aside, to be used at a later undefined moment, when I would need it. For the time being, I had replaced it with something new. I had experienced my own version of the link between life and death. Perhaps this would be the one that I may pass on to my own children. The world, after all, has become an easier place to live in.

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