Musings from a Bright Week Pilgrimage (I)

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Gerondas Theoklitos, Monastery of St. Arsenios the Cappadocian

 

Paschal Holy Dances in Attica, Aegina and Euboia

Everybody in our mixed company on the bus was exhausted even before starting out! Doctors, reeling after long shifts, having barely slept for more than 3-4 hours in 3-4 days in a row; parents struggling with noisy, boisterous,excited young children; senior high-school and university students in distress, studying for their final exams … on the bus! … while all were desperately trying to get some sleep… But the most exhausted of us all was our accompanying priest, Hieromonk Synesios, St. Arsenios Monastery, after a rigorous monastic Great Lent and Holy Week, on top of all his other duties. St Arsenios himself, as in all past pilgrimages, was at the front seat of the bus. His relics were reverently carried by all pilgrims at every stop of our pilgrimage. The pilgrimage was brief but packed and hectic, so let me simply offer a few Paschal, mostly ‘leaping/ dancing” vignettes which made the greatest impression to me.

 

But let me start with the beginning.This Bright [1]Week pilgrimage was appropriately the brightest I have ever participated in! It felt like the fulfilment of St. John’s of Damascus Mystical Pascha captured in his Paschal Canon! To be sure, any trip to Greece in springtime straight from a foggy, misty, rainy England is bound to feel full of light! Especially if to Athens and the islands!

 

Still, the Light which nearly blinded all of us during this Bright Week pilgrimage must have contained a tiny ray of Christ’s Light [2]! A palpable, tangible Transfiguration Light dancing in all pilgrims’ eyes, on the bus and in all the monasteries we visited. The atmosphere felt so light as if were all to collectively Ascend to Heavens. The sheer exuberance of “Christ is Risen” chanted 99 times every single day during Resurrection Day and All Bright Week made our hearts leap with joy! And our Lord’s greeting “Rejoice!” in all the 11 Resurrectional Matins (Eothina) Gospels reverberated in our hearts. And as we were soon to find out, we were about to meet lots of literally dancing and leaping holy men and women.

 

Morning Holy Liturgy at the Holy Monastery of Saint Dionysios of Mount Olympus (3) on Bright Tuesday

 

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That was another discovery of that week: how many Paschal verses indeed contain this image of “leaping”:

 

THE PASCHAL CANON

 

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David, the forefather of our divine Lord, leapt and dancedbefore the symbolical Ark of the Covenant.

 

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“When they who were held by the chains of hell beheld Thy boundless compassion, O Christ, they hastened to the Light with joyful feet, exalting the eternal Pascha.

 

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We celebrate the death of death, the destruction of hell, the beginning of eternal life. And leaping for joy, we celebrate the Cause, the only blessed and most glorious God of our fathers.

 

THE PASCHAL STICHERA IN TONE FIVE

Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and leap for joy, in that thou beholdest Christ the King like a bridegroom come forth from the grave.

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Everybody in our mixed company on the bus was exhausted even before starting out! Doctors, reeling after long shifts, having barely slept for more than 3-4 hours in 3-4 days in a row; parents struggling with noisy, boisterous,excited young children; senior high-school and university students in distress, studying for their final exams … on the bus! … while all were desperately trying to get some sleep… But the most exhausted of us all was our accompanying priest, Hieromonk Synesios, St. Arsenios Monastery, after a rigorous monastic Great Lent and Holy Week, on top of all his other duties. St Arsenios himself, as in all past pilgrimages, was at the front seat of the bus. His relics were reverently carried by all pilgrims at every stop of our pilgrimage. The pilgrimage was brief but packed and hectic, so let me simply offer a few Paschal, mostly “leaping/ dancing” vignettes which made the greatest impression to me:

 

To Be Continued …

 

Footnotes

 [1] Bright week begins with the Sunday of Pascha, and comes to a close on Bright Saturday, at Vespers. One may actually argue that Bright week comes to a close before the ninth hour (which precedes vespers), since the royal doors and deacons’ doors, which have been wide open all week, are closed. This is a sad and significant moment. Just like our forefathers Adam and Eve, we cannot remain in paradise in this life, because of our sins. Ours is a life of struggle against our passions, which hold us back from full realization of paradise in this life.
‘How many days are in Bright week?’ There are TWO correct answers! According to the sun’s rising and setting, Bright week is seven days, (Sunday through Saturday) but to the church, liturgically, it is one day – the “eighth day”.

[2]Cf. Lev Gillet’s notes on the theme of light in the Byzantine liturgical year: ‘Come, take light from the Light that has no evening, and glorify Christ, risen from the dead.’ On the Sunday Pascha, the celebrant stands at the royal doors of the iconostasion and holds a lighted candle in his hand. “Once more, the eastern Church represents the Christian mystery in terms of the mystery of light; this Light, whose birth was marked by the star of Bethlehem, has been shining among us with growing intensity; the darkness of Golgotha could not extinguish it. Now it reappears among us, and all the candles which the congregation hold in their hands, and that they now light, proclaim its triumph. In this way, the deeply spiritual meaning of Easter is indicated. The physical Resurrection of Jesus would be without value to us if the divine light did not shine at the same time among us, within us. We cannot worthily celebrate the Resurrection of Christ if, in our soul, the light brought by the Saviour has not completely overcome the darkness of our sins.”[The Uncreated Light] on Easter night triumphs over the darkness; at Pentecost it reaches its full zenith. Pentecost is the ‘midday flame’. (The Year of Grace of the Lord: A Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church, p177, p215 respectively)

[3]: For information and a documentary in Greek about our first stop, the beautiful Holy Patriarchal and Stavropegic Monastery of Saint Dionysios of Olympus, go herehere and here.

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I am Back

 

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Pantokratoros Monastery in Ntaou Penteli

Virginia: “When will you start writing in Greek? English comes difficult to me. I struggle with your posts. Please consider …”

And Gianna. And Kalliopi. And …

Christ is Risen! 

It seems this blog may soon become bilingual… Maybe I should alternate one blogpost in Greek, one in English? … Once, twice a week? Do you think this is a good idea? On the bus, on our way to Attica, my Greek friends asked me to share on the microphone a few of my experiences here. They gasped at the stories I told them. They did not know. How could they even begin to imagine? 

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St. Nektarios’ the Wonderworker monastery, Agia Triada (The Holy Trinity) in Aegina

I feel I owe this to my Greek and Cypriot brethren who should not be left behind. They need to recover Orthodoxy, expand their horizons and learn about Orthodoxy’s struggles in foreign lands. In so many ways, I have discovered more about Orthodoxy during my brief ‘exile’ in an un-Orthodox country than in a lifetime in an Orthodox one.

Besides, any missionary endeavour and blog require by their very nature more than one tongue. At Pentecost “every man heard them speak in his own language”(Acts 2:6). I still find writing in English a lot harder than in Greek my mother tongue, and there are a lot of texts yet untranslated in English. 

What is your opinion? Do you have any suggestions? I would be so grateful for any help.

 

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Pantokratoros Monastery in Ntaou Penteli, 179 Martyrs Reliquary

Christ is Risen! 

I am back. I can’t believe a whole month flew by so fast! Thank you for staying in touch through my inbox. So many emails to reply, questions to answer, stories to be told … Please be patient with me, as I am still unpacking. My pilgrimage to Attica, Aegina and Euboia lasted only a few precious days, yet had quite an effect on me. It felt like a landmark and a watershed. More in the posts to follow…

 

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The Kato Xenia Monastery at Almyros, near Volos – The Wonder Working Belt of Virgin Mary

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Monastery of Transfiguration near Rovies, island of Evia, constructed by Saint David, and served by the recently canonised St. Iakovos Tsalikis. + His grave

Who am I in this crowd?

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In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Today Christ enters the path not only of His sufferings but of that dreadful loneliness which enshrouds Him during all the days of Passion week. The loneliness begins with a misunderstanding; the people expect that the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem will be the triumphant procession of a political leader, of a leader who will free his people from oppression, from slavery, from what they consider godlessness – because all paganism or idol-worship is a denial of the living God. The loneliness will develop further into the dreadful loneliness of not being understood even by His disciples. At the Last Supper when the Saviour talks to them for the last time, they will be in constant doubt as to the meaning of His words. And later when He goes into the Garden of Gethsemane before the fearful death that is facing Him, His closest disciples, Peter, John and James – whom He chose to go with Him, fall asleep, depressed, tired, hopeless. The culmination of this loneliness will be Christ’s cry on the cross, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Abandoned by men, rejected by the people of Israel He encounters the extreme of forsakenness and dies without God, without men, alone, with only His love for God and His love for mankind, dying for its sake and for God’s glory.

The beginning of Christ’s Passion is today’s triumphal procession. The people expected a king, a leader – and they found the Saviour of their souls. Nothing embitters a person so much as a lost, a disappointed hope; and that explains why people who could receive Him like that, who witnessed the raising of Lazarus, who saw Christ’s miracles and heard His teaching, admired every word, who were ready to become His disciples as long as He brought victory, broke away from Him, turned their backs on Him and a few days later shouted, “Crucify Him, crucify Him.” And Christ spent all those days in loneliness, knowing what was in store for Him, abandoned by every one except the Mother of God, who stood silently by, as She had done throughout her life, participating in His tragic ascent to the Cross; She who had accepted the Annunciation, the Good Tidings, but who also accepted in silence Simeon’s prophecy that a sword would pierce her heart.

During the coming days we shall be not just remembering, but be present at Christ’s Passion. We shall be part of the crowd surrounding Christ and the disciples and the Mother of God. As we hear the Gospel readings, as we listen to the prayers of the Church, as one image after another of these days of the Passion passes before our eyes, let each one of us ask himself the question, “Where do I stand, who am I in this crowd? A Pharisee? A Scribe? A traitor, a coward? Who? Or do I stand among the Apostles?” But they too were overcome by fear. Peter denied Him thrice, Judas betrayed Him, John, James and Peter went to sleep just when Christ most needed human love and support; the other disciples fled; no one remained except John and the Mother of God, those who were bound to Him by the kind of love which fears nothing and is ready to share in everything.

Once more let us ask ourselves who we are and where we stand, what our position in this crowd is. Do we stand with hope, or despair, or what? And if we stand with indifference, we too are part of that terrifying crowd that surrounded Christ, shuffling, listening, and then going away; as we shall go away from church. The Crucifix will be standing here on Thursday and we shall be reading the Gospel about the Cross, the Crucifixion and death – and then what will happen? The Cross will remain standing, but we shall go away for a rest, go home to have supper, to sleep, to prepare for the fatigues of the next day. And during this time Christ is on the Cross, Christ is in the tomb. How awful it is that, like the disciples in their day, we are not able to spend one night, one hour with Him. Let us think about this, and if we are incapable of doing anything, let us at least realise who we are and where we stand, and at the final hour turn to Christ with the cry, the appeal of the thief, Remember me, Lord, in Thy Kingdom! Amen.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh
THE LORD’S ENTRY INTO JERUSALEM
1980, 30 March

Kyra Sarakosti

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Last Monday some ladies at our parish baked  our annual Kyra Sarakosti, or Lady Lent, “cookies”.

 ­ ‘LADY LENT’: AN OLD GREEK EASTER TRADITION

An old Greek custom that still survives in modern, Orthodox Christian families throughout Greece with different vari­ ations, is that of Kyra Sarakosti, i.e. Lady Lent. This is a custom associated with the fasting period of Great Lent preceding the Sunday of Pascha; Kyra Sarakosti is used as a calendar that counts the 7 weeks of Lent.

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Kyra Sarakosti, is a small figure, a paper drawing or sometimes baked of bread dough, which features something really unusual, a lady that looks  like  a  nun who has seven legs and her  hands  are folded as if in prayer. Lady Lent’s seven legs, each represent one week of the fasting period, from Clean Monday to the Holy Week. The cross on her forehead is the symbol of her faith. She has her arms folded because indeed she is constantly praying. She has no mouth, not only be­cause she can’t eat, as she is fasting, but also to avoid engaging in any idle talk. Fi­nally, she has no ears, or  they  are  covered with her scarf, so as not to listen to any calumny or judging, especially in this period of rigorous ascetic effort.

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Lady Lent has been used as a “calen­dar” of Lent all over the country. Each week, starting on Saturday after Clean Monday, the faithful would cut  one  leg  off. The last leg would be cut off on Holy Saturday. In some areas, the seventh leg was squeezed inside the bread of Resur­rection, and was considered to bring blessing to whoever found it.

 

Recipe: Orthodox Mum

Therefore Go, Οὖν

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“Our Easter joy is offered in order to be shared with others. … A pious custom among Orthodox Christians is to share with others the light of Christ the moment their candle is lit. This sharing of Christ’s Light highlights the duty of the faithful to evangelise, to spread the Evangelion (Ευ-Αγγέλιον), the Good News of our Lord’s Resurrection, like the Apostles. Our resurrected Lord said: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  And He added:  “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18-19). Πορευθέντες οὖν.

So, there is one consequence, one “therefore”, one “οὖν”: Don’t limit yourselves to your own personal salvation and joy; you have a holy responsibility to spread this Evangelion to all those who ignore this Truth. This Hope must not be kept hidden, must not be confined to only one community. This Hope is for all peoples, for the renewal of all mankind.” (Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, Easter Message 2017)

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“A Candle Before the Icon”: Archbishop Anastasios

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“As a young person I had been moved by stories of Father Damian, a Catholic priest who served lepers in Hawaii, and also Albert Schweitzer. I asked myself whatever happened to our missionary tradition in the Orthodox Church? Where were the Orthodox missionaries? What are we doing to share our faith with others? What are we doing to reach all those people who have never heard the Gospel? I realized that indifference to missions is a denial of Orthodoxy and a denial of Christ. How had it happened that a Church called to baptize the nations was so indifferent to the nations? Saint Paul brought the Gospel to Greeks. Who were we bringing it to?”

It was a pivotal question that would shape the rest of his life.

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Indifference to missions is a denial of Orthodoxy and a denial of Christ.

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‘Krishti u ngjall, Zoti eshte me ne, lavdi Zotit!’ — ‘Christ is risen, God is with us, Glory to God!’

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While his official title is Archbishop of Tirana and All Albania, Anastasios has occasionally been called the Archbishop of Tirana and All Atheists. It isn’t a title he objects to. “I am everyone’s archbishop. For us each person is a brother or sister. The Church is not just for itself. It is for all the people. As we say at the altar during each Liturgy, it is done ‘on behalf of all and for all. Also we pray ‘for those who hate us and for those who love us.’ Thus we cannot have enemies. How could we? If others want to see us as enemies, it is their choice, but we do not consider others as enemies. We refuse to punish those who punished us. Always remember that at the Last Judgment we are judged for loving Him, or failing to love Him, in the least person. The message is clear. Our salvation depends upon respect for the other, respect for otherness. This is the deep meaning of the Parable of the Good Samaritan — we see not how someone is my neighbor but how someone becomes a neighbor. It is a process. We also see in the parable how we are rescued by the other. What is the theological understanding of the other? It is trying to see how the radiation of the Son of God occurs in this or that place, in this or that culture. This is much more than mere diplomacy. We must keep our authenticity as Christians while seeing how the rays of the Son of Righteousness pass through another person, another culture. Only then can we bring something special.”

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People look at the difficulties of life here and say to me, ‘How can you stand it? It is so ugly!’ But for me it is so beautiful! It is God’s blessing to be here — not the blessing I imagined but the one I received. …

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“People sometimes ask me about my expectations, but I don’t know about the future! You can only do your job with love and humility. I am not the savior of Albania, only a candle in front of the icon of the Saviour.”

For more insights into Archbishop Anastasios legacy go to “A Candle Before the Icon: Archbishop Anastasios”, from Jim Forest’s book Resurrection of the Church of Albania, WCC Publications

Don’t spill the Grace. Keep it there!

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One young convert, radiant after experiencing his first Pascha in the wilderness, was asked by Fr. Seraphim: “Well, how did you like the Feast?”

“It was wonderful!” replied the elated pilgrim.

“Don’t waste what you’ve been given,” Fr. Seraphim said, echoing the words of Bishop Nektary. “Don’t spill the grace. Keep it there!” As he said this, Fr. Seraphim tapped the young man’s chest, right on his heart.