“Today he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon a Tree,
He who is King of the Angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heaven in clouds is wrapped in mocking purple.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan receives a blow on the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails.
The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a lance,.
We worship your Sufferings, O Christ
Show us also your glorious Resurrection.”
The hymnographers of the Orthodox church revelled in contradictions and juxtapositions and the above hymn, chanted during the Matins for Good Friday, is no exception. It invites the listener to ponder the enormity of the event of the Crucifixion: how signs and events can signify their complete opposite. The hymn suggests to us that in the “Death” of He who for the faithful is Life, the entire natural order of things has been upset.
My first inkling that things were not “normal” in the lead up to Holy Week was when my four year old daughter, came to the kitchen to make Lazarakia, the traditional sweetbreads made to commemorate Lazarus’ return from the dead, wearing a crown she had fashioned for herself out of paper.
* Κοίτα μπαμπά, φοράω κορώνα, she pronounced triumphantly.
* Μπράβο, είσαι πριγκίπισσα; I asked.
* Όχι μπαμπά, είμαι ο κορωνοϊός, came the response.
Every year at Easter, my parish priest always thanks God, «που αξιωθήκαμε και φέτος να κάνουμε Πάσχα». This is a profound statement. As the key verb in the phrase indicates, in our tradition, ones does not merely celebrate Easter. One does Easter, denoting the fact that rather than being an event of passive participation, it is a hands on enterprise that requires one’s full engagement. For most of us, it took the advent of a deadly virus that caused most public spaces, churches included, to close in order for us to realise just how central the public ceremonies and traditions of Easter are to our identity.
As a chanter, I was permitted to go to my parish church, for services continued unabated. Yet to chant the Akathist Hymn to row after row of empty pews, in complete silence, was an unnerving experience, for people are at the centre and are the focus of all of our ceremonies. To chant the “Ypermakho” Hymn, and to see a tear flow down the cheek of our otherwise gruff, no nonsense, nonagenarian priest as his voice wavered, was to ponder the manner in which the hymns of Holy Week indicate, that all our expectations have become confounded. We carried on regardless, unable to stifle a laugh at the end of each liturgy, as our priest addressed the empty church: “Now I want you to all come up one by one to obtain your antidoron, quietly and without pushing.”
“What do you mean we can’t go to church?” my eldest daughter asked. “What are we going to do?”
With the help of her siblings, we set up an iconostasis before which we could at least chant vespers before bed time. Offering the same prayers with children is fraught with danger, for in repetition, they became adept at picking which parts I had left out for brevity. I was thus compelled to treat with a four year old who would refuse to go to bed unless we chanted «Κύριε, εκέκραξα» again, this time, as she demanded, “properly.” It is to this experience that I ascribe her continuing propensity, at odd moments of the day, to break out into a stream of Kyrie Eleison’s especially while persecuting her younger brother and divesting him of his toys.
During the Last Supper, Christ broke bread, and poured wine, commanding: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Most of our culinary preparations undertaken in our household are in remembrance of my grandmother. Over the years, I have taken great pains to reconstruct her secret koulourakia recipe and will only make them in the shapes that she employed, leaving my wife and children to freestyle as they see fit. I will go to my grave refusing to admit that their efforts are far superior, for my grandmother would recognise no rival. Yiayia, a master baker, was not a tsoureki maker, yet she would never deign to purchase something that she could conceivably make herself and getting one’s offspring to pummel dough is an ideal way to channel their lockdown energies.
This year, owing to social distancing, I received no panettone from culturally aware Greek-Australians, nor will I receive other koulourakia in order for me to perform the tried and true Australo-Hellenic custom of koulourakia exchange and re-gifting. Such sharing has already taken place in the social media, with friends proudly posting photographs of their efforts, not a few of which originally feature in mygreekrecipe.com. I eagerly await the Feast of the Resurrection so I may sample my own provender, my grandmother’s voice echoing from within my memories: “Too much yeast. You want it rise, not to achieve the Ascension.”
Not being able to visit the graves of your loved ones is particularly trying at a time of a celebration of a Feast that commemorates the harrowing of Hades and prefigures their eventual resurrection. Every year on Holy Saturday, we visit a veritable necropolis, leaving a red egg and a koulouraki on the legion of graves of our departed loved ones, a calling card and a promise. This year, owing to government restrictions, this was at first not permitted and we were left scratching our heads as to how to include our dead within our Easter celebrations, until a petition from one of our parishioners caused the government to announce it would not fine people engaged in cemetery visits. One thing is for certain however. Once all this is over, they would rather be caught dead then vote for said pollies ever again.
There was no public Epitaphios procession this year either. Accordingly, we were not able to participate in the burial of Christ, an event which in Australia is one of the most visible expressions of Greek identity. Instead, most of us watched live-streamed services online, social media applications permitting comments and emoticons to take the place of gossip during the service. However, the prospect of not taking part in the procession left my children distraught. They resolved to construct their own Epitaphios, out of archive boxes and Australia Post tubes. As they cut out the various shapes, painted and assembled them, my eldest daughter began to describe the sufferings of Christ to her siblings. Soon tears began to appear in her eyes. I remembered the Synaxarion for the Matins of Good Friday: “…We observe…the spittings, the scourgings, the buffetings, the scorn, the mocking, the purple robe, the reed, the sponge, the vinegar, the nails, the spear and above all the Cross and Death, which he willingly suffered for us,” marvelling at how immensely confronting and moving these things, which to those infused in western culture are considered trite, are to the innocent.
In the evening of Good Friday, we set forth in the darkness, my son holding a cross, preceding my daughters bearing their cardboard epitaphios on their shoulders with gravitas, in measured step. Solemnly, we chanted the Holy Friday Lamentations into the empty street, the eastern elegiac modes permeating our predominantly Catholic neighbourhood. Upon our return home, it was relatively quick and easy to have all of the members of our family pass under our epitaphios and reunite on the other side, without getting lost in the crowd.
My children are preparing for a churchless Anastasis by making their own Resurrection labarum. What they have not come to terms with yet however, is that this will be their first ever Easter without their grandparents, whose proximity to our abode can be measured by means of the fact that whenever I call my mother to ask a question, she always invariably responds: «Έλαεδώναμερωτήσεις.» Since I have not yet come to terms with Easter being yiayia free for me for the past ten years, I feel my offspring’s loss keenly, one that no amount of Skype, Facetime or Zoom can assuage and am consoled that at least, their loss is a temporary one.
READ MORE: Will you be keeping alive the food traditions of Easter this year?
There is a jaw droppingly vivid troparion chanted on Holy Saturday which personifies Hades and has him vocally regret his decision to admit Christ within his realm:
“Today Hades cries our groaning:
“I should not have accepted the Man born of Mary.
He came and destroyed my power.
He shattered the gates of brass.”
We too will regret it if we allow despondency and fear to enter the realm of our festivities, instead of Him whose rising we celebrate as a people. Coronavirus or no, we eagerly anticipate the Resurrection, in the sure knowledge that all these things will pass, and we will emerge triumphant and more united than ever, perhaps with a deeper appreciation of how precious and how instrinsic to our lives, the Greek community actually is.