It’s Pascha in the year 2021 – the bicentennial of the National Rebirth of Greece (not the Revolution per se, because in reality, the revolution against the Turkish invaders was ongoing for four centuries, since the fall of the Queen City of Constantinople) – and the Greek people have the same vital need to look to the Resurrection of Christ as their compass and anchor of hope as ever before.
Throughout their long and winding path across history – at least for the last two millennia when the Hellenes embraced Christianity as the answer to the existential dead-ends that vexed their uneasy ancestors – and amid all the peaks and valleys over which they traversed, the Cross and the Resurrection have shaped their worldview and served as their wellspring of courage and perseverance with which to continue this unique historical path.
It is largely thanks to these concepts that the Revolution was sustained and the tyrannical invader was ultimately beaten back from the land of Alexander, Pericles, and Leonidas.
One wonders what challenges and difficulties the Greeks living under Ottoman occupation must have suffered – especially during the celebration of the ‘feast of feasts.’
We must begin by looking at the preceding period, before the fall of the Roman Empire (Byzantine was a term ascribed to the Empire a century after its fall by a German historian named Hieronymus Wolf, in an early attempt at copyright infringement and misappropriation of its title and inheritance…. Centuries later, those troublesome Teutons were still trying to pass it off as their own, calling their leader Kaiser/Caesar).
How must the citizenry of the once mighty Roman Empire – who for centuries celebrated Pascha in the Great Monastery of God’s Holy Wisdom – have felt at the unseeming spectacle of the Queen City in a forcible foreign embrace, amid the echoes of unbecoming cadences of nomadic warlords speaking of foreign novelties inside the magnificent Αghia Sophia?
The memories of Pascha in Orthodoxy’s majestic cathedral, “with 400 semantra and 62 bells, a priest for each bell, and a deacon for each priest,” as the old folk song informs us, and the leaders of the City’s demes – the ‘Blues’ (Venetoi) and the ‘Greens’ (Prasinoi) – leading the ceremonial acclamations and greeting the emperor in anticipation of the Resurrection with the phrase “Arise, o God” remain indelibly imprinted in the Hellenic cultural DNA, centuries later.
What perseverance must these once cosmopolitan torchbearers of Hellenism – who sustained a Greek-speaking Christian empire in the East for over a millennium, perpetually under siege from the West and East and North and South, but ever victorious – have exhibited to withstand the sudden turn of events, whereupon they were relegated to inferior subjects of a sultan who taxed them to keep their heads and stole their children, turning them into janissaries? What words of solace must they have whispered to one another at the sight of their Patriarch, St. Gregory V, hanging lifeless from a noose at the main gate of the Phanar, still in his patriarchal vestments, right after the celebration of the Divine Liturgy on the Sunday of Pascha almost 400 years later in 1821? Or at the repeated spectacle of numerous other prelates butchered by order of the sultan, or the countless men and women who died a martyr’s death for their faith?
If not for the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, the ability of the Greek people to maintain an historical and cultural continuity, and to rebuild a modern nation-state out of the decimation left by 400 years under the Ottoman yoke would not have been possible.
Fast forward to the present day. The past two Paschal feasts have certainly been trying. In 2020, churches were shuttered in the majority of places around the world and the faithful were denied the ability to celebrate the Resurrection under any semblance of normalcy. This year, things are better for many of us. At least Orthodox Christians in the United States and many other places have the chance to celebrate Holy Week in person. Our brethren in Greece are not as fortunate, with major limitations on seating capacity in churches and travel restrictions still in place.
Orthodox faithful in Greece may no longer have to face the threat of the yataghan, however, hostile elements from within the political spectrum and the media apparatus supporting it seized the opportunity to launch a new sort of persecution, trampling upon religious freedom and the faith of the people. Everything from litanies, the veneration of icons, the procession of the epitaphios, the lighting of the Paschal candle to Holy Communion itself became a target. In a country where supplications, processions, and vigils were a standard time-tested line of defense against threats ranging from plagues to foreign invasions, this highhandedness is an affront to the history and heritage of the people.
The tendency to ascribe infallibility to scientists and technocrats – especially considering the fact that they often sharply disagree among themselves – evidences a dualistic mindset that Greek thought has typically rejected. Moreover, the exclusion of seminal Greeks of the Diaspora from such ad hoc committees seemingly placing themselves above even the Constitution evidences questionable selection criteria reflective of troubling endemic issues within the government apparatus.
The Greek People will continue to remain rooted in the concept of the Cross and Resurrection because it is indivisibly intertwined with their cultural DNA. And if restrictions remain to dishearten our compatriots in Greece, let them take heart from the words of Alexandros Papadiamantis, who bids the faithful, on the eve of the feast, to “come and exit the dark vaults of the churches, which do not allow our joy to explode uncontrollably. Come, let us sing hymns unto the Lord under the sapphire star-studded vault of the heavens and receive the unwaning light, and await the first smiles of the saffron robed Dawn. For at this time the Lord has risen ‘granting life to those in the tombs.’”
Concluding with words from the “saint of the Greek letters” Papadiamantis, “when the Greek people say the word Anastasis (Resurrection), a secret chord is struck in the depths of their heart, reminding them of the resurrection of the Nation, and Christ and Country meet together there, equally suffering and equally divine.”
May the celebration of this year’s Resurrection usher in a new era of resurrection for the Greek nation on the anniversary of such an important event in its history. Christos Anesti!
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