AT SEA – The holiday season has so many associations with so many cultures and traditions that it’s hard to justify creating new ones – but since I find myself coincidentally on a cruise ship sailing to the Holy Land but can’t get to Bethlehem this time around, mixing American holiday memories and church hymns in my head, I await with bated breath – Christmas in Jerusalem.
And I wonder… what will that be like? I know the city’s glorious yet troubled history well, but I have yet to breathe its inspiring – but also provocative – spirit. There is beauty and unpleasantness there – because different groups love the Old City so much that they hate those who also covet it.
During my three days there, I imagine I will experience some of both sides of that reality, but I also intend to manufacture a tradition of my own. The plan is, God willing, to witness sunrise on December 25th, not to get a peek of the pagan remains of Mediterranean civilization, but because of my very favorite Orthodox Christian hymn. Before we get there, however, let’s take a look over our shoulders into our past.
Christmas memories anchor the childhoods of many people. That is certainly the case with me. As I was pondering this amazing trip – Celestyal Cruises is taking me for the first time to much of the East Mediterranean: Smyrna, where I will honor its dark anniversary, Cyprus, where I will meet friends and colleagues from my days at the American Hellenic Institute when we were fighting for the liberation of Turkish-occupied Cyprus, Egypt, where I have longed to go to catch glimpses of Constantine Cavafy’s Alexandria and the pyramids of the pharaohs – and the Holy Land.
In recent days, I tried to remember my very earliest memories. Among the first is seeing my beloved Pappou Kosta for the last time as he sailed away to Greece from a Manhattan pier. They told me he and Yiayia were going on vacation and would be back – but even at age four, before learning math, I put 2 and 2 together: the contents of their apartment in Washington Heights were emptied into huge steamer trunks, and everyone was crying.
At this point, I must that note my first sensation of this trip, my first time on an oceangoing vessel. It was an inexplicable anxiety that I never felt on a boat to a Greek island or a plane to a distant continent. Perhaps it is a special emotion known mainly to Hellenes and other seafaring nations – you want to go, but you don’t really know where you are going and whether you are coming back – an encounter with raw Fate – and a taste of sailing away into…’xenitia’. Everlasting be the memories of our ancestors.
Which brings us back to Pappou – who crossed the Atlantic for the first time around 1914, after experiencing a different boat, serving on the renowned Averof in the Balkan Wars – and to early memories. In fact, all my early memories are of my Pappou, and one was just a bit Christmassy: I thought I would fool and frighten him by putting a huge stuffed doll in the hallway, telling him “a big ‘anthropos’ has broken into the house.” That ‘big man’ was Santa Claus. I think I was three, probably the earliest scene I remember.
As my consciousness drifted into more indeterminate memories, I began to hear something. Music. Singing. Christmas music. Not my favorite carols and songs, the ones that still delight me and evoke my favorite New York and holiday memories: the Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall (those wonderful – but later – memories are tied to my late father). Rather, I heard a church hymn: The one that always brings a smile to my face and its mystical words to my lips – “I genisi sou Christe O Theos imon – Your birth, O Christ, our God….’
The plan is to wake up around 5 AM and walk from my hotel to the nearby Mount of Olives and watch the rise of the ‘Ilios tis Dikeosinis.’ Afterwards, I will enter the venerable Old City and participate in the Divine Liturgy in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
This may sound a touch macabre for Christmas, but Orthodox theology, in this matter as in others, cannot be analyzed piece by piece. Rather, our spirituality must be examined and felt holistically. The birth and death of Our Lord are inextricably one. Incarnation and Resurrection are both rooted in the same Divine Love for Humankind. But as I learned long ago from a Romanian Orthodox monk on ‘60 Minutes’, “we do not theologize when we pray.” So as I watch the sunrise on Christmas Day, I will pray for “peace on Earth, good will to all.” And for America and Ellada, and for Palestinians and Israelis, and for my loved ones.
And to paraphrase our Jewish friends as I travel from my homeland to theirs, “next year in Bethlehem!”