Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ochi Day & Protection of the Holy Theotokos

Friday was the great feast of St. Demetrios; yesterday was the feast of St. Nestor. Today is the anniversary of Greece’s entry into World War II, in 1940, when Italy invaded after Greece had refused to surrender in advance. “Ochi!” they told the Italians, “No!”

The people on that day poured out into the streets, singing, “Ti Hypermacho Stratego,” To Thee, the Super-Mighty General, the general being the Theotokos. The people were thus immediately placing themselves under the protection of the Holy Theotokos. (More on this below; keep reading!)

The Italians could not conquer the Greeks, either; Hitler had to send in German reinforcements, who took Greece in April, 1941.

Demetrios had a desire to “Go see Fr. Zisis,” so we took a cab “to the Church of Sts. Constantine and Helen.”

When we arrived there, it wasn’t the right church. It was a large, new, modern church. The one we were looking for was small and old.

Demetrios stopped to inquire of a sweet-faced old lady who was about to enter the church. “Do you mean the Church of St. Anthony?” she asked, finally.

Oh, yes, that was its name. Demetrios knew it was close by, but did the woman know exactly where? She smiled and said, “Come,” and despite our protests, took us there. She stayed there, too, for the services, saying, “Why not?”

Afterward we both felt sure she must have been very glad she did. It was wonderful! There is a Byzantine choir, and the startling thing about it is that the singers were all so young! Not one of them was as old as 40, and some were in their twenties. They knew what they were doing too. They knew even the obscure hymns of the day and they knew the proper style of singing, not like so many we hear these days who slaughter the hymns.

All I knew about Fr. Zisis was that he is a stern critic of Roman Catholicism. Demetrios tells me he is also a professor in the theology department at the university here. He was so vocal in his criticism of Archbishop Christodoulos’ reception of the pope that Christodoulos wanted to remove Fr. Zisis from preaching. He couldn’t do it, because the Church in this northern part of Greece is directly under the Ecumenical Patriarch, not under the Archbishop.

Anyway, Fr. Zisis is the kind of priest we all wish and pray for, and it was pure joy to be a part of his congregation, especially on this occasion.

Now as I’ve mentioned before, the Orthodox have a pious belief (not a dogma) that God has assigned to the Theotokos the task of protecting the Christian people. Fr. Zisis told the story behind the feast. It commemorates a time when St. Andreas of Constantinople and his disciple, St. Epiphanios (later the Patriarch), were conducting services, and they both saw the Theotokos enter the church, with angels dressed in white preceding her and following her. She walked all the way up to the altar and knelt there, in the aisle, and prayed with the people for the duration of the service. Then she entered the altar and in a graceful movement, spread out her mantle in a gesture of protection. St. Andreas asked her how long would she protect the city (Constantinople) and she said for as long as the Christians remained faithful.

When the Christians had become, well, what we today call “Byzantine”, her protection departed from the city, Fr. Zisis said, and there came the chastisement of the Turkish yoke. But when virtue and fidelity returned, so did the protection of the Theotokos.

During World War Two, many soldiers on many occasions saw the Theotokos spreading her mantle over them. These were not only individuals who saw her, but whole groups of men at a time. It was a regular occurrence. And that is why the feast of the Protection of the Holy Theotokos, which used to be celebrated on October 1, has now been moved to today.

In 1943, Fr. Zisis said, when the Germans were occupying Thessaloniki, they were hunting down five resistance fighters. They were hot on the trail when the five ducked into this very church. That was when Fr. Parthenios was the priest here, whom some of the older parishioners might remember. Fr. Parthenios had hidden resistance fighters before, so they knew they could count on his help.

“Hide behind this icon,” Fr. Parthenios told them. And Fr. Zisis pointed to it, on a stand near the cantors, decorated today with flowers and candles. This icon is about two feet wide and three feet high, I estimate, a big icon, but not nearly big enough to hide five people, even five children, let alone adult men. Nevertheless, the desperate men "hid" there. It was in the days before the church had electricity, so that perhaps might help.

The German soldiers arrived at the church and ordered Fr. Parthenios to light all the candles, which he did. Then they searched the whole church with flashlights, thoroughly. Guess what? Yes, you’ve guessed it. They never found those five fugitives, although one their flashlights shone straight in the face of one of them.

Afterward, this icon was found wet all over and weeping more tears. It had never wept before; it never has since.

And the silver plating you see on the icon today, said Fr. Zisis, was paid for by Fr. Parthenios and a lady in the parish who could afford it, and one of those five resistance fighters.

We were overjoyed to be able to kiss this icon. We sang Ti Hypermacho with extra emotion: Hail, O Unmarried Bride! (It sounds far better in Greek, in which “unmarried” and “bride” are two forms of the same word.)

Then, on to the parade. The Communists have been waging a rather strong campaign against the parade this year. There are graffiti that say things like, “Sabotage the Parade!” and Communist commentators on the television have been speaking against it. We thought that was another good reason for us to attend.

It’s a military parade, and you must remember that all of Greece is about the same size as Virginia. Her military might is nothing. You get the feeling of the Mouse that Roared. (That’s the delightful novel/Peter Sellers movie in which the miniscule Duchy of Grand Fenwick, nearly broke, decides to get money by going to war with America, losing, and getting grants from the Americans to rebuild. They accidentally win the war by wandering into the lab of a wacky scientist in New York City who has just completed the Q bomb, the most devastating weapon the world has ever known, and taking possession of it. Of course, winning the war with America, with never a shot fired, is not what was intended and is highly inconvenient for all concerned…)

But then, just as you are thinking of the Mouse that roared, you remember that Greece has indeed roared from time to time in history, from ancient days up to our own times. She has acquitted herself well in war, has a record one can indeed be proud of – and then we have to factor in the Theotokos!

So quick, buy two little flags from one of the vendors, find a good spot at the curb, unfold camping stool, wave your flag enthusiastically!

At the head of the parade, as always, the veterans of the revolutionary war against Turkey. (This part of Greece was only liberated from Turkey in the early 1900s.) That these come first is traditional, goes without saying. The actual fighters are dead now, but as each of them died, his children took his place in the parade, and then his grandchildren. These descendants of the reistance fighters still get the biggest ovations of all. Wave your flag like mad.

Then, the Red Cross, nurses in white dresses, white gloves, navy cloaks lined with red, and nurses’ caps with veils hanging down from them.

Then come representative groups from all over Greece, from every region and from the islands, each group wearing its local costume, very colorful. The biggest cheers always go to the fierce Cretans. It took Germany 8 weeks to take Crete, as compared with two weeks to take France. The Cretans, out of ammunition, stood in the open fields and bayoneted the German parachutists as they came floating down. I got a bit of a laugh out of the Lesbians, meaning the inhabitants of the island of Lesbos.

Next came student groups from various schools, each marching under its own banner. Then, “the orphans.” Each orphan carried a Greek flag and looked very proud. They get big applause. Then, the scouts, starting with the Cub Scouts and Brownies.

Next, the Coast Guard. They come towing Sea-doos behind them, or wearing diving outfits, or pulling their small boats on trailers.

Then, the Maries, shouting a slogan, which roughly translated might be: “St. Sophia, St. Sophia! We shall come to you, St. Sophia!” They mean the St. Sophia, the church in Constantinople! That drew loud applause, as well.

Then came numerous antique (World War II) jeeps and other vehicles, followed by the MPs (Military Police) on motorcycles.

Then, the armored divisions, with tanks and humvees roaring down the street. At the height of the thundering was of course when the formations of jets came screaming overhead and one of the warships in the harbor behind us fired the 21-gun salute.

All these groups were, of course, interspersed with bands, with prancing drum majors, batons thrown into the air and twirled, people singing the patriotic songs as the bands passed. Actually, due to current events, all the bands seemed to play the same song, Macedonia.

Macedonia, the world-renowned,
the home of Great Alexander!

Next, the artillery, with rockets, then the Signal Corps with radars and Corps of Engineers with bulldozers and cranes, followed by a couple of MASH units. But here, when we speak of a “Mobile Army Surgical Hospital,” we mean something like a very large RV but fitted out as on O.R.

Meanwhile, helicopters in formation flew over, Chinooks and Blackhawks, I think.

Next came the Air Force, followed (according to no logical scheme I could see) by the police of Thessaloniki, and our city firefighters. These all had their blue or red lights flashing and ALL their sirens going.

Then, the Infantry. A woman in front of us kept shouting, “Bravo, boys, bravo!” and once she added, “I would be so proud to be your mother!” A lone female soldier passed and the woman yelled, “Go, my big Doll!” (There were numerous female soldiers, but this one happened to be in an otherwise all-male unit, at least for parade purposes.)

Next came the Naval officers, the sailors, and then the Seals, in diving attire and don’t even ask me how you march in flippers.

Then the Special Forces and people in uniforms nobody seemed to know what they were. (Woooo!) And then it was over.

The waterfront there is like an open city park; we walked first out to the sea to admire the warships, strung with flags and banners from bow to stern (and lights they turn on at night). There were kiddie rides, boat shaped swings two tots could sit in, facing each other, and little cars that went around in a circle, like a carousel but without horses. Vendors were selling cotton candy and other treats. There were horse-drawn carriages you could ride in.

After pausing a long while to watch the faces of the children on the rides, we walked to the restaurant that on Sunday afternoons serves charcoal-roasted lamb. They were out of it by time we arrived, but we still enjoyed charcoal-roasted chicken and beef.

Then we walked home. I can’t believe we walked so far! It’s nice to know we can.

On the way we spotted a statue labeled, King George A', which means "the First". Demetrios said when the Greeks were looking around for a king, they asked Prince George of Denmark to come rule over them. He was a good king, too. But as he was walking past this spot, a psychotic man stabbed him to death.

Someone had laid a fresh bouquet of flowers at the base of the statue.

We came home and finished the last of the Bailey’s Irish Cream we had bought for the party the other night.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s nap time.


Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

Thank you for this wonderful post !
I hope you enjoyed the nap :-)

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. I rather thought yo'd like it, being devoted as you are to the Theotokos. As a convert, I've never had much devotion to her, but I hope that is changing now. Yesterday certainly helped me a lot!