Saturday, April 18, 2009

Palm Sunday and the Holy Cross

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Our neighborhood church was decorated with huge palm branches, about twelve feet long. I’d tell you that they were affixed to the ends of each pew, except that of course there are no pews. They were fastened, instead, to those little brass poles that normally hold the hooks for the velvet ropes that rope off certain areas in public places. The long branches leaned out over the aisles toward each other, touching at the tips, making arches.

After church, we walked to our favorite bougatsa place. Okay, so bougatsa isn’t exactly Lenten, but we made an exception and said it was Palm Sunday, after all. Bougatsa is rather like a filled doughnut, except the pastry part is made of those very thin layers of dough the Greeks call “phyllo”. The filling is either cheese or crème; we chose the crème, as *perhaps not having anything in it we shouldn’t eat, although it probably has milk. It’s baked as a sort of pie, which is then cut into bite-sized pieces, sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar and/or cinnamon, and (ideally) served hot. This bougatsa was indeed up to the ideal and we enjoyed it thoroughly.

On the way home, we passed the home of the retired pathologist who keeps a dozen or so cats. But we only spotted one. The doctor himself wasn’t out on this occasion.

We stopped at the Internet café nearest our house and bought me twenty hours of time. Price is down from last time I was there and the place looks nicer. I will have to save this journal to a disk and carry the disk there. I’ll go and buy a disk or two from Nektarios.

Christos came over for Sunday dinner; I now always cook enough to share with him. He has an apartment right across the hall from ours, which, however, is currently rented (to a young couple and, from the sound of it, a very, very, new baby). The rent pays the mortgage on his house in Katerini, a seaside resort town. He moved there partly because of its being a resort, and partly because his best friend, Stelios, lives there. He built a house across the street from Stelios’. However, Christos has had his feelings hurt; he gets the feeling he isn’t really wanted there. Stelios does spend time with him, but not the amount of time you’d expect from a best friend. And both of them apparently say some tactless things. Stelios’ wife once said to Christos, “Ah, you’re moving here hoping we will take care of you in your old age!” – a remark that may or may not have had any truth to it, but which cut him to the core. The result is, to avoid these people, Christos is now renting an apartment here in Thessaloniki, fairly near ours, and he will be spending a lot of time here. He doesn’t seem to have many friends.

After Sunday dinner had been cleaned up, and after a too-short nap, Christos very kindly drove us to Mena and Kostas’ house, and then returned to his own house.

Mena drove us all to Petrokerassa, my favorite Greek village (so far, keeping in mind I haven’t seen tall that many). It sits atop a mountain, surrounded by even higher mountains, and is full of the kind of dwellings you see in postcards from Greece: stone or brick, whitewashed, with red tiled roofs. “Petrokerassa” means the pit of a cherry, so I translate the village’s name, “Cherrystone.” The local taverna calls itself, in English, “Cherry Rocks”. The place has narrow, winding streets and everything looks ancient, although that is for appearance only. An extensive modernization was done in 1998. I keep thinking it would be an ideal place to raise children, as they couldn’t very well get lost. There’s no way out of the village except down the mountain, and as long as the children didn’t take that road, they’d remain in a relatively confined area and be easy to find. And with so many little alleys and nooks, side streets and arches and whatnot, it would be marvelous fun to explore. In fact, it’s still fun for adults to explore!

But we weren’t there for any picturesque sights. We were there because every year since 1768, on Lazarus Saturday, through Palm Sunday and the evening of Great Monday, a chunk of the Holy Cross is brought to Petrokerassa from a monastery on the Holy Mountain .

One of Lazaros’ friends, who had been to that monastery, told us it was a big chunk, as long as your calf, with a nail still in it, a detail which raises certain questions, but never mind. It was, he said, the biggest known piece of the True Cross in the whole world.

I never in my life dreamed I could be in the presence of the Holy Cross and feel, of all things, disappointed! Yet I must admit I did, and the reason was, the piece that had been described to us was not the piece that had been brought to Petrokerassa. This was a different piece, from the same monastery Mount Athos. It was inside a brass box. The box had a molded and enameled image of the Cross on it, and the crossbeam had lozenge-shaped holes in it, through which, under glass, you could see what appeared to be wood, that was perhaps the size of your longest finger, maybe slightly longer.

If you are Orthodox (or catechumens) and I know you and you read this blog, know that your names were written down, and prayers were offered for you at the foot (so to speak) of the Holy Cross. Starting with you, Isabella. (We don’t pray in church, publicly, for those not Orthodox, although the priest said he would commemorate you privately.)

I remembered that the priest in Petrokerassa is American! “So keep your ears tuned, “ I requested Demetrios, “for some priest with an American accent.” Demetrios couldn’t detect any accent in either of the priests present. Nevertheless, one of them turned out to be the American, after all. I was overjoyed to meet Fr. Peter and hope some day to meet his wife and (presumably) children, and to share conversation and hearts with them. (He isn’t Greek-American, either, yet he has mastered both liturgical and modern Greek!)

We had arrived in the church at the tail end of the Akathist to the Holy Cross; we stayed for the Bridegroom service afterwards. Demetrios and I shared a little smile at the hymn that used to trip me up: “Bring more evils upon them, O Lord, more evils upon them that are glorious upon the earth!” Of course God does not perpetrate evil – upon anyone! – because there is no evil in Him whatsoever. But what the hymn means is that the Lord does thwart the plans of the wicked, frustrates the plots of the crafty. We have known our share of people whose plans we would be/have been grateful to see ruined! That’s why we smiled.

After the service, having venerated the Holy Cross one more time, we left Petrokerassa, together with Pelagia and George, who had joined us there, and we all went out to a taverna in Thessaloniki for supper. As it was by then ten o’clock on a Sunday and holiday night, we had a hard time finding a place that (a) was open and (b) served Lenten food, but eventually we did. “We must have fish,” said Mena, “because it’s allowed today, and we won’t be able to eat it again until Pascha.” So we had fish.

I had forgotten that the fish would be staring up at me from my plate. Well, this one had been placed upside down, so it wasn’t staring at me, but its mouth was open and its teeth were much in evidence – and very sharp, too, as I discovered by gentle, careful probing.

It was delicious, however. Pelagia ate the head of her fish; she says it is the best part.

Again we arrived home very early by Greek standards, just before one in the morning.

As I fell asleep wondering whether that wood had indeed been from the True Cross, and asking myself, “What if it isn’t?” it occurred to me that the far more interesting question is, “What if it is?”


Rosko said...

Glory to God for this post, especially for your opportunity to venerate the True, Holy, Adorable and Life Creating Cross of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.

My own parish has a small relic, about the size of an underscore _ that is highly venerated. It's nice to see you enjoying your time in Greece, I'm excited to read the updates as they come!!!

s-p said...

Those are both good questions. I came into possession of a piece of the Cross (and about 30 other relics) that I kept for a couple years. I ended up giving them away partly because of the falsely humble "ego trip" of owning them. sigh.