Friday, September 17, 2010

Living in Greece, Part 10

Sunday, 12 September
The Holy Cross of Christ Arrives in Thessaloniki

Last year, we were blessed to be able to venerate a piece of the Cross that had been brought to the village of Petrokerassa from Mount Athos. This year, it’s a much better known piece of it. This is the one from Jerusalem, from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the portion of the Holy Cross people come from all corners of the earth to see.

And it came to our very own obscure little neighborhood church. I don’t know why it didn’t come to the Metropolitan Church of St. Gregory Palamas or to the ancient and prestigious basilica of St. Sophia or the Church of St. Demetrios, Thessaloniki’s patron saint, or the Church of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, 5 blocks nearer the sea. But it came here.

And I went with our downstairs neighbor, Thomai, to meet it as it arrived by sea. It came to, of all places, the yacht club, which just happens to be approximately the nearest point of the sea to both our church and our house – about six rather short blocks.

The Cross was scheduled to arrive at 6:00 p.m. Thomai and I were there by 5:30, in an attempt to find an advantageous place from which to watch, which we did, more or less. There must have been 2 or 3 thousand people there. (But I discovered that my fear of crowds doesn’t apply outdoors.)

There was a Navy color guard there, and an Army band, and numerous police officers.

A Coast Guard cutter appeared, bringing the Cross, or rather, the piece of it, but that’s not how we speak of it; one piece, pragmatically, is the same as the entire. And as the Coast Guard cutter approached, about a dozen tiny sailboats darted around it (perfect sailing weather with a stiff breeze) and these small craft released – well something like smoke bombs, I suppose. Each boat laid down a trail of flame-colored smoke that made the air appear to be on fire.

The youth from the yacht club lined either side of the route the Cross would take, as far as the street, each one holding a 15-foot oar, crossed at the top with the oar opposite, to make arches, the way swords are crossed at military weddings. They made a pretty sight, as each oar was painted white and two shades of blue.

The Holy Cross was brought off the boat. A row of men along the dock lighted enormous sparklers. We sang “Save, O Lord, You people and bless Your inheritance. Give victory to our kings over barbarians, and by Thy Cross, protect Your politeuma”, Your way of life. Then, after another hymn, the band struck up, the parish banner moved toward the Cross, and our procession began. We bowed and crossed ourselves as the Cross passed us, through the arches of crossed oars. (Not everybody did; some of the yacht club members, who from their tables actually had the best views, kept sipping their cocktails all the while.)

The procession to the church took half an hour, stopping here and there for more prayers and hymns. People watched from their balconies, some reverently with lighted candles, some with cameras, others in tee shirts just watching from vague interest. Major streets were blocked for up to 15 minutes each, and some side streets as well.

“Oh, look!” Thomai cried at one point. “Zisis has come!” Her husband hadn’t planned to attend. So we hurried and caught up with him.

The bells of the church began tolling wildly, joyously as we drew near. We began pouring into the church, and that’s where I parted company with Thomai and her cousin, whom we had meanwhile encountered in the crowd. They actually found good seats, near the front, but I fled to the balcony.

The balcony is a Muslim influence left over from when Greece was under the Turkish yoke, a place for women to sit apart from the men. Nowadays women aren’t restricted to the balcony. I’d never been up there before, but I found it spacious and much less crowded than downstairs, with upholstered pews, and I took a center seat so I could see what went on.

We sang some more hymns, then the Doxology.

What happened next was so very predictable I kicked myself that I hadn’t seen it coming, couldn’t have imagined it would happen in the presence of the Cross of Christ. Here were a dozen or so priests and a huge captive audience. The clergy couldn’t resist speechifying. You know the sort of thing. Welcome to this momentous occasion, we thank our bishop and Fathers So-and-so; we are honored to have among us this dignitary and that one; what a glorous day this is for our city; now I am privileged to introduce to you the next speaker, who... etc., etc., etc.

That’s when I left. According to the schedule, there was to be another service or two, but there was no sign of anything more about to happen. I didn’t venerate the Cross because there were still a couple of thousand thronging people seeking to do that, all squashed together, all vying for position. (Nobody so far has taught Greeks the concept of the queue.) It was going to take a couple of hours for my turn to come, hours of standing, sweating, feeling suffocated.

Outside, I found Bishop Anthimos, having ducked out of the church, finishing up a quick press conference and vendors selling candles and incense. (If you think you can’t stand the smell of incense, you should realize that it comes in scores of different scents.)

And where was Demetrios all this time, you ask? He spent part of the time having coffee with his brother as he does every day, and then came to the church just after the Cross had arrived.

On my way home, I decided to stop at a confectionary and buy myself a pastry. You see, that’s the problem I have with food – ALL food is comfort food! But sweets, above all. Here was a chance to grab a little of it, and no need to tell Demetrios, either, right? :-) So I popped into the zacharoplasteia and there he was, my own sweet! “Oh, imagine that!” he said. “I came here to buy a pastry just for you!” I refrained from saying I had come to buy one for him.

I hope to arise early tomorrow and be among the first to get to church, and then maybe my turn will come to see and to bow before the instrument of our salvation. The Cross will be here for 8 days.

Do I really, you ask, believe this is the True Cross? Yes, I do. It’s attested to by countless miracles, as it always has been, from the time St. Helena excavated it, the mother of St. Constantine, the Emperor.

But even if it weren’t the True Cross it would still function exactly same, would make no pragmatic difference at all. Except for those miracles, of course, no small exception.


Dixie said...

What a wonderful opportunity to venerate the True Cross!

GretchenJoanna said...

What a blessing! Your pastry shop ending made me laugh, because that sounds like something I would do.

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

What an amazing blessing to be able to ytake part in this !