It was a wonderful day, mind. But it started early, ended late, and wasn't easy in between.
We got up in the deep darkness, arrived in the Church of St. Demetrios still in the deep dark (7:20). That's the church built over the spot where the Saint was imprisoned and killed, in a Roman bath. His relics are here.
St. Demetrios is one of several illustrious saints Thessaloniki has given the Church, but in this city, he is the favorite. St. Gregory Palamas, another famous Thessalonian, called him the sun among the stars.
I suppose, to explain about the Feast of Saint Demetrios, we have first to say what a saint is, in Orthodox Christianity. "Saint" means holy person and there is a sense in which we are all made holy in Christ and the term rightly applies to all of us, but that isn't the sense under discussion here.
Well then, a saint is not just a super-religious person who shows great devotion (Francis of Assisi) or writes beautiful religious poetry (John of the Cross) or renders great service to a religious institution (Ignatius Loyola) or has a towering personality and fabulous intellect (Bernard of Clairvaux) or does heroic deeds (Joan of Arc). For us, Christ is the yardstick, the measure of holiness. The criterion is, to what degree do we see Jesus Christ's own Life being lived in and through this person? How well has he or she succeeded in becoming full of compassion, kindness, humanity, humility, self-sacrificing love? To what degree is this person Christ-with-skin-on?
And the Orthodox believe such a person, still filled with the Holy Spirit after death, continues whatever ministry God had given him or her in this life. Thus, the Lord's Mother is still the mother of all God's children. And Saint Demetrios still, by his prayers, aids his city, Thessaloniki, entrusted to him by God. To his intercessions is credited the rescue of the City from plague, from the Bulgarians, several times, I think; and it was on his feast in 1912 Thessaloniki was liberated from the Ottoman Turks. So his feast day is a national and especially a local holiday. Christians here meet to praise God for this Saint, to sing songs in the saint's honor, and to commemorate his life and death.
So by the time we got through all the police guarding every intersection near the Church, every approach but one being closed, it was 7:20 and the downstairs was already hopelessly packed. We headed up to the balcony, two and a half flights of steep stairs, where we found exactly two seats left, from which anything could be seen. We wanted to be able to see the proceedings. We had stayed strictly away from this church after our disastrous experience there on this day in 2007, when we became lost from each other and never did find each other again until the middle of the afternoon, at home, each meanwhile fearing the other had met with foul play. But today, the Patriarch of Constantinople was serving the Divine Liturgy, so we came back, sticking to each other like glue.
Matins was already in progress. At 7:40, the bells began ringing loudly, joyously, signaling the arrival of Patriarch Bartholomew. We couldn't see him at this point, but he would have arrived in plain monk's garb, and would have been helped, at the back of the church, out of the black robe and into his flowing purple ad gold cloak, cum train.
Attended by a dozen other bishops and several priests, he led us in the Great Doxology, after some initial proceedings, and by just about 9:00, the Patriarchal Divine Liturgy began. If I tell you that by 10:30, we had only gotten a far as the Lord's Prayer - about, what? two thirds of the way through the service? - you will understand something of what it was like.
Meanwhile, people just kept arriving. I knew they would, but our seats, providentially, were right beside what you might loosely describe as an architectural feature (something like bleachers having been constructed in the balcony) that kept them at some small distance from us. That, plus the fact I was able to look all the way up the aisle to the front of the church, kept my claustrophobia manageable. (The church is at least the length of two football fields, maybe three.) People just kept coming and coming and I grew more and more restless. There were easily 700 of us, just on the balcony, thousands more below. At some point, someone mercifully turned on the air conditioning and then I felt I could breathe. The late arrivals had not even stopped when the early departures began, people going to receive communion and thence home, as there was no place for them downstairs and they weren't about to tackle those exhausting, crowded stairs a second time.
There is exactly one stairway to and from the balcony, so it stayed busy the whole time.
At some point, late in the day, the dignitaries began putting in their appearance, filling up the center front of the church, which had been kept clear for them. A big chair, gilded, red velvet seat, was set in the center for the President of the Republic. The Prime Minister, Mr. Samaras, was still in Brussels, where he belongs. The Foreign Minister stood next to the President, and behind them, on one side, the rest of the ruling elite; on the other side, the top brass of the military. Guards all up and down the aisle. We had changed seats by now, finding empty ones nearer the front, so we had a good view, directly above them.
The Patriarch's sermon was wonderful! The subject - what else? - was the Love of Christ. Of course he alluded to the story of St. Demetrios, by whose prayers a young Christian named Nestor defeated Emperor Galerius Maximian's favorite giant gladiator, a Vandal named Lyaios. And the Patriarch told us, Do not be afraid of the contemporary Lyaioses; St. Demetrios is still praying for you and the same thing will happen again. Not meaning we should do nothing! Rather, that in our contest with the contemporary big guys, we will win. Of course the "contemporary Lyaioses" were standing right in front of him as he spoke! Beautiful! Not sure they got it, likely not. But it took rather a lot of courage for the Patriarch to say this, the more so, given he lives among hostile Turks and depends so much upon Greece for various kinds of support.
Of course, what the Patriarch said is exactly what the song of St. Demetrios says, too. We sang it about five times, I think, in all. (Instead of the one time it is always sung here.) People sang it with great fervor and gratitude and hope.
The world has found you to be a great defender
a champion in times of danger
and a vanquisher of heathens, you bearer of trophies.
As you bolstered the courage of Nestor,
who then humbled the arrogance of Lyaios in battle,
in like manner, holy one, great Martyr Demetrios,
intercede with Christ God for us, that He may grant us His great mercy.
At the end, our local Bishop, Anthimos, had us all sing the national anthem, a paean to Freedom. We sang that with great enthusiasm, too: "Hail, hail, O Freedom!"
Here are some Internet photos, mostly of the Lyaioses present, but ignore the ignorant captions. This was a regular Patriarchal Divine Liturgy, much like the usual Liturgy, with added touches customary when a patriarch is serving it. it was not some sort of "glorification ceremony," whatever that is thought to mean. The 14th photo was taken from where we were.
We departed while the Patriarch was still being greeted by the big-wigs, working our way single file through a double police cordon outside and exiting the grounds through an opening that admitted just one person at a time. It wasn't the Patriarch the were protecting; it was the contemporary Lyaioses.
It was twelve noon.
We stopped at a little eatery where we had some breakfast pastries. A marching band came by, playing "Macedonia", a patriotic song. I was near tears, thinking what a proud but pathetic son; "Macedonia the renowned, home of Great Alexander." That's really pathetic, I said to Demetrios, for a little nothing country to have to go back that far to find someone to be proud of. He promptly reminded m that this was nonsense, that Greece, right up to modern times, has never lacked for heroes and martyrs, and proceeded to educate me about some of the more recent ones.
We went home and collapsed. I couldn't tell whether my back or my feet were hurting more.
At night, we hosted eight of our friends for a St. Demetrios dinner at a taverna. Here are some photos. We got home at midnight. Demetrios came home with a new shirt, tie, pullover, and book, and our friends brought a box full of chocolates just for me.
Manolis and Vasiea
George and Leonidas