Easter Returns, To Lighten Our Paths
by Harry Mark Petrakis
Last Modified: Apr 24, 2011 02:18AM [from the Chicago Sun-Times]
When spring arrives each year and the waning cold and snow loosen the frozen crust of earth, Persephone returns from the underground of Hades and the Earth enters a cycle of fertility once more. During this time there is enacted the celebration of Easter, the most significant ritual of Christianity.
The Easters of my childhood were a mystical and haunting experience more memorable than the ribboned packages and decorated trees of Christmas that obscured that religious holiday. Easters had added importance for my siblings and myself because our father was the priest of our church on South Michigan Avenue. During the passage of Holy Week, his tall regal figure clad in his colorful vestments led the parishioners in their worship.
The Passion of Easter would commence with 40 days when we fasted and prayed for the forgiveness of our transgressions. My father’s fast would be most stringent, and ours a little less demanding.
Holy Week began on Palm Sunday when we distributed the small palm crosses. We attended nightly services from the following Monday until Friday when we brought baskets of flowers to decorate the catafalque, which enclosed the coffin of Christ. By evening, the bier was aflame with flowers.
We waited for the great culmination of Saturday, the night of Anastasis or Resurrection. From early evening when we entered the nave of the church, carrying the long slender white candles with the tiny paper cups to catch the drippings of wax, we waited in a fever of excitement.
By midnight the crowd had filled every pew, pressed into every corner of the church. The older people might have remembered Easter in their villages in the old country, services held in small churches on the slopes of the mountains. Those of us who were children and born in America were creating our own memories.
At midnight the heralded moment arrived with the church plunged into total darkness. To this day I can recall the chill along my flesh as that blackness enveloped us. Both mesmerized and frightened, I felt in my bones that Jesus Christ was in that darkened church.
I pressed against my mother, drawing what solace I could from her nearness and from the proximity of my brothers and sisters. There would be an interlude of tense silence broken by children whimpering, a baby crying, an old man coughing.
Then an exhilaration would sweep like a great wind through the crowded church. Within the sanctuary which contained the marble altar, a single flickering taper of flame appeared. As the flame emerged from the sanctuary, I saw my father, his hand holding aloft the candle, his face glistening with the beauty of an angel of the Lord or a Prometheus delivering the first flame to Man.
In the cloistered darkness of the church, it wasn’t only our hands holding candles that moved toward that solitary flame but a yearning in our souls as from that solitary candle other candles were lit, people turning to light the candles of those around them. The flames leaped from candle to candle, from pew to pew, until the church with every shadowed corner illuminated was a great bobbing sea of a thousand candles.
As I held my own candle, curls of mist trailed streamers about our heads and sent eerie shadows across the icons of the austere saints. In the dome of the church where the great painted figure of God, the Father, loomed above our heads, his stern visage seemed suddenly warm and benign.
Then we joined in the singing of the Christos Anesti, Christ is Risen, the exquisite hymn that marks the jubilant culmination of the Ascension of Christ.
“Christos Anesti, ek nekron, Thanato, Thanaton, patisas, kai tis en tis mnema si, zoe charisamenos.”
Three times the hymn was sung, our voices rising in a great chorus of celebration.
When the services ended and the church slowly emptied, we emerged into the still dark hours after midnight, the sounds of the city muted. We passed families moving to their cars, with their palms shielding their flickering candles against the gusts of wind.
“Christos Anesti, Christ is Risen,” we called to one another and heard their response, “Alithos Anesti, Truly He is Risen.”
When the cars pulled away, each interior was illumined by the glow of candles, a procession of glittering lights sweeping into the gloomy neighborhoods of the city.
In our apartment the aroma from my mother’s kitchen spread a delectable fragrance across every room. All the weeks of fasting blossomed suddenly into a ravenous hunger. At the long festive table in our dining room, we sat down to the splendor of the meal.
There was the thick, savory mageritisa soup made from sheep’s entrails, chunks of roast lamb dripping aromatic juices, slices of warm bread, slabs of white feta cheese, dark, briny olives and decanters of glistening amber wine. At the head of our table, my father, radiating a glow that encompassed us all, picked up one of the blood-red dyed Easter eggs, throwing down the first challenge. Soon we were all cracking eggs with one another, victories and defeats sweeping us into spasms of laughter.
In this way we passed the remainder of the festive night. And I will remember as long as I live the satisfying and stomach-sated weariness of those dawns when I crawled gratefully into bed, my eyelids resisting the daylight seeping in around the shades, my spirit consoled because in the rooms around me, my parents, brothers and sisters dwelt like watchmen about me in the night.
In the three quarters of a century that have passed since those Easters of my childhood, I have experienced Holy Week many times. I have also shared with good friends the rituals of other faiths, the Jewish Yom Kippur and Passover seder, the Iftar evening meal when Muslims break their fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan. I have come to understand that in the rituals of atonement, fasting and prayer that mark these religions and the other multivaried religions of the world, we are linked rather than divided.
My own Eastern Orthodox Christian faith is not superior to the faith of anyone else but, by an accident of birth, is mine to treasure.
As each of these enduring religions celebrate their rituals, for Christians Easter returns this year. The catafalque of Christ will be decked with flowers and His resurrection will be shared again on the darkened midnight. From that solitary and consecrated first flame, a thousand candles will be lit. Even when no child I knew as a child still lives, long after I am gone, the candles will continue to flicker, tiny flames that we light to shield and protect ourselves against the darkness and the wind.
Christos Anesti. Christ is Risen. Alithos Anesti. Truly He is Risen. Truly He is Risen.
– Harry Mark Petrakis’ most recent book is Cavafy’s Stone and Other Village Tales.
Dear Mr. Petrakis,
First off — I meant to write you on Easter, so forgive the delay. Your piece is frequently beautiful and your prose lyrical, but you are also confused about the nature of truth and the claims of the Christian religion. Of course your faith is superior to the faith of your Jewish and/or Muslim friends — by its very nature it is TRUE, and the truth is always superior to living in ignorance. You have unfortunately been infected with liberalism and believe in some goofy form of multi-cultural relativism. The power of the Christian liturgy is drawn from the power of the story it tells — which is the historical story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The stories your ancestors told about the Greek gods you evoke at the beginning of your piece were not historical and the Greeks knew it — some of those stories contain wisdom and we can learn moral lessons from them, just as we can learn moral lessons by studying philosophy (or as Paul would say “since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they [the Greeks] are without excuse”).
So don’t back away from the truth and from the obvious implications of that truth just to score some PC points with your liberal friends at the Sun-Times!
P.S. Easter feast at the Petrakis house as you describe it makes my mouth water, but I think I’ll skip the mageritisa soup 😉