I dream about spending the Orthodox Easter holidays in Lefkada, my native island on the west coast of Greece. It's been 21 years since I last found myself there for Christianity's greatest celebration but I can never forget those days full of the passion, the beauty and the brilliance of Lefkada's Paschal spring. With winter stubbornly lingering in Montreal, I always dream of the poppies and the green valleys flush with daisies and the holy hymns emanating from the churches that envelop the streets of my hometown.
My memories of Holy Week in the central church of Agioi Anargyroi is a river of colors and scents. On Palm Sunday, the eagerly anticipated, blessed bouquets of palm and rosemary that are made with such care by the local "Filoptochos" ladies' societies have stamped my thoughts and my soul and embellished the days of my absence from Lefkada on the big feast of Christianity.
The branches of the palm trees symbolize Christ's victory over Satan and death. The word Hosanna means "save, I pray," or "save, now." The foal of an ass with Jesus sitting thereupon and the fact that this was an untamed animal that was considered unclean according to the "Law," signifies the former uncleanliness and wildness of nations and their subjection thereafter to the holy Law of the Gospel.
On the night of Holy Monday and Tuesday, the Orthodox Church observes a special service known as the "Service of the Bridegroom." The hymn of "Jesus the Bridegroom," which was written with lyricism and in a stunning narrative form, is a unique poem. The climax arrives with the great hymn of Cassiani, the crescendo of a humiliated woman apologizing for her sins.
"The woman who had fallen into many sins recognizes Thy Godhead, O Lord. She takes upon herself the duty of a myrrh-bearer and readies the myrrh of mourning, before Thy entombment..."
On Holy Thursday, the day of the twelve Gospels, the same events are told but from the side of the evangelists who masterfully describe the path taken by Jesus in his martyrdom. Through their wonderful narratives describing the hours of torment, from the path of glory until the Ana and the humiliation by Kaiafa to the Mount of Olives for prayer and the betrayal of Judas, all seven days leading to the cross are recounted by splendid texts.
And then, on Good Friday ("today is hung on the wood that he who hung the Earth upon the waters"), Christ hung on the cross at Calvary and forgave his killers.
On Great and Holy Friday the Orthodox Church commemorates the death of Christ on the Cross. This is the culmination of the observance of His Passion by which our Lord suffered and died for our sins. This commemoration begins on Thursday evening with the Matins of Holy Friday and concludes with a Vespers on Friday afternoon that observes the unnailing of Christ from the Cross and the placement of His body in the tomb.
I vividly remember the single girls and the married ladies who would bring violets from their gardens to adorn our church's Epitaph with their vibrant colors. The flowers' spring scents would flow out of the church, wafting through the air, while we admired the magnificent Epitaph where Jesus' body supposedly lay.
In the evening, the litany of the Epitaph would be sung in procession across the main market place of Lefkada and, along with the aroma that consumed the area, would spread the jubilation of the coming Resurrection. "Oh my sweet spring, my sweet child, where has your beauty set," would be chanted by the large polyphonic choir to relate the whining of the Mother for the loss of her only son, Jesus.
On Holy Saturday, bright and early in the morning, the housewives of the island could be heard breaking pots at the same time the Philharmonic Orchestra of Lefkada would march through the narrow streets, playing their storied tunes and awaking us for breakfast. In the yard, the local butcher had already arrived to massacre the customary lamb, symbolizing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
At noon, my mother would give us a scented bath and put us to nap so we could last until the twelfth hour. In the afternoon, when we awoke, full of energy, we would leave no stone unturned, running amok in our excitement. The distinct smell of the traditional tripe soup, or "magiritsa," would emanate from every household in the neighbourhood and, although it was not the most pleasant of scents for us, we calmly accepted it as tradition.
At night, Mom would dress us in new robes made by the hands of our personal seamstress, "Miss Tsias," while our brother would put on a crisp, new suit. We wore short socks with white lace and white "Easter" shoes. We would grab our long candles, or "lambades," and run to the church where we would encounter loud flashes of firecrackers at the precise moment that our father, the priest, would chant "Christ Is Risen!" and distribute the Holy Light around the congregation.
On Easter Sunday, or "Pascha," we would roast the lamb at our cousins' country house and crack dyed eggs amongst ourselves. According to tradition, the one who remained with the unbroken red egg would have good luck for the rest of the year.
This Easter, I am returning to Lefkada to celebrate with my family. And, even if it may not be the same as in my childhood, I will be overjoyed to hear my father chanting again.
Happy Easter Everyone!