Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Festal Vespers at St. Athanasios

On Tuesday evening, I was invited by a friend, Fr. Constantinos, the rector of St. Athanasios in downtown Thessaloniki, to serve in the Festal Vespers for the saint. Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki was there, as well about 10 priests and two deacons. (We were also joined in the altar by His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph (Harkiolakis) of Proikonnisos, although he did not serve.)

In Greece, having a multitude of clergy serving is associated with feasts, and the bigger the feast, the more clergy, as well as the more people in general. (This is true of Greek culture in general -- having a large crowd is associated with a big feast and celebration.) Thus, for a parish's patronal feast, usually the rector will invite all his friends to come celebrate and he will prepare some small gift or blessing to give them to thank them for coming, such as a small icon of the saint, etc.

Vespers was slated to start at 6:00, but the bishop didn't arrive (in a police-escorted motorcade of sorts) until 6:40. The tradition is for the clergy to wait outside for his arrival, so this was particularly challenging given the bitterly cold weather we've been having for the past week or so. After he arrived, we rushed inside to thaw and began the Festal Vespers, which lasted about 2 hours, as is usual, complete with artoklasia and a few words from the bishop.

The photo above is taken from inside the altar and shows a few different things. One, on the right, you can see five loaves that were brought to be offered at the artoklasia. Especially on big feasts, many people will bring five loaves (as well as oil and wine) to be blessed.

It was interesting in Zagora that another tradition developed there during the period of poverty and hardship under Ottoman Occupation. To this day, instead of a "full" artoklasia, they retain the village tradition of what they call the "ypsoma." It is basically the same service, with the last, short prayer of blessing removed. Instead of five loaves, one small loaf is offered, along with a small amount of oil and wine. It seems that, because of the poverty at the time, very few people could afford to offer five whole loaves. Not wanting, however, to be without a blessing, they instead offered what they could -- one loaf. The priests, not wanting to deprive the people, exercisedoikonomia and performed the service, minus the last blessing, although they did conclude with the familiar lifting (= "ypsoma") of the loaf, from which it got its name.

Even after such harsh conditions passed, the local tradition still holds (as such things are wont to do), so that it is very difficult to change back to the original tradition. Although perhaps it will become necessary again given the current economic situation in Greece....

But I digress. The other thing to note about the photo above is the basket stacked full of names to be commemorated. And this was just at the beginning of Vespers. By the middle of Orthros the next day, there will be several such stacks of names, often accompanied by some offering, such as of prosphora, oil, etc. This is an important (although often tragically overlooked) aspect of participation in the services.

Finally, you can note in the photo the relatively bare walls. The church is quite old -- dating to the late 12th century, if I recall correctly -- and thus the Greek Archaeological Service forbids them from putting new icons on the walls, even though the old ones are irretrievably lost. As one priest there noted ironically, the Archaeological Service permits them to hang whatever they want from the walls, but not to paint on them, "whatever logic that has." When asked about the lone exception in the church, that of the Theotokos in the apse, he guessed that it was the typical Greek solution of "I'll do it until they stop me," or "It's easier to ask forgiveness than permission."

For something completely different, have a look here at some of the nice photos Pelagia recently took of the kids playing the yard. (This was at the beginning of the month before the recent cold spell.)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Greek Mountain Village of Kissos

On January 6, we celebrated the feast from 8:00 until about 11:30, ending again with the Great Blessing of the Waters. Bad weather was rolling in, so one or two of the priests from the other parishes ran down to the beachfront in Horefto to bless the Aegean. They must have finished just in the nick of time, too, as the rain, wind, and snow soon came howling in. We were quite fortunate to have sunny weather for our house blessings the day before.

I then had a wonderful lunch with the family of one of the parish council members. Later, two of the parish council members took me for about a 40-minute drive to another of the 24 Pelion mountain villages, this one of Kissos, which boasts one of the oldest churches in Pelion still in use -- St. Marina, from 1650.

The photo above is of a Nativity Scene set up in the courtyard just outside the church.

Most of the churches of the villages of Pelion, which date from the period of Ottoman Occupation, have similar features. They are fairly low, basilica style churches with stone slab roofs. Although there is the traditional entrance at the west end of the church, they seem to utilize a south side entrance more. The photo above is of the iconography above the south side entrance.

I don't know if you can tell from this photo, but the Archangel Michael, depicted on the left, has several faces located in his armor.

We met the parish priest, Fr. Michael, and had a very interesting discussion with him. He described the iconography of the church as pious folk art, rather than belonging to one of the particular schools of iconography, such as the Macedonian School or the Cretan School.

Above, the south-east side of the church from its courtyard. Below, the eastern side.

Above, the rectory, located on the northern side of the church. A rectory like this is typical of the Pelion village churches.

Above, some of the iconography from inside the church.

After Fr. Michael treated us to a coffee and very interesting conversation, particularly about his work with the young people in his parish, we headed back to Zagora. The following morning, Jan. 7, we celebrated Orthros and Liturgy for St. John the Forerunner, and then I headed back to Thessaloniki.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Theophany and House Blessings in Zagora

A week ago, on Jan. 4, I made my third and final trip of this holiday season to Zagora to serve the parish of St. Paraskevi. On Jan. 5, we began the service at 4:30 AM and ended with the Great Blessing of the Waters around 8:30. After about a 20-minute break, I then headed out to bless all the houses of the parish. Nikolaos, a local 14-year-old boy, served as my assistant and guide, leading me up, down, and around the narrow, winding, and often steep roads of the mountain village. He decided we should first hit all the houses at the top of the village, so we got lots of exercise right away. The photo above is of Nikolaos near the top of the parish (NB: a parish is a geographical area). In his hand, you can see the traditional little copper bucket used to carry the holy water. I, meanwhile, was armed with basil.

The parish's chapel of Sts. Constantine and Helen (built 1886) sits near the upper limits of the parish (above). We went inside to venerate the icons as we passed by (below).

Above, a view down on the parish and the Aegean from the chapel.

Another view of the parish, from near the top. (As you may be able to guess, I stopped to take photos as an excuse to also catch my breath!)

Finally, we wended our way back to the center of the parish, where the parish's main church of St. Paraskevi sits (see above).

I blessed houses from 8:50 AM until 7:30 PM, with only two short breaks. It was absolutely exhausting, but the tradition is for every house to be blessed on Jan. 5, the eve of Theophany. I'd guess that it was about 200 homes.

Although exhausting, it was a wonderful experience of traditional Greek village life. When I explained it to Fr. Panayiotis here in Panorama, he said: "Ah, they sent you to a village right out of Papadiamantis!"

Everyone in the village was eagerly awaiting the priest, some even checking out their windows to see if they could spot us coming down their road. When Nikolaos had us turn right instead of left onto a new road, some times people would call the members of the parish council, fretting that their house had been forgotten!

When we arrived at a house, the story was similar. Often, they had seen us coming and opened the door even before we knocked. We would enter, singing the festal apolytikion (the hymn in celebration of Theophany and Christ's baptism in the Jordan), and sprinkling the holy water around the house, which always included the house's icon corner. The icon corner was frequently located near the front door and almost without exception consisted of rather old icons, frequently of a Romantic type, and the couple's wedding crowns. This reminded me of Elder Paisios, who also, in his simple and pure village piety, had the Western- and Romantic-influenced icons, which were standard before, say, the 1950s in Greece.

After venerating my hand-held cross, they would often then produce a small cup and ask for some holy water, so that they could drink it the following morning. Often, a cup was sitting ready at a table near the door, even some times filled with water. Nikolaos explained to me that this was the old tradition. They would first pour the plain water into the small container of holy water (in order to replenish it), and then the young boy would pour some holy water back into their cup.

Also on the table near the door was a small amount of money for the priest. Before the 1970s, when the priests began to be paid by the state, this was how the priest was paid. In fact, the priests did a Small Blessing of the Waters on the first of every month and then went around to bless every house in the village. It was here that he would take his monthly salary, which would often consist of products (bread, eggs, vegetables, etc.) rather than money.

Here are some photos from inside the Church of St. Paraskevi.

Another thing that struck me was the way Nikolaos addressed his elders in the parish. Now in Greece, it is still common for younger people to address their elders as "Mr." or "Mrs.", followed by their first name. This is exactly equivalent to the tradition that prevailed in the US until the 1950s or so of calling people "Mr." or "Mrs." followed by their last name. In the villages, though, often the young people, such as Nikolaos, call their elders "Uncle" and "Auntie," as a way of expressing their closeness, as well as still being respectful. I really liked it. I must confess that after the first two times Nikolaos did it, I began to think: "Gee, is he related to everyone here?" Then I realized it was a term of affection.

Finally, here's a photo of Zagora from a distance. As you can see, there's one section of houses (on the left) that's slightly separated by some woods. This is the parish of St. Paraskevi, which is known as the "outskirts" or "suburbs," if you will, of Zagora. The remaining part of Zagora, to the right, is broken up into three other parishes.

For more photos, click here.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Bicycles from St. Basil

I got back home to Thessaloniki last Sunday afternoon, Jan. 1, and when the babies woke up from the naps, they got their big present for the year -- balance bikes! (thanks Grandpa and Nan!)

We then rode them out in the hallway, which has a nice long, relatively obstruction-free stretch for them to practice on. Of course, Phoebe's bike is pink (above).

And Paul's is blue.

And Benjamin's is green, reflecting their favorite colors.

Phoebe and Pelagia sharing a laugh out in the hallway.

Our next-door neighbor Ann's brother Peter is visiting from Australia. He's quite good with the kids. Above, he's playing with Paul while Phoebe enjoys a candy cane.

On Sunday evening, we had our neighbors as well as Angela's family over for a visit and for some pumpkin cheesecake that Pelagia made.

For a few more photos, click here.

Friday, January 06, 2012

New Year's in Zagora

On Dec. 31, I drove back down to the mountain village of Zagora in Pelion, this time by myself, in order to serve Liturgy there the next morning, January 1. Above is a photo of the alley on which the bed & breakfast I stayed at is located.

A young guy named Kivis helps out at the parish a lot and also helps me when I'm there. This is his store, where he makes traditional pastas. It's located in the old part of town, on the other side of the alley from my B&B.

I did Vespers with Fr. Nicholas at St. George's in the old part of town on Saturday evening. Above is an icon there of of Saint Triantafyllos, who was born in Zagora in the mid-17th century. He worked as a fisherman and at the age of 15 was arrested by the Turks, who pressured him to renounce his faith in Christ. He was martyred in Constantinople in 1680.

The churches in this area, mainly built around 1800, are most famous for their hand-carved wooden iconostases, such as this one in the parish of St. Paraskevi, which I have been serving.

Also at St. Paraskevi, we have a small chapel dedicated to St. Triantafyllos. Above is his icon, located inside the chapel.

Above, the chapel lies just to the south of the main church.

Another shot of the south side of St. Paraskevi's.

On the way back, I stopped to take some photos from the road. On one side, you have a view of the Aegean (above). On the other side of the road, at the same point, you have beautiful snow-capped mountains (below).

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Moni Panagias in Kleisoura

View Larger Map

During the week between Christmas and New Year, the priests of our parish took a break to go with our families on a small pilgrimage to the Monastery of the Nativity of the Theotokos in Kleisoura, an old monastery in north-central Greece originally founded in 1314. It's nearly 3 hours from Thessaloniki, so the drive was a bit rough for the kids, but it was worth it, because we were able to venerate the holy skull of the newly proclaimed Saint Sophia (+1974). Fr. Alexios had the blessing to attend the Liturgy in November celebrating the proclamation. We would all like to go to her official glorification, which is scheduled for May 6. John Sanidopoulos has done us a great service by translating this text about her life, which I urge you to take the time to read. There is also a whole 200+ page book of her life and teachings. I asked and the monastery's abbess gave me a tentative blessing to translate it into English, pending the new version that is forthcoming, reflecting her new status as (official) saint. Now the question is: Who is going to put up the money to publish it? :)

Above, the gate of the monastery.

Here we are walking around to the entrance of the monastery.

Next to where we parked our car, there was a small niche carved into the rock, in which sat an icon and a burning oil lamp.

Above, Fr. Panayiotis and his family go in the entrance to the monastery. Notice the hanging icicles on the far side of the entrance.

A photo of the katholikon from near the entrance to the monastery. Inside, we saw the old church with its well-preserved iconography and venerated the saint's relics. We also saw the fireplace where she slept and prayed. Afterwards, we talked for awhile with Abbess Anisia, who warmly welcomed us all. She told us some things about the life of the saint, whom they affectionately referred to as "Yiayia," which means something like "Granny."

Here we are leaving the monastery. Benjamin liked climbing through the snow.

View Larger Map

We then headed about 40 minutes away to Agios Panteleimon for lunch at an outstanding restaurant right on the shore of a beautiful lake.

You get an idea of the view from the tables.

During the summer, people eat out here. They dry their own red Florina peppers and grind them up for a spice.

After we ate, the kids ran around outside on the restaurant's outdoor patio. You can see the great view.

Click here for a few more photos.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Trip to Serres with Trif

View Larger Map

Trif headed back to the US early on Dec. 27, so on the second day of Christmas (Dec. 26), Paul, Trif, and I took a trip to visit the Monastery of St. John the Forerunner in Serres.

We got to Serres before the monastery reopened after the mid-day break, so we stopped first at Serres' famous acropolis, which just between 1196 and 1383 saw the following developments: In 1196 in the battle of Serres the Byzantines were defeated by the Bulgarian Emperor Ivan Asen I. Nine years later in 1205 the Bulgarian Emperor Kaloyan defeated here an army of the Latin Empire and incorporated the town in the Bulgarian Empire. In 1256 it was captured by the Nicaean Empire. Serres fell to Serbia in the 1345 and became a capital of Stefan Dušan, the Serbian King. Dušan was so satisfied with the capture of the third major Byzantine city that he crowned himself Emperor of Serbs and Greeks. After his death his Empire fell into feudal anarchy and the Empress Consort Helena continued to govern Serres area from 1356. In 1365 she was ousted by Despot Jovan Uglješa Mrnjavčević, who forged a tiny but powerful mini-state in Serres. After the 1371 Battle of Maritsa, the Byzantines retook Serres under their control. Soon, however, in 1383 the Ottomans conquered it.

The view of Serres from up on the acropolis.

Part of what remains of the outside walls -- this one faces basically north. It is marked by an insignia and a cross, which would have identified the city as Christian to those outside (although that doesn't always seem to have helped too much).

After our brief stop here, we headed on to the monastery, where we were able to visit with the newly tonsured Sister Parthenia (formerly Novice Katherine), an American convert friend of ours from Texas.