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.)

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