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.

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