Today is Easter for Orthodox Christians. The big Easter services begin on Saturday night and proclaim the Resurrection at midnight with candles, bells, and fireworks. Athens has Orthodox churches like Boston has Dunkin’ Donuts: they are on every corner. Several of our group decided we would go to church about 11:30 and be a part of the local Easter celebration.
After dinner, Ginger and I sat with Duane and Robin, a couple from Cincinnati whom we are getting to know and talked until the servers asked us to leave about 9:00 so they could get to their own Easter services. We went up to the rooftop restaurant, which has a view of the Acropolis, to get drinks and continue our conversation. They were open because they were expecting a crowd beginning about 12:15. The restaurant was empty except for us at 9:30, but the host told me he had forty-five reservations between 12:15 and 1:00 am; they were going to be open until three. The four of us ordered our libations and began to tell our stories. Duane is a former chaplain turned real estate broker. Robin is a first grade teacher ready for a change. Even though our lives had not intersected until now, we find many ways to connect with one another as we shared our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. We talked until about 11:15 and then met the others in the lobby.
This trip is already filled with meaningful incidental contact. Cybil was Ginger’s traveling companion; she was a kindergarten teacher from Hannover, Germany. She was very gentle and kind and had great red hair. She told us half of her children were immigrants, many of them from Arab countries; she starts teaching them English at age 3 (when they start to school). She was in the States because she has family in Boston and comes over once a year.
I sat next to a man whose name I never learned, nor he mine. He was a Peace Corps physician in Tunisia in the sixties and then had a career as a radiologist on the Cape, where he is now retired. His son has lived in Germany for sixteen years and is married to a German woman. His grandchildren are bilingual because the dad only speaks English to them. He spoke proudly of all of them.
The moments were meaningful not because we found some reason to believe we are going to keep up with each other for the rest of our lives, but because we were present with each other in the time we had. I thought about those incidental connections as we stepped into the church tonight. The building was beautiful, covered with murals and then dotted with icons, both hanging and standing in wonderful wooden canopies. The ornate doors to the altar were open and the priest moved around like a bear in his red and gold robe, chanting as he moved around. The chants sounded like those Chris plays when I’m at icon class, except his are in English. Ginger and I stood at the back of the church, which was filled with people, each one holding an unlighted candle. The crowd was both serious and expectant. We had no other connection than we were there in that moment.
About ten till twelve, the priest went behind the doors and all the lights went out. Then he emerged with a big candle — a torch, really — and those closest clammored to light their candles from his and then began to move through the rest of the congregation. When all the candles were lighted, we all began to file out into the square in front of the church. The priest followed, chanting the whole time, until midnight came. He cried out in a loud voice, the bells rang, and fireworks went off in the street behind us. Everyone began to turn to one another:
The translations are (according to the guy at the hotel):
“Christ is risen!”
“He has really done it!”
(I kept imagining a Greek teenager translating that: “He is so resurrected!”)
The crowd soon began to disperse to wherever they were going to eat and Duane, Robin, Ginger, and I started our walk back to the hotel with our candles still aflame. No one had brought a camera this time; sacred moments never survive on film, only in memory. We talked about what we had seen and heard, and some of our conversation drifted back to things we had said earlier in the evening. We got back to the hotel, all of us so tired we could hardly stand, yet we came close to going up to the restaurant ourselves, despite our promised six o’clock wake up call.
For one night in our lives we four happened to be in Athens and it happened to be Easter and there happened to be a church around the corner and we went to the service together after talking most of the evening. Whatever happens next, or next year, that moment will never happen again any more than Ginger will find herself sitting next to Cybil on a plane ever again. But tonight did happen and the four of us are inextricably bound together in the evening we shared, eating, drinking, and carrying our candles down an Athens street.