Yesterday was a long travel day. We left Athens at eight in the morning and got to Thessaloniki about six in the evening. Since our time here is short, Betty had some things she wanted us to see in the city, so we started at the Acropolis (which, in Thessaloniki, is the remnant of a medieval fortification) and then worked our way down the hill, stopping at the churches of St. George, St. Demetrius, and the Agios Sophia, until the bus met us again to take us to the hotel. We were in true Greek form, finally sitting down to dinner at nine. I dozed in and out of most of the bus trip, since our Easter celebration kept me up late, so I didn’t mind the long ride.
We made a couple of stops along the way. The first was Thermopylae, where there was not much more than a monument to the battlefield. The story of the Lacedemonians was interesting and tragic, and, walking up the small hill that had been at the center of the battle, Ginger and I talked about how different war must have been when you had to look the person you were trying to kill in the eye, or hear his voice. Edith Hamillton talks about the lack of sentimentality the Greeks has when it came to war. Dying was not an heroic act to them.
“We, to whom poetry, all art, is only a superficial decoration of life, make a refuge from a world that is too hard for us to face by sentimentalizing it. The Greeks looked straight at it. They were completely unsentimental. It was a Roman who said it was sweet to die for one’s country. The Greeks never said it was sweet to die for anything. They had no vital ties.
“Completely in line with this spirit is the often quoted epitaph on the Lacedemonians who fell at Thermopylae. Everyone of them fell, as they knew beforehand they would. They fought their battle to the death with no hope to help them and by so dying the saved Greece, but all the great poets who wrote their epitaph found it fitting to say for them was:
“’O passer-by, tell the Lacedemonians that we lie here in obedience to their laws.’
“We rebel; something more than that, we feel, is due such heroism. But the Greeks did not. Facts were facts and deeds spoke for themselves. They did not need ornament.” (The Greek Way 81-82)
The Greeks Hamilton spoke of were the Greeks of antiquity, centuries before Jesus walked the earth and several incarnations of Greek humanity ago. We are in a land that marks time in centuries, not years or even decades. Cities have been built and rebuilt, alliances made and lost, power shifted back and forth and back again, all the while the Greeks finding a way to maintain an identity. We stood under mosaics today that were four hundred years old in Jesus’ day, and then we walked out of the building and into a 24-hour Internet Café to use the restrooms. I saw some amazing icons today in the different churches we visited and also listened as Betty described how most of the icons do not date any farther back than the ninth century because of the Iconoclast controversy in the church that took a century to decide if images were going to be a part of worship. No one who started the controversy was there to see how it was resolved.
What came to mind was hearing George Bush try to silence his critics a few weeks ago by saying history would tell if his actions were justified. Standing under archways and in churches that have been around a thousand times longer than he has been president, I thought history is not even going to remember him or his delusions of adequacy. Though we see ourselves as The World Power, our two hundred years as a nation hardly qualifies us for consideration. That’s what the stones seem to say.
The stones stacked as churches had their own words.
Everyone in our group is from some Protestant denomination: Lutheran, Baptist (a couple of flavors), Presbyterian, and UCC (just Ginger and me). Our churches are young, compared to Orthodoxy. While the Iconoclast Controversy was going on in the ninth century, the Reformation was more than a half a millennium away. When we got to the Agios Sophia, we were the only ones in the building, which was beautiful. The icons and mosaics shone, even in the dim light; the acoustic resonance of the building seemed to echo the centuries of faithful voices that had filled it. Betty suggested we have our devotional at that time, but somehow we flinched; no one seemed to know how to step into the moment. We missed an amazing opportunity. We went from there down into the catacombs near the church to see the underground rooms where persecuted Christians had met when they were not allowed churches. As the stone rooms cleared, Ginger called me back and said, “This is too good down here; sing something.” What came to mind was:
Over the mountains and the sea, you’re river runs with love for me
And I will open up my heart and let the Healer set me free
I’m happy to be in the truth and I will daily lift my hands
And I will sing about the day your love came down
I will sing of your love forever
I will sing of your love forever
We came up out of the tombs as the Easter sun was setting, different than when we had gone in. The bus picked us up and brought us to the hotel. Even with all we had seen, heard, and felt, history gave way to the aches and pains of twelve hours on the bus, leaving some of us more testy than thankful. How can we stand in the midst of all that is around us and let our aches and pains have the last word? I can’t do it. I was not twelve hours on just any bus. I rode out of Athens, along the Agean coast, past Mount Olympus, into Thessaloniki, a city once second only to Constantinople, a place where Paul walked his own share of dusty miles, and found my place in time.