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Truly He Is Risen

Pilgrims gather for Easter on the island of Patmos

No one celebrates Easter better than the Greeks. And nowhere in Greece is Easter more special than on Patmos – one of the 12 Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea, near Turkey.

Pilgrims from mainland Greece dominate Patmos during the paschal season, which begins on Palm Sunday and ends on Easter Monday. At the end of a trip that takes about 10 hours, Greeks pour off countless ferries that originate at the Athenian port of Piraeus.

I have arrived on Patmos after spending Palm Sunday in Khania on Crete, where I stop in at the government tourist office to “get directions” to the Greek Orthodox Easter services. I am handed a sheet of paper – in Greek – listing the liturgies that will take place during the week.

My own notes, taken from guidebooks and with notes made during chitchat with local Patmians, soon fill the sheet’s margins – along with details of festivities and feasts I do not want to miss.

My drawings of an egg and fireworks are indicators of a few of the distinctive traditions to come. There is some scribbling regarding a special flame arriving from Jerusalem by helicopter on Holy Saturday. I add a question mark to remind myself to check this out further.

Ironically, I have learned that many Greeks choose to spend Easter on Patmos because of a first-century visitor, a visitor who traveled there against his own will.

The man who made Patmos both famous and holy was St. John the Evangelist. The apostle was exiled there in the year A.D. 81 by the Roman Emperor Domitian, who feared the power and zeal of John’s evangelical zeal.

In 95, according to tradition, the exiled John wrote the Book of Revelation in a hillside cave, now revered as one of the holiest spots in all of Greece.

The next year, after Domitian’s death, the new emperor, Marcus Cocceius Nerva heard of John’s exile and ordered his liberation.

The cave quickly became a place of pilgrimage. Liturgies were said there and soon a church was built at the site. Today, the cave is incorporated into the Monastery of the Apocalypse. The spot remains the preferred spiritual venue for prayer and worship during the Easter Vigil when Greeks, Patmians and others celebrate the paschal mystery – Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.

But on Holy Thursday, there is only one place to be in all of Greece and it also is on Patmos. By midmorning, taxis and buses and pious hikers head for the Monastery of St. John the Theologian. This monastery physically dominates the skyline of Patmos. Christodoulos, an ascetic monk whose reputation so impressed the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus I that he gave the monk the island and made him its ruler in 1088, began the monastery in 1090.

The monastery resembles a medieval fortress. Its imposing crenelated walls have for centuries withstood raids by hostile soldiers and marauding pirates. Today, the monastery houses priceless icons and treasures. Its library has 3,000 books and 900 religious manuscripts – here too is the only workshop in Greece specializing in parchment preservation.

Before the liturgies, fascinated pilgrims surround the icons. Clergy will soon carry a single icon at the head of a procession. Domenikos Theotokopoulos, known to the West as El Greco, in the 16th century painted the icon, which depicts Christ in chains. This precious icon leaves the monastery only on Holy Thursday.

Meanwhile, crowds have begun to gather – hours ahead of the 11 a.m. main event – to celebrate a Passion play based on the Last Supper, which culminates with a symbolic washing of the feet, or niptiros in Greek. The abbot of the monastery represents Christ and the monks and invited clergy assume the roles of the disciples.

The procession makes its way from the inner monastery along a narrow lane to the courtyard. Worshipers, along with tourists with cameras, outnumber the clergy at least a hundred to one.

This liturgy, until recently, was celebrated in only one other place in the Orthodox world – at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In recent years it has also been held in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki.

Holy Thursday, also known as Great Thursday, or megali pempti, by Greeks, has a festive side to it as well. Holy Thursday is egg-dyeing day. As the day approaches, packets of dye in the shops dwindle in number and only brown eggs are left for procrastinators. Housewives and hotel chefs hard boil hundreds of eggs and dye them red, symbolizing Christ’s blood but also a sign of the resurrection.

Before the egg became linked with Easter, it was part of many spring festivals. The Romans, Gauls, Chinese, Egyptians and Persians all cherished the egg as a symbol of universal rebirth. From ancient times eggs were dyed, exchanged and shown reverence.

From the beginning of Christianity, the symbolism of the egg changed from representing nature’s rebirth to representing the rebirth of man. Christians embraced the egg as a symbol and likened it to the tomb from which Christ rose.

The red eggs are soon everywhere. Bakeries and Patmians make the braided Easter bread, or tsoureki, with red eggs nestled between the dough braids. Hotels – filled with Greek tourists – put on Easter morning spreads featuring baskets of red eggs. Churchgoers, setting off to celebrate the resurrection, take the eggs with them to the Saturday night service.

On Good Friday, also known as Great Friday, or megali paraskevi, services do not include the traditional liturgy that observes the three hours Christ hanged on the cross.

On Patmos, a re-enactment of the crucifixion takes place on Thursday evening in a three- to four-hour service. Halfway through the liturgy, a life-size figure of Christ on the cross is erected in the center of the church.

I watch as flower wreaths are hung on the figure’s arms and flowers are laid at its feet. The pious come forward and kiss Christ’s feet while icons of the Virgin receive special attention with mournful worshipers kissing the mournful mother.

Good Friday services start at 8 a.m. with a lengthy service commemorating Christ taken down from the cross, apokathilosi, or the unnailing. The flat iconic image of Christ is wrapped in a white cloth and carried into the sanctuary by the priest. He returns carrying above his head a heavy cloth representing Christ in the tomb. As the priest processes around the church, members of the congregation sprinkle rose water and throw flower petals and lavender on the cloth. The cloth is then laid on a flower-covered canopied bier, or epitafios.

Friday night is the “funeral” of the crucified Lord. This liturgy culminates in a procession of the bier, with clergy and congregation following. Each church has its own bier, but all converge in the town square where more prayers are offered. Then the worshipers return to their own churches. The men carrying the biers stop just outside the church entrances and raise the biers up high. Worshipers walk underneath and the service continues inside.

On Saturday evening, as I review my tourist paper and annotations, a friendly Patmian urges me to take a cue from the Greeks who are dining along the harbor – their eyes often straying to a hilltop across the water where a blue light flashes.

Patmos has no airport but it does have a helipad. The diners are waiting for a very special helicopter carrying a famous flame all the way from Jerusalem.

Every year on Holy Saturday, a monk from the Church of the Resurrection (known in the West as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) in Jerusalem brings the flame in a private plane to Athens where clergy greet it with great pomp. From Athens the flame is helicoptered to Patmos – old traditions and modern transport working in full cooperation.

The flame is then shared among the Patmian clergy who light their candles from the Jerusalem flame and transport them to their churches for services.

Long, sleek black cars roll past the diners, each car with a single lighted candle giving away the mission of the entourage. As each priest arrives at his church, the lights and candles in the church are extinguished.

The new Easter flame makes its entry and, one by one, the candles of the church and of the worshipers are relighted.

By now it is close to midnight. As the resurrection service at the Monastery of the Apocalypse ends, members of the congregation carry their lighted candles and gather outside the church.

Here, with candles in one hand and red eggs in the other, the now festive crowd tap their eggs against someone else’s. The winner of these clashes is the one whose egg does not crack. The audible crack of eggs and laughter of the people are joined by the sound of fireworks in the harbor below.

But above all, one hears the joyful Christos anesti!, Christ is risen! This is said three times to symbolize the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The response is alithos anesti!, or truly he is risen!

On Easter Sunday morning on Patmos, people do not head to church (churches are closed). Most early risers are preparing a spit for the paschal lamb or, on Patmos where sheep are in short supply, a goat – head and all.

I join visitors headed for the island’s famous (particularly among northern European tourists) Alouni restaurant.

There the paschal feast is served to hundreds. Waiters with laden trays seem to move at the speed of light – and then switch roles to dance on the stage.

On Easter Sunday afternoon, people gather for several hours of prayers called Vespers of Love, which are recited in a number of languages including Latin, English and Homeric Greek. At the end of vespers the abbot brings out a huge basket of red eggs and everyone is given one or two. Tourists peeping in from the outside are not forgotten as the abbot invites them also to accept some eggs.

But it is the children who are carried into the churches, hand-led or shepherded, who experience the real joy of Easter on Patmos. Bedtimes do not exist during the Easter observances. No parent wants a child to miss the mystery and beauty of these Easter traditions that date to early Christian history.

For some, the celebration of Easter is over on Sunday, except for the remains of the odd foil-covered chocolate bunny. But Patmians wrap up festivities on Easter Monday with a huge open-to-all dinner in the town’s square. Goat and all the trimmings, red eggs, of course, and the same waiters and dancers from the Alouni provide a festive end to this holiest of seasons.

The ferries are scheduled to leave for the mainland late in the evening so that Patmians and their guests can share one more evening together. And although the island seems empty after Easter Monday, the churches are not. Vespers, liturgies and special commemorations continue while the pious heart of Patmos keeps beating.

Those of us who have to leave Patmos hold on to images of flickering white candles, smoke-stained icons, blood red eggs, ships sparkling in the harbor and, most of all, an understanding of the reason behind the season.

Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!

Ms. Raschka is a frequent contributor to CNEWA WORLD.

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