Easter will be celebrated by Eastern Orthodox Christians tomorrow, Sunday, April 19. Orthodox churches use the Julian calendar, and thus the discrepancy. The churches include Greek, Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Armenian and others
Eastern Orthodox Christianity was established when the seat of Roman power shifted to Constantinople – now Istanbul, the big commercial port of modern-day Turkey. The empire was known for more than 1,000 years as Byzantium. The first significant cathedral of all Christianity, and certainly one of the most magnificent, thus ended up being built not in Europe but in Constantinople, or Asia Minor. That church, Hagia Sophia (Saint Sophia), is considered an architectural marvel with the highest dome of its kind in the world at 184 feet.
It was commissioned by Emperor Justinian and built in 530-537 AD after a design by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus. It eventually was turned into a mosque by the Ottoman Turks after they conquered Constantinople in 1453. Today Hagia Sophia is a museum and funds are being sought to restore its original Christian interior, as well as to make structural changes that would protect its historic dome in the event of an earthquake.
As an American of Greek descent who grew up in the 1950s, I remember well the old generation who had immigrated from their villages throughout Greece. In our modern and comfortable lives, we knew vaguely that our papous and yiayias had left behind very difficult circumstances. And when they came to America – or wherever they settled in the worldwide diaspora – any gathering in one place of more than a handful of Greeks led to the building of a church, small, medium, large or ostentatious according to numbers and to the general prosperity of the community.
Through our grandparents, we kids had a bridge to the old world. Many in that generation spoke little English and they maintained their traditional ways with food, customs and religious practices. That included a strong sense of family and community, bountiful meals, regular weekly worship, and long and traditional services until 2 in the morning of Easter Sunday. As a boy, I remember my fatigued candle-holding during the Easter service and, at the stroke of midnight, the priest proclaiming three times over “Christos Anesti!” (“Christ is risen!”) and the parishioners each time replying in unison “Alithos Anesti!” (“Indeed He is risen!”). This exchange continues among Greeks for 40 days thereafter.
When visiting our grandparents’ house for Pascha, we would walk home late from church, often with our candles still lit, in a procession that certainly had been practiced for more than a thousand years. We then would partake of a meal that often included a traditional soup made from ground lamb organs – the heart, lungs and intestines – that we youngsters rejected. On waking later, the afternoon meal was much better with a perfectly seasoned leg of lamb along with orzo, salad and greens, feta cheese and olives, some of Papou’s strong (to say the least) homemade wine, always accompanied by a braided sweet bread with a hard-boiled egg in its middle dyed red to denote the blood of Christ. Traditional pastries – kourambiedes, baklava, kouloudia and others – finished the meal.
When our grandparents came to their new world, they did whatever they could to survive and prosper. We think of their lives this way – that they worked as stone masons and millworkers so that their children could study medicine or engineering so that the next generation could become scholars in the arts and literature. And indeed that has come true for millions of Greek-Americans through education and prosperity.
When Michael Dukakis was running for president in 1988, one study released at the time said that the Greeks have the highest levels of income, education and, interestingly, self-employment of all ethnic groups in America. This made sense to me because so many Greeks have been self-employed as entrepreneurs, particularly as restaurateurs, like my grandparents. My mother always told me never to get into the restaurant business and now I understand why. Those Greeks who turn out the moussaka and the burgers and fries worked really long hours, and still do. But they have been rewarded financially. It is genuine alchemy… turning souvlaki into gold.
My mother’s parents ended up in Burlington, Vermont and owned the Alps Café smack in the center of town, so named because the state’s mountains reminded my grandfather of the Swiss Alps, which he certainly had only seen in pictures. Within 25 years of arriving on our shores, my grandfather had become a 32nd degree Mason and my wonderful grandparents had become prosperous and personally acquainted with governors, US senators and everyone else who mattered in Vermont. They had attained the American dream through faith and hard work.
The Greeks’ business acumen had always produced pockets-ful of cash, and that often has been reflected in their churches, with plenty of ornate icons, along with lavish chandeliers, gold adornments abounding, highly-crafted thrones for visiting bishops, and opulent baptismal fonts.
The Greeks always have been people of both religious devotion and worldly wisdom. This certainly reaches back into the ancient world where they seemed to have thought through just about everything from faith to form to function. And always at the heart of Greek advancement were the forces of open commerce, intellectual curiosity and the movement of people throughout the world, first into the Mediterranean basin – “like frogs around a pond”, said Plato – and then beyond.
So as midnight clicks its was across the globe on Saturday, you can imagine Greek Orthodox priests in churches from grand to modest, from Sydney to Honolulu – and perhaps someday even including Hagia Sophia – shouting joyously “Christos Anesti!” and the faithful responding with a resounding affirmation of the word and power of God guiding the Greeks – and all of us – through yet another hopeful year of peace and prosperity.
Please visit my website at www.nikitas3.com for more. You can print out for free my book, Right Is Right, which explains why only conservatism can maintain our freedom and prosperity.