November 20, 2017

Holy Week 2015: The Coup, the Queen, and the Resurrection (Damaris Zehner)

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This is a good year:  Orthodox Pascha and Catholic Easter are on different days, so I can go to both liturgies.  My daughters and I, though not Orthodox, love the marathon of song, prayer, procession, and candlelight that begins on Holy Saturday and continues until the small hours on Sunday.  We also love the three-in-the-morning communal feast after the liturgy with its steaming crockpots, bottles of wine, and small children asleep under the tables.  This year we’ll be able to go.

One of the earliest Pascha celebrations I can remember was in Greece.  My father was a diplomat, and we were living in Athens, in the suburb of Psychiko.  Three houses from us was Saint Demetrios Church.  Every year the Paschal procession from Saint Demetrios spilled out into the streets and made a river of candlelight flowing through the neighborhood.  I think my mother and I joined in more than once, but I especially remember Pascha when I was eight years old.

It was 1967.  Pascha that year – I looked it up – was on April 30.  On April 21, nine days earlier, a junta of Greek military leaders overthrew King Constantine II and took over the country.  Authority figures and common citizens were arrested.  The king fled into exile.  Tanks prowled past strategic sites throughout Athens.  Curfew was declared at sundown.  The country was very tense.

I wasn’t.  There were tanks in front of our house, because we lived around the corner from the royal villa, where King Constantine had been born and where his widowed mother, Queen Frederika, was still living.  I found tanks fascinating.  Since there was no school, I hung on the iron fence around our garden and watched them muscle their way down our street.  My mother was often at the door of the house, keeping an eye on me.  I can understand now why she did that.

ortho3x20jpegI don’t recall if curfew was relaxed for Pascha or if the procession was an act of defiance on the part of the priest and the congregation.  I suspect it was the latter.  As it began to get dark, the doors of the church up the street were flung open and the sound of singing reached our house.  My mother put a sweater on me and took me outside, where we squeezed into the edge of the mob.  Ahead of us, held high enough that even I could see it above the shoulders and veiled heads, was a cross flanked by candles.  The priest with his long gray beard and gorgeous robes led the way, waving incense.  Somehow we had candles to hold; probably our neighbors gave them to us.  Singing “Christ is risen from the dead,” we walked through the growing darkness down the hill – to the Queen Mother’s house.

The friendly evzones, the traditional guards who used to tease me as I rollerskated past their guardhouse, were gone, replaced by grim, armed soldiers in modern military uniforms.  The soldiers held their position when the priest and his flock stopped in front of the royal villa; I imagine they were nervous about what might happen, about what they might need to do.  The crowd, amoeba-like, shifted until it was centered at the gate.  Night had fallen, and we stood in a dome of candlelight.  Suddenly the priest gestured for silence, and the singing stopped.  I could see a form at the door of the villa, at the top of a short flight of stairs, lit from behind.  Complete silence fell.  “It’s the queen,” my mother whispered.  “Pay attention!”  Queen Frederika stood for a moment, then raised her hand in a gesture of blessing and prayed for peace.  There was no sound but her voice.

I know now that Queen Frederika had been seen as high-handed during her husband’s reign, which was why the colonels put tanks and guards around her house.  Her son was overthrown and in fear for his life.  She was on house arrest; coming out to greet a crowd of curfew-breakers was provocative behavior, but her attitude was one of affection and sorrow.

The moment must not have lasted long, although for me it has entered that frozen eternity of powerful memories.  The soldiers shifted their weapons, perhaps; the door closed behind the queen, and the procession moved on.  “That was brave and dangerous,” my mother hissed in my ear as the singing began again, “Remember this.”

Because I was only eight, partly what I remember is that my mother set my hair on fire while we were listening to the queen.  I had barely noticed the smell of burning hair when she started whacking me on the head.  I was slightly singed.  But I also remember the beauty, and the fear, and my struggle to understand what was brave and dangerous about it all.

As soon as I decided to tell this story, I did some research to confirm my childish memories.  There was much I hadn’t understood in 1967, much I had seen only through a child’s eyes.  When I read the Wikipedia page on the Colonels’ Coup, I recognized names.  Some were names of Greek leaders who were discussed over my head at dinner – Papandreou, Karamanlis.  One name on the Wikipedia page was my father’s American coworker who lived a few houses from us and whose Collie I walked after school; another was the US ambassador, whose son sang in my father’s barbershop quartet.

Apparently even when I was getting hauled around the neighborhood by Jubie the Collie or sitting in my pajamas on the stairs listening to “Coney Island Baby,” I was a part of something bigger than I knew.  It was something I didn’t understand, that carried me along as the candlelit procession had, brought me to the brink of violence then swept me home again to sleep peacefully beneath the shadow of martial law.  I was a part of history.  And that history, like all history, had at its center Pascha – the Resurrection – darkness and light, fear and hope, violence and blessing.  Pay attention, I was told.  Remember this.  I have.

• • •

This is the royal villa.  The trees were a little larger when I skated on the sidewalk, but the little guard house was there.  The door is on the side, I think, behind the trees.

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An evzone by his guard house.

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These are the tanks, though not in Psychiko.

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This is St. Demetrios Church.

 

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Comments

  1. What a thrilling, inspiring memory, Damaris. It led me to look up the historical events you mentioned. The action of Queen Frederika, under the grim circumstances, was certainly brave.

    We had an (Episcopal) priest, since retired, who had been trained or influenced or impressed by the Greek Orthodox Church, and we benefited from his knowledge. He loved, on Easter, to greet the congregation with the Greek blessing from the Orthodox Pascha: “Christ is risen!” (in Greek), to which we were supposed to respond, “He is risen indeed,” in Greek — but we never could quite manage it. But we enjoyed trying.

    In contrast to the splendor and ritual of the Orhtodox Easter ceremonies (but certainly not in opposition to them!), I have particularly been touched by a story from a book (“A Dresser of Sycamore Trees”) by Garret Keiser, a young man who eventually became an Episcopal priest in a little New England town. He describes doing an all-night Easter vigil with the few people who want to attend, starting with prayer and then a movie (with popcorn and snacks that people have brought), and then having at least one person awake in the sanctuary during the night, and making hot cross buns for the morning’s Easter celebration. I liked this paragraph in particular:

    “The candle sputters in the half darkness, like a voice too embarrassed or overwhelmed to proclaim the news: ‘Christ is risen.’ But it catches fire, and there we are, three people and a flickering light — in an old church, on a Saturday evening in spring, with the noise of the cars and their winter-rusted mufflers outside. The moment is filled with the ambiguities of all such quiet observances among few people, in the midst of an oblivious population in a radically secular age. The act is so ambiguous because its terms are so extreme: the Lord is with us, or we are pathetic fools. I like it that way. I believe God likes it that way.”

  2. Daniel Jepsen says:

    Damaris, that is a beautiful, beautiful post. Thank yo u for sharing your story and your gifts.

    Grace to you

    Daniel

  3. Lisa Dye says:

    Damaris, what a fascinating childhood … and great eye witness account to history and faith beautifully told.

  4. “Apparently even when I was getting hauled around the neighborhood by Jubie the Collie or sitting in my pajamas on the stairs listening to “Coney Island Baby,” I was a part of something bigger than I knew. It was something I didn’t understand, that carried me along as the candlelit procession had…”
    That sounds like something we will say when we step into the other side. We were part of something much bigger than we grasped as children. We will also find that we had been carried along. Great story. Seeing it from a child’s perspective gives it a unique texture.

  5. Rick Ro. says:

    Wonderful story, wonderful memory, great metaphor. Thanks, Damaris.

  6. In my mind, one of the best posts of the year. Well done.

  7. Dana Ames says:

    Thank you, Damaris. Not only well-written and vivid, but presented with a lovely spirit as well.

    If you can manage it, the Holy Friday services are also very impressive – as in, they always impress me with the experience of being in Jerusalem on that day. Something different is that, as we mourn our complicity in his death, we give the Lord a Christian burial… We enter the Church after the procession with the “body” (Slavic tradition) or the “tomb” (Greek tradition) by walking underneath it – the only way into the life of God is by means of his death. The prophecy of the dry bones from Ezekiel is chanted in the candlelight, and if it’s done right it will give you goosebumps. So many significant moments that have deep resonances for me, and a hint of the odor of the Resurrection coming through even on that sad day.

    Grateful for your appreciation for the eastern side…

    Dana

  8. Damaris, thanks so very much for this post. I recall hearing about the junta on the TV news, and about the dictatorship for quite a few years after. I wasn’t very old when it happened, so my memories are vague, and certainly nothing like yours, in either their clarity or in the personal experience of the situation.

    The candlelight procession sounds beautiful, defiant and dangerous (for political reasons), all at the same time.

    Thank you for telling us about what you saw and heard, and about the many meanings it clearly has for you. The bit about the singed hair is a nice touch to your piece, though certainly not when it happened! Glad you were OK. Your poor mom must have felt terrible about it.

  9. ” We also love the three-in-the-morning communal feast after the liturgy with its steaming crockpots, bottles of wine, and small children asleep under the tables.”

    I love this! Sounds like a real celebration.

    I had a Greek friend (immigrant) at a church I used to go to, and she was always very eager to get up to NYC to spend Orthodox Easter with her family. She said that nothing compares to Orthodox Pascha, and I believe it.

  10. Outstanding, Damaris! Vividly written; I could see myself seeing what you saw as I remember tanks coming into Havana in January, 1959, when I was 8 years old.

    • Damaris says:

      It’s too bad we have tanks in common, but the world being what it is, I suppose it’s not surprising.

      • Rick Ro. says:

        Tanks for the memories. 😉

      • And then there was the “religious” procession. Fidel Castro shows up a few days after New Years, 1959, with his disciples, all with long hair and beards (quite unusual for Cuba in the 50’s). Fidel in particular was the “savior,” the very image of Christ to the “believers.” And to boot, a white dove landed on his shoulder during one of his hours-long speeches, which many of the “faithful” believed to be the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

        And yes, the world is what it is, and will remain so until the real Savior returns.

  11. Christiane says:

    ” And that history, like all history, had at its center Pascha – the Resurrection – darkness and light, fear and hope, violence and blessing”

    . . . meaningful words, DAMARIS, and a reminder that, in the Resurrection, we see God’s ultimate answer to the forces of evil: “and the last enemy to be destroyed is Death” (1 Corinthians 15:26)

    from a hymn based on David’s 23rd Psalm:

    ‘Shepherd me O God,
    beyond my wants, beyond my fears,
    from death into life . . . ‘