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The feast day of St. Elias

My shoes are hardly fit for such a climb, but I am determined to dress Greek while in Greece, and the women here all wear delicate, strappy sandals such as these, regardless of the roughness of the terrain they will be navigating. The path is steep and slippery, winding through dusty pine trees and shrubbery. The chapel is in the center of a desolate hillside, protected by law against developers even in the midst of this rapidly growing suburb of Athens. This is holy land now, blessed by the presence of its Creator, and it can't be built on.

It's St. Elias's feast day, and the tiny chapel on the hill is hosting perhaps its only public service all year. Barely big enough for a priest to turn around in without his vestments catching on the unfinished stucco, the chapel holds a few icons on each wall, as well as an image of its patron behind the half-altar in the back. A larger icon of Elias (or Elijah, as he's better known in the West) resting on an ornate wooden stand, a brass two-tiered candelabra and a small wooden table with candles, a silver blessing cross, and a prayer book have already been placed outside.

The Chapel of St. Elias is at the top of one of the highest hills in the area. In pagan times, these spots were reserved for temples to Helios, the sun god; the closer one got to the clouds, the closer one was to his presence. When Greece began to adopt Christian traditions, St. Elias naturally emerged as the completion of this originally pagan idea; his vanishing into the clouds on a chariot of fiery horses made the perfect image of a saint whose province is the sun and sky. It is one of many ways in which the Greeks have reconciled their pagan beliefs with Christian truths, not watering down the Scriptures in any sense, but using language they already understand to clarify newer spiritual convictions.

People begin to filter through the trees, and when a sizable crowd gathers, the service begins. A loose group of chanters has formed around the director, who solemnly waves his arms and peers down his nose through his narrow reading glasses at the order of service, which tells him which hymns to sing and in what tones. I recognize the first tune, and though I can't understand most of the words, I know the text is from Psalm 141: "Lord, I have cried unto Thee, hear me. Hear me, O Lord."

My friend Athina is directly opposite me, listening with her eyes downcast and leaning slightly against the stone wall. When she raises her head to cross herself, her eyes catch mine, and she smiles as she brushes a lock of hair behind one ear, away from the wind. Her name is pronounced with the accent on the last syllable. Only the city, and the goddess for which it is named, are pronounced the way Americans generally say the word: Ath-EEN-ah. In ancient times, Athina was the protectress of the city, a guardian against foreign invasion, famine, and plague. So many of her characteristics seem precursors to the Mother of God. She was revered for her purity and virginity, which the priestesses of her temples emulated much as modern-day nuns do, giving up their lives in the world to serve a holy purpose for the good of all the people.

The high priestess of Athina revealed the will of the goddess while standing at a stream of running water; many miraculous sightings of the Virgin around the country have also been near a freshwater spring. Did God will this so that people would know a miracle when they saw one, using their simple pagan language and transforming it to his purpose? Had he been preparing their hearts all along, his hand guiding them slowly to the completion of the half-truths they were clinging to?

Everyone sits for the Old Testament reading. I don't understand a word, as with most of the service, but I listen quietly and pray. One reason I'm here tonight is to light a candle for my brother at home, whose patron saint is the Prophet Elias. I search absentmindedly for a few small pinecones to take back to him. My friend Lula notices my action and joins in with gusto, breaking off the largest and greenest ones she can find and handing them over with a triumphant smile. I put my arm around her shoulders and say, "Arketa, arketa (Enough!)." After returning the gesture of affection by squeezing and patting my arm, she frees a branch with a spray of baby cones, and I have no choice but to tuck it under my arm in thankful acceptance.

There is no avoiding Greek hospitality. At my first dinner here, my hosts caught me dipping bread in the juices at the bottom of the salad bowl, greenish-gold olive oil and sweet red wine vinegar. I confessed how much I enjoyed the flavor, and they encouraged me: "You are such a good Greek! You already love our olive oil!" One of my hosts pushed the vegetables to one side and then held the bowl tilted up, refusing to put it down until I had finished. Once the supply in both salads had been exhausted in this manner, they flagged down a waiter and made him bring me a whole bottle to drizzle on the rest of the bread. What choice did I have? I ate until I was far too full.

Near the end of the service, women begin to unwrap the huge loaves of artoklasia bread that are given out in pieces following any special Vespers service. The bread is wrapped in decorative red cellophane: someone must have picked it up in the grocery store. At home, when someone forgot to bring bread for the Liturgy, we had to hunt through the dregs of a grocery-store bakery before we could find any bread made without oil, suitable for preparation of the Eucharist. But here one can buy ready-made festal loaves, complete with a sifted covering of powdered sugar and an etched cross on the top. The wind picks up and blows a sweet breath of the sugar into the faces of two little boys in the front of the crowd. They snicker and rub their eyes.

The priest blesses the loaves, along with a plastic water-bottle of oil and one of wine, sticking tall beeswax tapers in the center of each cross and reciting a prayer over them. The candles don't stay lit for more than a few seconds before they are blown out by the breeze. The women take them back and begin to slice the bread, distributing it into plastic grocery bags to be handed out, chattering as they work. One drapes a decorative cloth over her arms, fills it with bread and walks among the crowd, sharing in the hospitality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Photo: Athens Street - Athens, June 2001

Copyright © 2009 Emily Jorjorian Lowe. All rights reserved.

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