"Christos Anesti!" they exclaim to one another while giving congratulatory kisses on each cheek at the midnight hour. It is a time of celebration, for Christ has risen.
More Greeks attend Easter Mass than they do Christmas. For them, the power to overcome death (along with death and sainthood in general) is greater than birth itself. In fact, as an interesting side-note, most Greeks not only have a birthday but also a name day - which is the day of the saint (ie. the date of the saint's death) from whom they are named after.
But Mass doesn't start when the doors of the church are opened. Its beginnings stem much earlier, and in an entirely different country. At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, in Jerusalem, an Orthodox priest enters the spot the Catholic church believes to have been the temporary resting place of Christ's body, in order to receive the annual holy light. That light is then transported to a small, rather unremarkable, church in Athens (called "The Remote Office of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher") near the base of the Acropolis at six o'clock in the evening. During following six hours, that light is carried to each and every Catholic church throughout the country by helicopter, plane, train, boat and police car.
Moments before the holy light is brought forth, all lights in the church go out. Those eager to be the first to receive the holy light rush to the front and stick their candles in the air before the head priest even enters. When the high priest emerges from behind a hidden door, he says the words "Come, receive the light" and holds a candle, lit with the holy light, high for all to see.
Immediately after, bodies turn and slowly shuffle towards the door. We join the herd, making our way outside; with the wind doing its best to keep us actively trying to protect the light from blowing out. A few minutes later the high priest joins the crowd, along with other priests carrying a cross and an image of an idol. Together they chant. People shush each other in order to hear. They're waiting for the words, the celebration, the affirmation that Christ has risen. "Christos Anesti," the high priest begins to sing. The congregation joins in. Everyone is singing and giving congratulatory kisses. Church bells begin to ring. Home-made fireworks start to explode. And I absorb the sights and sounds while trying to capture the moment as best I can with the video function on my camera.
Then the greatest feat of the evening begins: transporting the light home to have it grace the table for dinner. Forty days before Easter, Greeks fast, abstaining from meat. The late night/early morning, break-the-fast, dinner is just as anticipated as hearing the priest sing Christ has risen. And just like the traditional Easter soup they eat, the holy light is essential.
Together Alex, Aurelie and I walk back to Freda's house, trying our best to keep our perspective candles lit. Every three steps give way to sounds of "ooh, ooh... no, no!" and one or all three of us turning in circles to block the wind from the light. Every ten steps finds us huddled together. The rate we're going, we would make the half-mile journey by day break. For a brief moment I even thought those who were driving home, with a candle blazing in one passengers hand, were pretty smart. And then there was an audible gasp, in surround sound. All of our candles blew out.
We laugh it off and quickly make our way to the end of Freda's driveway. That is when I have a 'genius' moment. "Why don't we just stop the next car that drives by and ask them if we can re-light our candle with their light?," I ask. It seems like a brilliant enough idea. Plus, we were in luck... there was a car coming towards us that very second. Alex waves them down and asks if he could light his candle with theirs. Smarter than others I saw drive by, they have a lantern covering their candle. It is handed to the person in the front passenger seat. They open the door of the lantern and Alex begins fidgeting with the candle, trying to get it to light. And then, just as the light takes hold of the wick, a huge gust of wind blows both lights out. The look of shock on the faces of our Good Samaritans will forever haunt me.
We mumble our apologies as they drive off... and then, we laugh.