Festival at the seaside

The Greeks, like other Mediterranean peoples, are noted for enjoying their festivals. Our summer sojourn includes August, and therefore the great Deka-pente, the 15th, the Dormition of the Mother of God.

This is preceded, from 1st to 14th, by one of the four annual ‘Lents’, when the devout avoid all animal products, alcohol, etc. (but fish is allowed on the Transfiguration). Each evening, a Paraklesis is sung with enthusiasm and at high volume by Priest and Cantors – the same service each time, in praise of the Theotokos.

The church in our village is dedicated (like Salisbury Cathedral) to the Dormition, so on the 14th the flags and bunting come out and the church fills up. Vespers on the Eve includes Artoklasia, the Blessing of Five Loaves. Big round sweet loaves, each up to about 14 inches in diameter and dusted with icing sugar, are presented in fives, on a positively industrial scale. Last year there were 18 great baskets, so at least 90 loaves. Afterwards these are cut up and distributed to all present.

Artoklasia happens again before the Liturgy on the 15th, with yet more baskets of loaves (the share-out, of course, does not happen until after the Liturgy, with its concluding distribution of Antidoron, the unconsecrated part of the ordinary Bread used for Communion). While the baskets are removed the church continues to fill with village families, many with young children, and holidaymakers from Athens and all parts of Greece and abroad.

Our priest, being elderly and recently unwell, had the help on this occasion of a tall and imposing deacon sent by the diocese, and at the Communion a neighbouring parish priest held a second chalice.

Babies and children communicated in large numbers, as did a good proportion of the congregation. Among them would be many celebrating their name-day: those called Maria/Marika, Marios, Panaghiotis/Panos, Panaghiota (All-holy), Despoina/Despo (Mistress). These names account for a significant share of the Greek population. No need for a Birthday Book if you’ve got a church calendar.

In the evening we were able to watch on TV the huge Vespers and Procession from the Church of a Hundred Doors (Panaghia Ekatontapyliani) on the Island of Paros. This dates from the fourth century, and is said to have been founded by St Helen Equal-of-the-Apostles on her way back from the Holy Land, and completed after her death by her son St Constantine Equal-of-the-Apostles. After an earthquake in the eighteenth century, 99 doorways were identified. Naturally, they say that when the hundredth is found Constantinople will return to Greek rule.

Four concelebrating bishops were easy to recognize by their glittering crown-mitres, as were the Greek Finance Minister and the Nomarch (head of the Island’s Prefecture) and other high officials by the fact that they were wearing ties. (The Prime Minister as usual was on the Island of Tenos, the Greek Walsingham, for an even bigger celebration. Other government ministers and the leader of the opposition were at other Marian Shrines.)

Through thousands of worshippers the Icons of the Feast and of Our Lady were borne shoulder high, with naval and police escort and military bands. People crouch or lie on the route, for the Icons to be carried over them.

The lengthy liturgical poems chanted in church are a deliberate echo of those sung on Easter Eve – and to the same tunes. Assumptiontide is called the ‘Summer Easter’. It is very much a national Holy Day in Greece. In giving birth you preserved virginity, And in falling asleep, O Mother of God, You did not forsake the world. You have passed over into life, For you are the Mother of Life; And by your prayers You save our souls from death.

Paul Lansley