Monday, January 30, 2006


Greeks have always had a special affinity for libraries, though contrary to common belief, they did not invent them. Indeed, this honour belongs to the Sumerians. Archaeological findings from the diggings of the ancient city-states of Sumer have revealed temple rooms full of clay tablets in cuneiform script. These archives, as in Egypt, were made up nearly completely of the records of commercial transactions or inventories, with only a few documents touching pther matters
What the Greeks did was to separate arbitrary record collecting from the bureaucracy and establish libraries for public or personal use. Private or personal libraries made up of non-fiction and fiction books in the form of parchment or papyrus scrolls, as opposed to the state or institutional records kept in archives first appeared in classical Greece, some time near the 5th century BC. There were a few institutional or royal libraries like the Library of Alexandria which were open to an educated public, but on the whole collections were private. In those rare cases where it was possible for a scholar to consult library books there seems to have been no direct access to the stacks. In all recorded cases the books were kept in a relatively small room where the staff went to get them for the readers, who had to consult them in an adjoining hall or covered walkway.
Whereas libraries and their functions have greatly changed since then, though in Greece, the concept of a public lending library is still is in its infancy owing to unique cultural attitudes, the 'Greek civilisation's' fate is inextricably bound up in its attitude to its libraries. The loss of the great libraries of Alexandria and then Pergamum, as well as ensuing the destruction of enormous quantities of recorded Greek thought (where else could one store culture by the kilo?) could well nigh have served as metaphors for the inevitable decline and fall of the civilisations they were meant to record and propagate in the continents of Africa and Asia. It is mortally sad to consider that in war-ravaged Afghanistan, thousands of miles away from the Greek metropolis, the lost Aristotelian manuscripts of the Hellenistic library of Ai Khanum have etched themselves into the rocks before wasting away, as if in a vain quest for immortality and relevance, only to be looted and destroyed by the mujaheddin, Taliban and glorious Occidental liberating occupation forces.
There has always been a sense of urgency in the Greek attitude towards libraries, linked to an obsession with the past. Especially during Byzantium, it was felt that it was necessary to store and protect the writings of those now superseded, as if culture was not vibrant or alive but peregrinating on a pernicious precipice, threating to teeter over the edge into oblivion. One's libraries were felt to be the soul of the nation, the final bastion of its identiy when all vestiges of temporal power would vanish. It comes as no surprise then, that the Arab Caliphs would seek Greek manuscripts from the Emperors in lieu of tribute. It was tantamount to selling one's soul, though such surrendering of one's heritage did have its flipside. The Syriac Christians in the Arab Chaliphate would develop and disseminate Greek thought to a hitherto uknown degree, refining it to the extent where it would be commercially viable for it be plundered and purveyed all around Europe by the Crusaders hundreds of years later.
That Hellenism survived at all during the years of Ottoman occupation can also be directly attributed to our forefathers' acquisitive mania. Monasteries became the repositories not only of religion, but also of Greek learning and culture. The cavernous monastery libraries, stacked with manuscripts of most ancient provenance served as temporary mausolea for a culture dormant and under seige, but ready to arise again when the Marbled King would return. They also came in handy during the War of Independence, many of them being ripped out of their bindings and used to prime muskets, proving how one's culture can defend one from physical as well as moral dissolution.
We are good hoarders then and our seige mentality continues. For as a nation, in keeping with our original conviction of making libraries not so accessible to users, our primary motivation seems to still be the storage of the documentray records of our sojourn on this earth. There is almost a Byzantine apocalyptic feeling of a straitening of time. We don't have the capability or the ease in which to interpret, study and assess the legacy preserved by our well-secreted books. All we can do is bury them somewhere safe and hope that others will find them, be inspired to review them and consider how 'great' we really are.
The famous archives of LaTrobe University's Centre for Hellenic Studies and Research are a case in point. Over the past decade, that august institution has managed to amass a comprehensive and invaluable archive of our sojourn in this country. Yet the number of staff and researchers, especially in today's climate which does not favour such economically unproductive pursuits are not nearly as many as a required to fully study the importance of such archives and by implication, our community as a whole. Yet in years to come, when memories and knowledge of our identity fade, shall that which will sustain us be the knowledge that our heart is hidden in the bowels of some university library and like the giant in the Arabian nights fantasy, we shall not fade until such a heart is destroyed? And who knows, maybe in years to come, bemused descendants of our community organisation's librarians, who currently boast about the 'archives' they have ammassed pertaining to their own community's settlement here, will pore over such 'archives,' discover who purchased potatoes for the 1937 annual dinner dance and have an epiphany.
Given the above, the news that the Greek government has recently announced plans to create a 'library of migrant Greek literature' is merely symptomatic of this unintelligent hoarding attitude. The rationale for the creation of this library apparently is that too many migrant works of literature that are sent to Greece to be exhibited, languish in basements and storerooms and either never see the light of day or are ignored.
At first instance, this seems a worthy idea. Writers can only produce their art in the context of a receptive community, so they deserve our full support. However, we learn that this library will not be created here in Australia, where it is needed most but in Greece and more specifically in the grounds of the Foreign Ministry. Apparently, it will act as a 'database' so that all Greek migrant literature will be collected and documented…. And then what? How many Greek scholars will seriously concern themselves with what certain Greek academics both in Greece and Australia often consider to be 'inferior literature.' It is also inconceivable that the Greek public at large will gain greater awarness of our literary efforts by the creation of such a sepulchre to our aspirations to culture. I for one am not often to be found at the library of our own Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. What this latest 'positive move' by our august cultural protectors seems to be, is a mere smokescreen to cover the increasing inanity of their own irrelevance and a manifestation of our historical attitude of pickling even the most far-flung and limited in use tentacles of our cultural octopus, for possible consumption at a later date ie. when all the migrant Greeks have assimilated or vanished.
The creation, not of a mausoleum but a public lending library open to the Greek community would seem ideal. In this way, the Greek community could have access not only to the works of local writers but also to the current literary trends of the mother culture. Yet this prospect too is fraught with difficulties. The number of Greeks with the capacity and willingness to read Greek is gradually declining. The Greek section of most public libraries (as usual, being incapable of doing anything of our own accord, we have had to have the government step in and do it for us) has become static, with books remaining on the shelves unread for years. When we needed such a library, we lacked the perspicacity to create one. Now, as we emerge Rip Van Winkle-like from our arrogant sleep of delusion and cultural perpetuation, we notice to our shock that the world is a very different place to that which we had imagined and that solutions, in a sub-culture that has morphed and mutated in a multitude of unexpected ways are elusive and ineffectual and that there is not much point to our cultural sepulchres, if we cannot read their inscriptions and shall gradually forget their existence, consigning them to a perpetual sleep. If anything, our stance is reminiscent of the arrogance of the pharaohs of old, compelling their subjects to toil at constructing a vast sepulchre, in the vain expectation that its existence and contents therein, would grant them eternal life. In keeping with this ancient tradition, it is therefore inconceivable that any Greek-Australian library is not built in pyramidal form.
Let us then pray for an apocalpyse that will at the end of days, sunder the seals of our entombed literary works and see them propagated by horsemen representing the souls of demented librarians. We leave you with perhaps the most far-seeing of quotes, from Clearchos of Soles, inscribed at the ηρώον of Ai Khanum:
"As children, learn good manners.
As young men, learn to control the passions.
In middle age, be just.
In old age, give good advice.
Then die, without regret."

First published in NKEE on 30 January 2006

Monday, January 23, 2006


And Cain said unto the Lord, "My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass that everyone that findeth me shall slay me." And the Lord said unto him, "Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him." Genesis.
Now that it appears that we are preparing ourselves for yet another plunge into the turgid pool that is the debate over the institution of identity cards for Australian citizens, the power of the above passage can be viewed in a different light, casting an interesting perspective and providing singular arguments in favour of such a move. As can be seen, identity cards have their origin in the Book of Genesis. Cain, the sorry adelphocthon of his hapless brother Abel, was instituted as the world's first identity card, hence the mysterious ‘mark,’ placed by God upon him, in order that he be identified to others. The rationale behind the need for such identification was primarily based upon 'security considerations,' that is, the mark was placed upon him, for his own 'protection,' and as a safeguard from harm.
The second aspect to this very near primordial institution of the identity card is less re-assuring. Sure Cain's mark served to protect him; he lived to a ripe old age in repentance, built a city and sired descendants with the exotic names of Enoch and Lamech. However, Cain’s mark was bestowed upon him principally as a consequence of him committing a most evil act and also in amelioration of an unduly unbearable punishment.
The circumstances in which our august rulers would re-institute a debate as to the introduction of identity cards mirror in many aspects, those of their archetype. For, as the Bali Bombings, the Gaza abduction, the continuing chaos in various Middle Eastern countries and the recent foiling of alleged ‘terrorist plots’ in this country indicate, our world is no longer safe for us. Identity cards could, by separating the sheep from the goats in apocalyptical fashion, deliver us from evil, especially given the sophisticated technology that is readily available these days, that has almost cast the whole genus of forgers into extinction. The corollary to this however, is gravely disquieting. What unscaleable heights of evil have our acts attained, that our benign rulers would place their marks upon us, to protect us from undue harshness of punishment? Is it our sybaritic obsession with bread and circuses that is now causing our decline and fall? Is it our own hubris in the 'achievements' and 'values' of our own 'civilisation?' Or rather is it that we, in the fashion of the proverbial lambs led to the slaughter are eternally condemned to sheepishly follow our demented shepherds, their dogs snapping viciously at our heels at the slightest hint of straying, along their self-appointed paths to oblivion?
Possibly. Yet where an identity card is issued by the State it asserts a unique single civil identity for a person, thus defining that person’s identity purely in relation to the State. New technologies allow identity cards to contain biometric information, such as photographs, iris measurements, or fingerprints. Other information typically present on cards, or their supporting database, may include include one's full name, parents’ names, address, profession, nationality in multinational states, blood type and Rhesus factor. In return, the bearer of such a card obtains certain privileges: ‘proof’ that he is accepted by the grantor of such an identity as is recorded upon his card, access to services and deliverance from exclusion. This too has its precedents in yet another instance of identity marking referred to in Genesis. Abraham in particular, was instructed by God to circumcise all the males of his people, in order to seal the covenant marking them as His Chosen People:
"He that is born in thy house… must needs be circumcised; and thy covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant."
Will the insitution of Australian identity cards therefore be corollary to the making of a New Covenant between ruler and ruled? If so, it would be interesting to note the terms of such a Covenant. Whereas God wished his chosen people to acknowledge Him as their God and obey His laws, will the grantors and protectors of our identities require that we accept their values, their opinions and their acts unquestionably? One also wonders how dissenters, sceptics and cynics, who would break such a Covenant through their own consciences would have their ‘souls cut off from their people.’
The recent re-emergence of the debate seems to be symptomatic of our PM’s usual toying with sensitive issues and then quietly dropping them if public oppostion has the potential to translate to political damage. In keeping with the Orwellian status quo where Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia, even though thought criminals would maintain that it was at war with Eastasia, especially boatpeople a few years ago, the PM was a vociferous opponent of the introduction of idenity cards during the infamous ‘Australia Card debate.’ Yet in keeping with our close alignment with the primary members of the ‘Coalition of the Willing,’ his volte-face is not without precedent. As far back as 2003, UK Home Secretary David Blunkett stated that his government intends to introduce a national identity card scheme based on biometric technology, together with a database to track the resident population, to be made compulsory by 2013. To that end, the Identity Cards Bill was introduced in the House of Commons in January 2004. The bill failed as it was not passed before the UK general election of 2005, but was reintroduced soon after.
The Home Office argued that the card would frustrate international terrorists, 35% of whom travel under a false identity. More recently, the UK also claimed the cards will help to prevent illegal immigration, ‘health tourism,’ benefit fraud and identity theft, and that biometric passports would make it easier for British citizens to travel to the US. Hooray! Interestingly enough, the US, despite its draconian airport security measures, is not keen to introduce such a card, it being difficult to do so under its curent political system and because other, less obvious ways of compiling information on people are available to it.
The implications of an increasing tendency towards creating a surveillance society are truly fightening. It appears that the primary way in which our rulers would safeguard our freedoms is to make us appreciate them by severly proscribing them. The definition of an idenity is also fraught with problems. Imagine if the Cronulla race rioters were able to identify their targets via a forceful removal of their identity cards.
One wonders what will be next? Tracking of dissidents and undesirables via infra red paint, digital code or mobile phones a la West Bank and Gaza? On the other hand, a by-product of the debate on idenity cards and what goes in them, could prove a refreshing and amusing re-assessment of what exactly our government considers that our ‘identity’ should formally comprise of, as Archbishop Christodoulos found out, in Greece. Will we in turn see vast hordes of Greek grandmothers escaping the suburbs and marching down Lonsdale Street yelling «South Melbourne Hellas ή Θάνατος?» Personally, if identity cards are introduced, I should like them to include a category next to date of birth, eye colour, height etc, entitled ‘Footy Team’ and another entilted ‘Aussieness’' Various graduating classifications such as ‘True Blue, Dinki Di, Born and Bred, Mate, Wog (but alright), Asian (but enemy of terrorism so alright) and Muslim (but loyal to Australia so alright)’ and finally, ‘Didn’t shout me a beer so Unaustralian,’ could determine our true level of commitment to the Grand Covenant of Social Cohesion. In parallel with the film Minority Report, our crime is not that we have disobeyed but that we will always have the potential to do so. Pity help us, that we learnt nothing from the totalitarian experience of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.
In complete contrast to the Book of Genesis, the final book of the Bible, Revelation, is wary of any particular marks of identity, considering them malevolent and destructive. We close with the relevant passage, which is as unequivocal as to require no further comment:
“And he had power to give life….and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed. And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads. And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.” That goes for fake tans too. Happy damnation to us all. I’m off to the tattoo remover's.

First published in NKEE on 23 January 2006

Monday, January 16, 2006


Amidst the festivities and bounteous feast of the New Year, our dog, whose street roaming tendencies caused us to suspect early on that she would become a progenitor of other pooches, gave birth to two puppies. In the midst of conversation with family and friends as to relative and correct ways to act as a midwife to goats and other village cattle that have for the most part now been banished from Greek villages by EU funding, I was asked what names I would like to give the puppies.
Semantics form an inordinately important aspect of the Greek identity and world-view, this being evidenced by Aristotle, who wrote and thought widely upon the human desire to ‘name’ things. The Categories of Aristotle are classifications of individual words (as opposed to propositions), and include the following ten: substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, situation, condition, action, passion. They seem to be arranged according to the order of the questions we would ask in gaining knowledge of an object. For example, we ask, first, what a thing is, then how great it is, next of what kind it is. Substance is always regarded as the most important of these. Substances are further divided into first and second: first substances are individual objects; second substances are the species in which first substances or individuals inhere.
Notions when isolated do not in themselves express either truth or falsehood: it is only with the combination of ideas in a proposition that truth and falsity are possible. The elements of such a proposition are the noun substantive and the verb. The combination of words gives rise to rational speech and thought, conveying a meaning both in its parts and as a whole. Such thought may take many forms, but logic considers only demonstrative forms which express truth and falsehood. The truth or falsity of propositions is determined by their agreement or disagreement with the facts they represent. Thus propositions are either affirmative or negative, each of which again may be either universal or particular or undesignated. A definition, for Aristotle is a statement of the essential character of a subject, and involves both the genus and the difference. To get at a true definition we must find out those qualities within the genus which taken separately are wider than the subject to be defined, but taken together are precisely equal to it. The genus definition must be formed so that no species is left out. Having determined the genus and species, we must next find the points of similarity in the species separately and then consider the common characteristics of different species. Definitions may be imperfect by being obscure, too wide, or by not stating the essential and fundamental attributes. Obscurity may arise from the use of equivocal expressions, of metaphorical phrases, or of eccentric words.
Ιερά Παράδοσις, holy tradition, establishes some naming conventions but these are seldom helpful and are constantly called in to question, thanks to Aristotle’s perspicacity. Thus, various ‘prominent’ and ‘important’ neoGreeks with pretensions to ‘leading’ the ‘Greek’ community advise us that the word ‘Greek’ was foisted upon us as a definition by the Latins. It is therefore a fallacious and ineffective tool in determining our familial group, which is why in turn we must impose the use of the term ‘Hellenic’ upon others who would describe us. Those enamoured of Byzantine civilization point out that both the Graecoi and the Hellenes were merely ancient tribes of central Greece, that the word Hellene shifted in meaning to signify an idolater and that the term Ρωμιοί, used even today by the Middle East and the Greeks of Constantinople, is more apt as it has been used right up until the present day. I particularly favour the term Romioi as it confuses us both with the Romans and the Romanians, as well as the Roma, in keeping with French philosopher Jean Bernard Klus’s maxim: “The artist creates the myth to obscure the art.”
Nonetheless let us not despair at both our obsession and inability to name ourselves. Even the great Homer struggled to give a name to the ‘Greeks.’ At times he called them Achaeans, a word to be rejected outright as fuelling Peloponnesian arrogance that they are the only true Greeks.’ On other occasions, he called them Danaans, a term not without attraction as it no longer has any connotations in Aristotelian logic and can be applied generically. Indeed, an anabaptism with the word Danaan could even permit one of our own community armchair thinkers to postulate that it is only the gradual shift of a set of lightly contrasted plosive/fricative pairs that have caused the difference between Danaan and Canaan. In different variations of a certain lexical root, a root consonant might exist in plosive form in one variation and fricative form in another. Thus, a mere pharyngealised voiceless alveolar fricative could have us claim the promised land as our own and completely set at nought, the entire Middle East peace process.
Holy tradition also governs my own personal identity, given that my hypostasis and physis was prescribed by the Greek tradition as that which was also prescribed to my grandfather and by the Orthodox Church, to my illustrious patron saint, on whose feast I was also born. Nonetheless, given that assimilative Australian holy tradition prescribed the English manifestation of such an identity to take the form of the word ‘Dean,’ which by the way, sounds tantalisingly close to ‘Danaan’ in the pronunciation of the upper Murrumbidgee, where dental velar plosives tend to be supressed and pronounced bilabial, I have experienced the Aristotelian wrath of the neoGreeks of our community who pour scorn upon those purporting to transcend multilingual demonstrative forms, as pseudo-Greeks. This notwithstanding, the Aristotelian conundrum posed by the existence of a future generation of Aristogeitons who know not a word of Greek shall be thoroughly amusing.
Holy Danaan tradition only goes so far as to prescribe names for animals. A quicl glance at any old school ανθολόγιο will quickly permit one to come to the conclusion that the only acceptable name for a Danaan cat is «Ψιψίνα,» while donkeys are invariably to be named «Κυρ Μέντιος.» The distinguished author Ξενόπουλος in one of his essays to the youth of Greece suggested the alternate Babylonian-biblical name of «Ναβουχοδονόσορ» but that is just as silly as if I named my first son Tiglath-Pileser III. As for dogs, there is a dearth of acceptable names for these most faithful of creatures in the Greek tradition. Generally dogs get slighting press in Danaanic thought and they are always thought to be verging somewhere on the cusp of good and evil. Cerberus, the three-headed hound of the underworld is perfectly frightful, while the flesh-eating hounds of Acteon, instruments of the wrath of Artemis are not even named. Orion’s dog may appear in a stellar constellation, but it remains unnamed. The only dog that appears to have been named in ancient epics, is Argo, the faithful hound of Odysseus, who patiently awaited his return from his looting and pillaging expedition, in order to make the world safe for democracy. Argo is a wonderful name but it does not solve my problem, as I have two dogs, and they are both not Ithacan.
This dearth of references is quite surprising given that various ancient Greek dog breeds provided the genetic material, which formed the basis for the development of many modern dog breeds. The Maltese terrier actually originated in Miletos of Asia Minor, which colonised various areas of the Mediterranean including Malta itself aeons ago. From the Ionian cities these little companion dogs were transferred to Athens and during its Golden Age they became luxury pet-dogs and lap-dogs of the aristocracy, escorting the ladies to the Agora with precious collars on their necks, even with nails polished to match the colour of the mistress' dress. The ancient Hellenes certainly loved their dogs. Xanthippus, the father of Pericles, was said to have owned a dog that swam by the side of his master's galley to the city of Salamis when the Athenians were forced to abandon their city. The dog was buried beside his master at a site known ever since as Cynossema, the dog's grave. Alexander the Great is said to have founded and named a city, Peritas, in memory of his dog.
‘Greek’-Australia has formed its own pet naming traditions. The current craze is to name our domesticated friends after ancient personalities. Thus I have met rottweilers with the genteel name of Pericles, convivial dobermans called Poseidon, King Charles Terriers referred to as Agamemnon and a particularly pernicious poodle called Kyveli. One friend has even named his dogs Empedocles and Agathocles because “one thinks he can fly and just as Agathocles was tyrant of Sicily, so is his namesake tyrant of my backyard.” Personally I think it is pretentious to give newborn puppies not even ten centimetres long a name of more than two syllables. In particular I am reminded of a friend in Albania who named his dog “Rroftë Diktatura Proletariatit.” (Long Live the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.) This plagued his poor pooch with a multitude of psychological problems.
In wishing to adhere to Danaanic tradition, and given that apparently dogs, like all animals, do not possess souls and thus cannot be given Christian names, though St Christopher and St Mercurios’ converts in Orthodox art are often portrayed in icons as having a dog’s head, I have found a middle way. Gerald Durrell, the famous late zoologist who grew up in Kerkyra describes in his book “My Family and Other Animals,” an account of his Greek childhood, how his brother, the renown author Lawrence Durrell named his two puppies, purely on Aristotelian considerations, Widdle and Puke. This is good Greek literary tradition and I propose to do the same, save that both puppies shall be collectively known as Widdle and Puke without any differentiation or further individual naming, given that both share the aforementioned faculties. Να μας ζήσουν λοιπόν, and long may they chase their tails, according to the precedent faithfully adhered to by the rest of the Danaan community.

First published in NKEE on 16 January 2006

Saturday, January 07, 2006


«Δόξα τω θεώ εν υψίστοις και επί γης ειρήνη, εν ανθρώποις ευδοκία» sang the angels at the birth of Christ, according to the Gospel of St Luke. The peace that the angels praised was not merely a social or temporal peace, the absence of war, but the incarnation and presence of Christ. Thus the angels were hymning a peace which arrived upon the earth with the Birth of Christ and not merely a future or possible peace. For by His incarnation, Christians believe that Christ gave man peace with his God, his neighbour and himself, precisely because through the birth of Christ, the divine nature was united with the human nature in His person. As a result of this great condescension, mankind is given the possibility to be restored to its true, original nature, before the error that brought about the fall. Thus the peace spoken of by the angels is considered also to be an inner peace, for in Christ, mankind achieved that which Adam failed to do. Adam had to attain full communion with God by the grace of God and his own personal struggle, the powers of his soul had to function naturally and supernaturally. This was achieved in Christ.
The second phrase sung by the angels, “good will towards men,” suggests that the incarnation was previously willed by God. Thus, man’s union with God would not have been able to succeed if there had not been a particular person in whom the divine would unite hypostatically with his human nature. Therefore, the incarnation is not a consequence of Adam’s fall. What followed from the fall was the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ. The incarnation of Christ however, is held to be the end of creation. The whole creation and man came into being for the God-man. Thus, man could not have been deified and creation sanctified, had it not been for the incarnation of the God-man, that is Christ Theanthropos. The very thought that God could condescend to unite mankind with Him in such a way is awe-inspiring.
In addition to the Shepherds and the angels, the first persons to also worship the newborn Christ were the magi or wise men of the East. The important thing is not when this happened, but that they discovered Christ. Essentially, God was revealed to them, something which did not occur to the Scribes and Pharisees, comprising the religious establishment of those times. The magi recognized Christ and worshipped Him because of their ‘inner knowledge.’ With their physical eyes, with their sight, they beheld an infant, but with their nous, they saw God who had become man. Thus the magi were in a spiritual state suitable for seeing and worshipping God. This was not a matter of science but of inner noetic purity.
Sadly, when these images of unparalleled beauty, meaning, hope and majesty are juxtaposed against the doings of our world leaders and especially those of the conservative fringe who would have as believe that they espouse ‘Christian’ values cause them not to pale in significance but to cause one to wonder how it is that such a significant event in the Christian calendar can fail to move and inspire. Last year in particular, was a very trying one for humanity. The after-effects of Encheladus’ wrath in the tsunami afflicted areas of South East Asia and earthquake afflicted Kashmir proved not only how powerless and insignificant we are but also how magnificent we can be when motivated by philanthropy. Australians opened their hearts out to the afflicted and though many of them still live in misery, their contribution, as well as the Greeks’ inspiring assistance to Sri Lanka, is something to feel proud of.
Unfortunately, by the end of the same year, this climate of brotherhood and co-operation had largely been dispelled. The Cronulla race riots introduced into this country, a manifestation of long-simmering resentment: hatred and violence against the other. All of a sudden, from a pluralistic and cohesive society, we manifested ourselves as insular, suspicious, fragmented and hateful, with disaffected muslim youths in Sydney harassing the innocent and racist rednecks intent upon ‘reclaiming’ Australia for themselves and forgetting under what circumstances their ancestors’ conquered this country in the first place, committing acts of violence upon those of ethnic origin and through their various threats to ‘bash all wogs,” terrorizing a significant proportion of the Australian community. What is especially lamentable in this circumstance, is the PM’s insistence in glossing over the ethnic hostility that has been cultivated by the “Global war on terror” and glibly seeking to re-package the issue as one merely of law and order. A good many people in Australia will have spent Christmas and New Year wondering what has happened to the myth of the easy-going society they have taken for granted for so long. For others, especially refugees who have arrived here after experiencing persecution and violence in their countries of origin, the coincidence of the festive season with racial strife will have added salt to their wounds, reinforcing their conviction, that they are not welcome anywhere.
The past year also saw the passage of legislation in Federal Parliament that potentially harbours onerous and damaging consequences for more vulnerable members of Australian society. The amendments to the Workplace Relations Act which render the playing field between employee and employer decidedly tilted in favour of the latter and renders employees more vulnerable to exploitation, the abolition of compulsory VSU legislation, projected legislative amendments for the unemployed that remind one of the Poor Laws of 1834 that saw the destitute committed to workhouses for a pittance, along with sedition laws that come dangerously close to similar laws promulgated by totalitarian regimes, all make one wonder whether we are not but the Tiny Tims and Bob Cratchits of a Dickensian ‘Christmas Carol,’ labouring at the mercies of decided Scroogian humbugs, while the departed Jacob Marleys of the world look with horror upon our metaphysical fettering with the bonds of raw unkindness.
At least here in Australia, those that wish to had the opportunity to celebrate Christmas, each in accordance with their own understanding. In Iraq, ‘liberated’ at the behest of ‘devout’ President Bush, the one million or so Christians belonging variously to the Assyrian and Armenian minority did not have such an opportunity. Every day their churches are being bombed and vandalized by muslim fanatics while the crusading forces of the US President, at least in one situation are not averse to bulldozing Christian churches in Iraq, in their perennial search for terrorists. Spare a thought also as to how our Ecumenical Patriarch celebrated Christmas, having to experience the extreme hostility of racist, xenophobic and violent Turkish organizations in what has been the cradle of Orthodoxy for the past one thousand and seven hundred years.
Just before Christmas, my parish priest handed me what he termed to be ‘a birthday invitation.’ What is actually was, was a letter decrying the commercialisaton of Christmas and its deconstruction from a festival celebrating a pivotal moment in our cosmogony to a capitalist trade orgy. The letter purportedly was from Jesus Christ asking why people were celebrating His birthday without sparing a thought for Him or inviting Him. Is this inability then for mankind to perceive the central message of Christmas symptomatic of the ‘coldening of hearts’ that is a sign of the last days? Assuredly not. For while Christmas may indeed be overtaken by commercialism at its most crass, while millions around the world will suffer hunger, illness or pain at the same moment that we sit at our Christmas lunch table and gorge ourselves with goodies, one hopes that there is still enough goodwill as to ensure that the central message of Christmas, the apokatastasis and perfection of the cosmos, including that of human nature, endures. Considering the number of young families I saw at church this year, waking their children in the wee hours in order to partake in an unparalleled mystery, consolation is at hand. Now if only we could all retain that spirit, throughout the year.
The ghost of Christmas past invariably returns me to a Christmas I had in Albania a few years ago. Driving cross country in a battered Stalinist jeep to get to an isolated mountain village in order to distribute presents to the few impoverished children that remained there, I listened to a priest, his face contorted in painful memory, tell me how despondent he and his compatriots felt every Christmas in not being permitted to celebrate Christmas by the communist regime. I will never forget the delight on the villagers’ faces as we, after almost toppling off every sinuous curve on the mountainside, finally made it and distributed the meager presents to the delighted children. «Μας φέρατε τα Χριστούγεννα» one old woman exclaimed. As we chanted the Christmas troparion inside the dark, leaking, defaced and crumbling church that had all the insulating properties of a deep freezer, our lips blue with cold, I wondered how many others destitute like these villagers, in emulation of the magi, are pure and privileged enough to see and worship God and how many times Jacob Marleys will condescend to warn the Scrooges, before the harsh soullessness of the year to follow will cause them to just give up. Χρόνια Πολλά και Καλή Χρονιά.
First published in NKEE on 9 Janury 2006