Saturday, April 28, 2012


I am sitting in an inner city café, sipping a flat white. I sip it nervously, as the scowling man who made it for me has a particularly nasty inflammation rising to prominence on his upper lip, one that even his yellowing moustache cannot hide. As I peer down at the cup, I notice that it has been encrusted with evidence of those who have imbibed before me and place it down on the table slowly. In this café, hits, a flat white represents the latest and greatest in coffee making technology. In fact, coffee here goes by two names: white, or black. A faded 1982 calendar hangs decrepitedly from the wallpaper – a barely discernible pattern of green bamboo clumps turned to an invisible grey, a mere suggestion of pattern, unable to withstand the ravages of time. Under foot, strips of blue, industrial strength carpet, gaffer-taped into place with symmetrical stripes of green. A solitary mouse creeps surreptitiously along the skirting board, climbs up the shelf housing empty ouzo and whisky bottles and makes a dash for the outside. Behind the mission brown partition leading to the rusty and malodourous kitchen, a Grecian 2000-haired, crease worn face snarls: “Bloody mice, bastards.” Then he turns to me and exclaims: “Hey you randy bastard, how are you re? What you wanna eat. I fix you a toast.” It is futile to resist. A few minutes later, four slices of butter-saturated toast materialize under your nose. “Eat re. How you gonna chase the girls if you so bloody skinny.” He wipes his oily hands on an apron festooned with stains as variegated and complex as a map of the Aegean archipelago and sits beside me. “Move over. Tell me your news.”

This is Jim, as old as the hills, perpetually scowling, the oldest and the last of the Greek café/take-away shop operators in the city. Walking into his establishment is like entering a seventies time capsule. The walls are as grimy as food is tasty and full of cholesterol. The laminex has well and truly parted company with the rest of the table exposing the flecks of particle board that are finally beginning to extricate themselves from the adhesive that has compelled their form. The songs one can request to be played by the glass encased receptacles above each cubicle feature songs so prominent in the eighties charts that they have long since been forgotten – that is if one can se them, for the pages containing their names are rusted and cannot be turned and they can barely be discerned behind the food encrusted glass. This is the last pocket of virgin rainforest City Café territory where even health inspectors dare not tread. Behind you sits a short, wizened old man, perpetually grinning, his gold teeth sending rays of light off his beer can and onto the laminex. “Poor bastard” snorts Jim as he pours himself his nine o’clock double shot of whisky. “He was a good businadoros. Made a fortune in the eighties. Then the bloody bank took it away. He was too soft. You have to be hard in business. Just like for a woman.” He laughs, choking on his whisky. The next time I visit, he is nowhere to be seen. “Poor bastard went off to the better place,” Jim explains as I ask after him. “Or at least that’s what he thinks. His wife is waiting for him there.” He splutters into laughter that too eerily resembles the sound of sobbing, then dry wretches and is silent.

The momentary pause is due to the passage of two young giggling Asian girls, clad in short skirts and knee high black socks who walk past, not even glancing sideways at the portal that marks the entry into a starkly different world. “Po, po,” Jim exclaims to a fat balding man sitting in a corner, from whom an odour emanates strongly reminiscent of a Gorgonzola cheese in its final stages of putrefaction. “These are women. Lithe, sleek, and taunt little behinds. Not like our women whose posteriors drag on the ground as they walk. If I had a kineza, I’d show her….” He sneaks a furtive glance at his wife, registers her scowl and lowers his voice with a smile whose counterpart could only be found on a schoolboy surreptitiously relating a dirty joke.

As much as this is a place where ageing patrons and proprietors alike can express sexual frustration and an impossibly rich and inexhaustible gamut of misogynistic sentiments, place is a treasure house of information. The early history of the Greek community is inextricably bound to its confines. Myriads of deals were negotiated here, thousands of partnerships were forged, millions of snippets of idle or malicious gossip were formed and disseminated. Today, it is frequented by gnarled, faceless and nameless old men, ghosts of a by-gone era, of whom you have heard tantalizing bytes of information from grandparents and parents who were too young then, to know these prominent members of the community. “I was the first one to bring magazines and music from Greece” says a bald, keen eyed man in a corner. “I was making a fortune. People were coming to my shop from all over Australia.” Annals of forgotten triumphs, of adversity, of excruciating hard work; the ghosts of the past haunt the stamping grounds of their heyday, whispering to each other in the unintelligible language of anachronism. They were the youths who jumped off the boat full of optimism and raring to go. They were the Jims whose introduction to Australia was endless shifts washing plates at hotels and then sleeping fitfully on couches far to small for them in people’s hallways. These are the ones who take pride in their children’s achievements, dentists, doctors and lament their prodigal sons who “don’t get me wrong, he is a very rich businessman” did not go to university. Such are the bones of human endeavour, upon which our community is based. Jim stands up as his wife offers a greeting. “I was just telling him he should have as much fun as possible with the girls, then settle down with a nice Greek girl only when he is old. Not like you who I have to put up with for bloody years.” “He’s tired” she tells me. “He’s been working all of his life. Day in day out, all we know is yes please and who’s next. We’ve done ok and our kids have grown up. But we’ve never really lived. We’ve found a buyer for the business, two Chinese guys. Recent arrivals. Keen and raring to go. We’ve had enough.” And thus it is that the last spring of life that grants a semblance of existence to the already departed dries up. The shades of yesteryear, the miscreants and Babi the eternal compo claimer who spends his days haunting the café with his theories of the superiority of the Vietnamese as opposed to the Chinese woman are relegated to the screens of the unseen. And at twilight, Jim, who the moment he found out you were Greek has never let you pay for your coffee, emerges purged of any evidence of the cares of toil, lies back and dreams of being in Greece, as a boy.

The last time I walk past the café, Jim is gone. It is a shiny new Asian eatery. I take off in the direction of Medallion, knowing that whatever time I get there, at least one particular Greek institution possessed of a Karl Marxian beard will be there to engage in conversation. On my arrival, I am greeted by an emaciated and white haired Jim, the lines on his face deeper than those of the East African Rift Valley. “What? Pantreutikes?” he asks me. “Vre ton pousti. I suppose if we have to suffer, so should you. If you want my advice, don’t have kids. They are just money pits. And never stop working. Your wife will drive you crazy.” He pauses for a moment to watch a girl of Asian appearance walk down the street. Then, turning to the waiter standing over the table, he spits: “You call this a coffee? This is rubbish. When I had my café..”


First published in NKEE on 28 April 2012

Saturday, April 21, 2012


Generations of Greek schoolchildren have been brought up upon stories of the blood-thirsty Egyptian Ibrahim Pasha whose solution to the Greek War of Independence was to plan the genocide of the entire Greek population of the Peloponnese and their replacement with reliable Muslim felahin from Egypt. Few of them are told that the genocidal Ibrahim Pasha was actually Greek and in particular of the Macedonian variety, born in Drama to a repudiated Greek woman who found herself in the harem of Mehmet Ali, the first khedive of Egypt. Indeed, Greek historiography tends to gloss over the doings of those of its sons that embraced the lifestyle and religion of their oppressors, rather than either stoically bear the brunt of their conquering and oppressive bent (acceptable but not desirable), or break out in armed, heroic resistance (ultra-admirable).

Yet the history of the Ottoman Empire and indeed the key to its longevity and success lay in its ability to harness the expertise and talents of people of diverse ethnic backgrounds in governance, diplomacy, economics and the military. It was in religion, rather than ethnicity that discrimination was made manifest, often in horrific ways. As a result, a large number of Greeks who adopted the religion of their oppressors were able to catapult themselves to the highest echelons of Ottoman society.
One of the most successful and yet least known among the Greeks was Pargali Ibrahim Pasha also known as Frenk Ibrahim Pasha (the "Westerner"), owing to his tastes and manners which inclined towards the occidental, Makbul Ibrahim Pasha ("the Favorite"), and after his ignominious fall, under the soubriquet Maktul Ibrahim Pasha ("the Executed"). The first Grand Vizier appointed by Sultan Suleiman the Magnficent, in 1523, he attained a level of authority and influence rivalled by only a handful of other Grand Viziers of the Empire, and his name became a byword for ruthless administration and absolute power.
Ibrahim was born a Greek Christian in the seaside town of Parga, Epirus. The son of a Pargan sailor, as a child he was carried off by pirates and sold a slave to the Ottoman palace for future sultans situated in Magnesia, in Western Asia Minor. There he was befriended by Suleiman who was of the same age, and later, upon Suleiman's accession, was awarded various posts, the first being falconer to the Sultan. He was so rapidly promoted that at one point he begged Suleiman to not promote him too rapidly for fear of arousing jealousy. Pleased with this display of modesty, Suleiman purportedly swore that he would never be put to death during his reign, a most gracious concession. Further cementing his ties with the Sultan, Ibrahim was permitted to married Suleyman's sister, unprecedented honour, after which he was to add the title "bridegroom to the Ottoman dynasty" (Damat), to his name, increasing his long list of aliases.
Although he had long since converted into Islam, despite his meteoric rise, he maintained some ties to his Christian roots, even bringing his Greek parents to live with him in the Ottoman capital. He housed them in a magnificent palace still standing in Constantinople, which now houses the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum. Constructed according to a design which is unmistakably defensive in concept, his palace is the only residence built by someone outside the Ottoman dynasty that deserves to be designated as a palace.

Ibrahim's main significance lies within his dextrous diplomatic handling of Western Christendom. Portraying himself as the real power behind the Ottoman Empire, Ibrahim used a variety of tactics to negotiate favorable deals with the leaders of the Catholic powers, causing Venetian diplomatsto divest Suleiman of his soubriquet and confer it upon Ibrahim as "Ibrahim the Magnificent." In 1533, Ibrahim convinced Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to turn Hungary into an Ottoman vassal state. In 1535, he completed a monumental agreement with Francis I that gave France favorable trade rights within the Ottoman empire in exchange for joint action against the Austrian Habsburgs. This agreement would set the stage for joint Franco-Ottoman manoeuvres, including the basing of the entire Ottoman fleet in Toulon during the winter of 1543.

A skilled commander of the Ottoman army, Ibrahim Pasha eventually fell from grace after an imprudence committed during a campaign against the Persian empire, when he awarded himself a title serasker sultan, ie sultan of the army, was seen as a grave affront to his insecure master Suleiman. This incident launched a series of events which culminated in his execution in 1536, thirteen years after having been promoted as Grand Vizier. It has also been suggested by a number of sources that Ibrahim Pasha had been a victim of the Sultan's Ukrainian wife Roxelana's rising influence on the sovereign, especially in view of his past support for the cause of Sehzade Mustafa, Suleiman I's first son and heir to the throne, who was later strangled to death by his father on 6 October 1553, through a series of plots put in motion by Roxelana, who was anxious to have on e of her sons ascend the Ottoman throne.

Since Suleiman had sworn not to take Ibrahim's life during his reign, he acquired a fetva or religious ruling, from the Şeyhülislam, the highest ranked Muslim cleric, which permitted him to take back the oath by building a mosque in Constantinople. He announced the fetva one week before Ibrahim's execution in 1536 and dined alone with him seven times before the final move, so to give his life-long friend a chance to flee the country or to take the sultan's own life. It was later discovered in Ibrahim's letters that he was perfectly aware of the situation but nevertheless decided to stay true to Suleiman.

Suleiman later greatly regretted Ibrahim's execution and his character changed dramatically, to the point where he became completely secluded from the daily work of governing. His regrets are reflected in his poems, in which even after twenty years he continually stresses topics of friendship and of love and trust between friends and often hints on character traits similar to Ibrahim's.

History is littered with the names of a multitude of other Greeks who achieved the pinnacle of power within an Islamic context. Some of them, unlike Ibrahim, were ultimately successful. Mustapha Khaznadar, born as Georgios Kalkias Stravelakis in Chios in 1817 was captured along with his brother during the Chios massacre and sold into slavery. He was then taken to Constantinople, where he was sold as a slave to an envoy of the Husainid dynasty who were Beys of Tunis and of Cretan origin.

Stravelakis converted to Islam, adopting the name Mustafa and was raised in the Bey's family. Initially, he worked as Crown prince Ahmad I's private treasurer before becoming State treasurer (khaznadar). He managed to climb to the highest offices of the Tunisian state and married Princess Lalla Kalthoum in 1839 and was promoted to lieutenant-general of the army, made bey in 1840 and then president of the Grand Council from 1862 to 1878. In 1864, as Prime Minister he suppressed a peasant uprising that threatened to overthrow his regime through a combination of brutality and guile. He is held to be one of the most significant figures in Tunisian history.

Much like Ibrahim, Mustafa Khaznadar retained memories of his Greek origin and contact with his native Greece, even sending ten thousand riyals from the state treasury to pay for his two Greek Orthodox nephews he was educating in Paris. It appears that to these converts, the adoption of Islam was a mere prerequisite for social mobility and did not in any way derogate from their ethnic origins, though it did serve to alienate them from Christian society. Having transcended this social glass ceiling, and though they do not loom large in our consciousness and in a nationalistic narrative that obscures them owing to their not neatly fitting into a preconceived understand of identity, they went on to carve remarkable careers whose effects are still felt in diverse countries throughout the world and deserve closer scrutiny.


First published in NKEE on 21 April 2012

Saturday, April 14, 2012


"Hopefully it will be the last death of an innocent citizen. I hope the rest (of the deaths) will be of political traitors.," Thus read a portion of the suicide note penned by the seventy seven year old retired pharmacist of Athens, Dimitris Christoulas. Moments later, he shot himself with a handgun, behind a tree, in Syntagma Square. Christoulas was not, as Greek Prime Minister Koryzis, or writer Penelope Delta had before him in 1941, taken his own life in order to protest the occupation and subjugation of his country to foreign aggression. Yet the fate of these individuals must not have been far from the deceased's mind, for in his suicide note, he likened Greece's current crisis to the deep poverty the country suffered during the World War II German occupation. "I have no other way to react apart from finding a dignified end before I start sifting through garbage for food," Christoulas confided, as he faced the prospect of his pension, one that he had worked towards all his life, being cut to a pittance, as a result of the austere financial measures imposed upon Greece by the International Monetary Fund. It is for this reason that the unfortunate Christoulas shouted: "So I don't leave any debts to my children."
The shocking suicide of Christoulas is not just about economics. A man possessed of left-leaning political persuasions, he witnessed the implosion and ultimate bankruptcy of a system he believed in, revealing to him at least, only the knowledge of the apparent venality, corruption and greed of an entire society. It was too much to bear and just before Easter, the appointed time when the Greek people ready themselves to celebrate the resurrection of the Theanthropos, in whom salvation is embodied, this poor, desperate man saw no salvation and no way out, ending his life before the eyes of commuters and passersby. Nothing could be a more poignant or stark expression of the emotional as well as financial cul-de-sac much of the Greek populace finds itself in.
"This was a symbolic suicide. If it hadn't happened here, in the square, in front of parliament, no one would notice," said one bystander, who heard the shots from across the square and his comments are particularly apt. The social impact of the Greek crisis is vast. Suicide rates have jumped. In one notable case last September, a Greek man in his 50s who was struggling with his debts attempted suicide in front of a bank branch in the northern city of Thessaloniki by setting himself on fire. More recently, in February, a married couple working at a state agency faced with closure as part of the country's budget cuts, threatened to jump off the second story of a building in downtown Athens before being talked down by police.
One would think that acts of this extremity would give Greek politicians pause for consideration. Certainly Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, in his message responding to Christoulas' suicide, wherein he described the incident as "tragic" and called on the state and citizens to "support those next to us in desperation," proves in the least that the suicide had some sort of emotional impact. Nonetheless, it is doubtful whether this horrific act will cause his colleagues to reconsider their role as parliamentarians as being one of representatives of the people rather than time-servers and venal nest-featherers. Proof of this ostensibly harsh view, can be provided in the form of the actions of two Greek politicians from the PASOK party, who revealingly and inexplicably poured the bile of biting cynicism over the corpse of the hapless Christoulas.
Former Defense Minister Panos Beglitis and master of discrete and considerate behaviour brutally commented on Skai TV: "We cannot arbitrarily connect the suicide with the economic situation of the country. Besides, we cannot know if he had debts or not, or if he 'ate' (spent) his money or if it was his children who did it." Hardly had the populace's outrage cooled, when his colleague, also from the PASOK party, Paris Koukoulopoulos and deputy Interior Minister, claimed, also on SKAI TV, which appears to get all the controversial scoops, that "No retired pharmacist would ever seek food in the garbage." Koukoulopoulos, not content with belittling the tragedy, went even further and made a horridly callous connection between the suicide and the pharmaceutical expenditure:"Had he a different approach, he could very well have helped us to find out how the public pharmaceutical expenditure rose from 4 billion euro in 2004 up to 9 billion euro within a few years."
Here in Australia, we understand that our politicians do not always tell the truth, though we expect them to do so. However, we do expect that they behave in a decent, compassionate and understanding manner towards the electorate at all times and when they fall short of this basic standard of expectation, they are castigated by the media and the public alike. Somewhere along the line, the Greek politicians, of all sides of the political spectrum, many of whom founded their parties or rose to prominence in the name of democracy and equality after the fall of the Junta, have come to believe that they have a God-given right to rule Greece, without reference to the wants and needs of the people whose interests they were elected to further. As a comfortable and complacent ruling class, many seem to think they are absolved of the need to observe the rules of basic human propriety. It is here more than anywhere else that we can witness if not the root, then at least the pernicious runners and rhizomes of the social catastrophe afflicting Greece today - many of its politicians have not, and do not care about their constituents, let alone the country as a whole.
Thankfully, the Greek people, who up until the present have not exhibited a coherent and organised manner of taking such chillingly indifferent and arrogant politicians to task save for violent rampages in the city centre which, apart from causing damage to private property are largely ineffectual and do not challenge the corrupt rule of politicians in any way, are finally finding ingenious ways of planting their aggrieved boots in said politicians' political groin region. In Kiato, beastly Beglitis' hometown, the good townsfolk, shocked that a son of theirs could behave in such a heinous fashion, pulled down the banners and posters displayed outside his office. For good measure, they also did the same to the rival New Democracy candidate in the region, warning both of them not to launch their campaigns for the upcoming election from their town. A small gesture, yet one that sends the message that the people are reaching the limits of their tolerance.
Ultimately, Christoulas' death is a tragedy, not only because his personal circumstances caused him to commit one of the most calamitous acts possible, but because save for those in like circumstances who sympathise, his tragic plea for attention to those who have the power to listen and act has fallen on ears stuffed with the cotton wool of indolence and self-satisfaction. Surely the populace with rampage in the streets for a while longer znd then a new suicide, or further austerity measure will divert their attention to yet another hurt, while Christoulas' family is left alone to mourn his loss. Ultimately, the tragedy lies in the fact that Greek society cannot mourn the man, only the symbol, and even that status is disputed.
When Greece eventually extricates itself painfully from the quagmire it has made for itself, it will not be able to ensure that it does not fall into it again, unless a full and exhaustive inquiry is made into the conduct of its politicians for the past twenty years and appropriate sanctions are meted out for wrong-doing. Further, a revised code of conduct and an independent body must be set up to monitor the behaviour of elected representatives, thus ensuring the integrity of a system that has been permitted to corrode into a rusty parody of the democracy it was supposed to be.
Is Greece capable of such an innovation? If one is to judge by the fact that Russian President Putin's request to visit Mount Athos during Easter this year was declined by the Greek government on the grounds that security staff and relevant officials would be unavailable during this time, then one is justified in raising the eyebrow of incredulity.
Nonetheless, the gentle reader can be reassured that the Greek political parties are not entirely bereft of boldness of endeavour. Already members of the Greek community in Australia are preparing to travel to Greece to vote in the upcoming elections. Their tickets of course, are being partially subsidized by the political parties for whom they are expected to vote. For it is logical that while the requisite funds do not exist to grant Greek pensioners dignity in their old age, funds do exist for the buying of votes.
Let us bury the departed Dimitris Christoulas with the dignity he was denied in the twilight of his life. And then let us consider persuading the unsmiling evzones guarding the tomb of the Unkown Soldier below parliament, to apply their bayonets to fundamental orifices of the hot air blowers above them, to beneficial effect. Καλή Ανάσταση.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 April 2012

Saturday, April 07, 2012


«΄Ηρθ'ο Λάζαρος, ήρθαν τα Βάγια, ήρθεν κι ο Χριστός από την Βηθανία...» goes the Epirot Palm Sunday carol. It is interesting that popular folklore preserves the association between the Feast of Palm Sunday, commemorating Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the Resurrection of Lazarus as these two feasts are inextricably and theologically linked. In times ancient, they were celebrated together as the commencement of Passion Week. Later, this was considered incompatible with the triumphant and exhalted character of these feasts and thus, they took on a nature of their own. By the fourth century, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem had developed its own elaborate festive observances, consisting of the Patriarch riding upon a donkey as Christ did before him, from the Mount of Olives, into Jerusalem. The populace walked before him, holding palm leaves in their hands.While this custom gradually fell into disuse, it had its successor in the Imperial pageantry of Byzantium. On Palm Sunday, the "walk of the Emperor" would take place, where amid much pomp and circumstance, the Emperor would emerge from his palace and in triumphant procession, walk to Saint Sophia, while his lambadarios would chant the kontakion of the feast: "Sitting on Thy throne in heaven, carried on a foal on earth, O Christ God! Accept the praise of angels and the songs of children, who sing: Blessed is He that comes to recall Adam!" Apparently, as the representative of God on earth, the excessively elaborate ceremonies of the Emperor, though far removed from the humility and simplicity of Christ's own triumphal entry into Jerusalem, is supposed to at least somehow, remind us of the majesty and vast importance of that historical event.These days, all that has remained of these customs is the traditional adornment of churches in palm fronds, olive branches and inexplicably, bay leaf branches, significant in pagan Greek worship and symbolism and quite possibly a cultural remnant of that age. Interestingly enough, the feast is not known as Palm Sunday in Greek but as Bay-leaf Sunday. Traditionally, teams of village children, carrying a cross made of laurel wood, would scour the village to collect laurel branches and bring them to the church. They would do so, all the while singing: «Βάγια, βάγια του βαγιού, τρώε ψάρι και κολιό και την άλλη Κυριακή, τρώνε κόκκινο αυγό». Upon their arrival at the church, goodies in tow, the church bell would peal happily and the blessing of the bay leaves would be conducted. Popular belief held that bay leaves blessed on Palm Sunday and later burnt could restore health to those that had fallen sick due to the Evil Eye or safeguard the health of farm animals. In Russia on the other hand, where palm fronds are not readily available, willow branches and pussy willows are substituted and given how seriously the Russians have traditionally taken their festivals, this is not to be smirked at, try as we might. Another custom, more enduring and in fitting with the triumphant nature of the festival in the midst of the penitential atmosphere of Lent is the eating of fish. Indeed, this is considered in the popular culture to be so integral to the observance of the feast, that it has given rise to the saying: «Αν δε φας ψάρι, πρέπει να γλείψεις ένα ψαροκόκκαλο.»
However, there is an interpretation of Canon LXIX of the 85 Canons of the Holy Apostles which states: "Note that during all the forty days of Great Lent, fish is allowed by the Church but once, and that is only on the feast day of the Annunciation, as is ordained in the manuscript Rituals kept on the Holy Mountain. Hence it is evident that it has been a more modern hand that has written into the printed Rituals and into the Triodia that we may eat fish also on the feast day of the Palms. Besides, even Nicholas the Patriarch in his stichs (or verses) allowed the eating of fish only on the feast of the Annunciation. Wherefore, when we learn this fact, let us follow the forms of the saints, and not the modernities of the heretics, who yield obedience to the dictates of their bellies."

Tradition and custom notwithstanding, Palm Sunday and the Resurrection of Lazarus are of inordinate importance to the Orthodox Church for a number of reasons. The Resurrection of Lazarus has profound Christological significance. It is celebrated by the Church, as St Cyril of Alexandria tell us, as an assurance of the general resurrection of the dead at the end of days. Therefore, in the apolytikion in the feast, the faithful sing triumphantly: "Giving us before Thy Passion an assurance of the general resurrection, Thou has raised Lazarus from the dead, O Christ our God." Of course, there is a fundamental difference between the resurrection of Lazarus and the resurrection of mankind after the Second coming of Christ. After his resurrection, Lazarus retained the body with which he had died, with all the characteristic features of corruptibility and morality, whereas the Church teaches that in the general resurrection, when the bodies will be raised, they will be spiritual and not subject to corruption. Nikos Kazantzakis in his book "The Last Temptation of Christ," presents Lazarus after his resurrection as a re-animated corpse. Though unsound theologically, it certainly is a powerful and interesting literary exploration of the feast.Most importantly, in the Resurrection of Lazarus, we see the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, God and Man clearly exemplified. St John the Evangelist records that Christ, as man, wept at the death of Lazarus, his good friend. In particular, he "groaned and was troubled." Thus, his human aspect suffered. St Cyril of Alexandria maintains that since Christ is not only God by nature but also man, his human nature must suffer. While Christ begins to be moved to that grief which brings tears, he somehow reprimands his flesh by the energy and power of the Holy Spirit. Given that Christ, as God-man is omniscient, his questioning others as to the whereabouts of Lazarus' tomb can only be interpreted as a manifestation of his total self-emptying and humility. Of course, his raising of Lazarus four days after his death and total healing of his decomposing body is an exemplar of the divine aspect of Christ and this, so that, as St Andreas of Crete holds, his contemporaries had to believe that he who has the power to raise someone dead for four days, has the power to raise himself in three days. His divine command "Loose him and let him go," is indicative of man's deliverance from the decay of sin at the general resurrection of the dead.Palm Sunday, the Triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem on the other hand, is celebrated as a triumphant fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy of Zachariah who wrote: "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth." Indeed Christ did enter Jerusalem on a colt of a donkey, in absolute humility. St Epiphanios of Cyprus tells us that Christs' humility is not an artificial outward virtue but an expression of his love and simplicity. Various fathers of the Church interpet Christ's sitting on a donkey or colt of a donkey in various ways. Euthymios Zygavinos says that Christ sat on a colt, representing the Gentiles while the donkey, representing the Jews followed behind, symbolising the Gentiles' receptivity to Christ as compared with the Jews, who will come to Christ much later. St Gregory Palamas attributes it to the prophecy of Jacob, who said: "binding his donkey to the vine and his donkey's colt to the choice vine." Christ is the vine, his disciples the choice vine and the colt, the Church. Later on in the Gospel narrative, Christ commands his disciples to release the colt, symbolic of a release of man's sins through Christ.The joy of the populace at the entry of Christ into Jerusalem was unbounded and provoked by the miracle of the raising of Lazarus. They shouted: "Hosanna in the highest" pointing to the lofty nature of the god-head and "Hosanna! (Save us) Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" pointing to his humanity. In particular, babes in arms and children sang his praises, indicating as St Gregory Palamas and Cyril of Alexandria wrote, the childlike simplicity of soul that is necessary for each believer that would experience the uncreated energy of the divinity. It is for this reason that St Cyril exhorts Christians not only to hold palms in their hands but to possess the palms of their souls ie. divest themselves of pride and conceit and lay these at Christ's feet and this is the symbolism of the waving and casting of palm branches at Christ's feet during his entry into Jerusalem.My parish priest likes to point out that those same people that wildly acclaimed Christ during his entry into Jerusalem, were those who in a few days would demand his execution. There is much to be said for this. However, there is something special in seeing young children flock to church every year, some barely able to pronounce the word «Χριστούλης» but all clutching their palm leaf cross or bay leaf, their stomachs rumbling at the fish lunch that is to follow. Blessed bay leaves still adorn the iconostasis of many Greek homes in Melbourne year around and there is nothing more touching than seeing teenagers reverently placing bay leaves at their grandparents' graves after church, or taking them to their ailing grandparents in their homes. While burning cannot offer us much protection, we safeguard our increasingly brittle bay leaves throughout the trials and tribulations of the year that will follow, knowing that while the raising of Lazarus and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem point to hope for the general resurrection and the entrance of Christ into the pure heart of man and are thus primarily internal festivals, the shadow of Hades still looms around the kontakia we can no longer understand and the tombstones of our departed ancestors, that we can no longer read. Καλή ανάσταση.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 7 April 2012