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An atheist at Greek Easter

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The paradox. I do not believe in god, yet I can never escape him on Πάσχα, Pascha, Pesach or Easter. The bombing of a Coptic church in Egypt last week on Palm Sunday is one more sectarian atrocity in the Middle East. However, the considered silence from much of the Left as Christians burn in the Middle East angers me.

As Samuel Tardos writes in The Atlantic: “In recent years, Copts, who constitute more than half of all Christians in the Middle East, have been setting the grisliest of records, with each new attack claiming more victims than the one before.

“ISIS claimed credit for the recent bombings. Following its bombing in December of the Coptic Cathedral complex in Cairo, the group released a message promising “more to come for the “worshipers of the cross” the group’s name for the Copts.”

The absurdity of the anti-Orientalist Right such as Andrew Bolt howling against Islam in defence of Christians in the Middle East is an absurdity only because much of the Left in the West has been callipered intellectually by the post-colonial studies’ colour-by-numbers hierarchy of oppression. In the post-colonial fantasy Christian means ‘white’ and is equated with Western Colonialism, regardless of the fact that Christianity is the second monotheist tradition emanating from Judaism, another ancient Middle Eastern faith.

Jesus by all accounts was a swarthy Jew and spoke Aramaic. The Copts, a strain of orthodoxy, have been in the Middle East, since the ‘son of man’ died at the hands of the Romans 2000 years ago. Egypt, Syria, Ethiopia, Iraq, Asia Minor, now Turkey, were Christian and not ‘white’, at least 800 years before Western Christianity and the birth of Islam.

Oriental Christians, Orthodox and Copts, are ignored in the ‘post-colonial dialogue’ where a fuzzy idea of Christianity as being a handmaiden to Western colonialism takes hold. The Crusaders, Frankish, English and Saxon Christians killed Middle Eastern Christians, Jews and Muslims and sacked Constantinople, the citadel of Christianity, in 1204.

On Saturday night, just before midnight I will again, as an atheist, attend a Greek Orthodox church for the faith’s most important mass. I like many other Orthodox will arrive just in time, with a long candle and foil windbreaker to receive the ‘holy light’, all the way from Jerusalem — or Constantinople — I’m not sure.

At midnight we’ll join voices in a Byzantine chant to sing ‘Christos Anesti’ or ‘Christ has Risen’. There will be complaints from residents about noise, the traffic jams, and the foreignness of it all.

We will try to keep the flame alight all the way home as we drive home. For ‘good luck’ I’ll burn a cross on the underside of the doorframe, over a palimpsest of sooty crucifixes from previous years.

Many have fasted for the previous 40 days – no meat, milk, no oil, or eggs – preparing to break their fast after the Christ rises. I do not fast however I do feel a tinge of guilt when I eat meat, so I try not to.

With family and friends, we will sit after midnight to eat avgolemono soup (egg and lemon soup) in which we substitute traditional tripe with chicken. We compete at breaking each other’s red-dyed eggs, drink wine then eat halva, koulouria and sweet Easter bread.

On Sunday, smoke from charcoal spits will climb from across backyards in Melbourne as Greeks feast on Passover’s slaughtered lambs.

Why does an atheist, a rationalist, do this? For tradition, culture and family. But also to tear the fabric of contemporary life for a moment in time. It is a beautiful ceremony; mystical, weighty with cantors’ voices, incense, echoes and murmurs, in an ecclesia that has remained unchanged for at least 1500 years. Whether one enters a Greek Orthodox church in Melbourne or Athens, in a Peloponnesian village or Constantinople (Istanbul) it is the same scene.

This Pascha I will reflect on one of the greatest literary works of the 20th Century, Christ Recrucified by Nikos Kazantzakis, written in 1948, a year before the bloody Greek Civil War between communists and royalists ended. Kazantzakis is best known in the English speaking world for Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ. He was fascinated with Buddha who taught no fear, Jesus who was ambivalent, Lenin who he saw as a “red Jesus” and Nietzsche.

The novel Christ Recrucified is set in a village in the interior of Anatolia, Lykovrissi shortly before the Greeks’ defeat at the hands of the Turks in 1922. It evokes the author’s experience of growing up in Crete at a time when Greek and Turk, Christian and Muslim, lived together in harmony.

Kazantzakis was born when Crete was still in the Ottoman Empire, (a colonial epoch outside the post-colonial narrative); the nascent Modern Greek state had existed a mere 50 years. A nationalist Greece decided to invade Turkey on an irredentist whim to create a Greater Greece.

The Great Idea, as it was called, became the Great Catastrophe, resulting in the burning of Smyrna by the Turks, death marches, mass rapes, starvation and expulsion of 1.2 million Greeks from Anatolia, which was to become Modern Turkey. It was the final end to the continuous and ancient relationship of Greeks with Asia Minor and Christians with Turkey.

In Christ Recrucified a group of Greek refugees from the war between Greeks and Turks arrive as the people of the village prepare themselves to act as Gospel characters in the village’s Passion Play for the following year’s Easter.

Grigoris, the village priest denies the refugees shelter for fear of cholera. Instead, he sends them and Fotis, a priest, to starve on the mountain of Sarakina. Fotis becomes a ‘gunpowder priest’, a radical who builds a guerrilla base n the mountains along with the refugees who then seek to enter Lykovrissi.

Kazantzakis book echoes the Jews fighting against the Romans, the Communists fighting against the aristocrats, or the Greeks fighting against the Turks.

The area’s governor, the Turkish Agha, a hedonist with a penchant for boys, becomes Pontius Pilate the Roman. He is absolutely confused by the antics of the Greeks he governs and cannot understand the enmities between them. At one point he says, “the Greeks would put horseshoes onto fleas”.

Manolios, a poor shepherd becomes Christ and is gradually regarded with suspicion by the village elders, the Pharisees, as a ‘Bolshevik’ in support of Fotis and his refugees. Over the course of the action, Manolios offers his life to save the village from the wrath of the Agha following the murder of his favourite boy, Yousouffaki.

Katerina the prostitute, who plays Mary Magdalene, sacrifices her life instead after claiming responsibility for a crime that she did not commit. Manolios then inspires others to leave their possessions and join him in a life of prayer and seclusion. But the mob, headed by Panayotaros, who plays Judas who is inconsolable over then death of Katerina whom he love, and kills Manolios on Christmas Eve.

The refugees resume their flight, led by Father Fotis, who finally reflects: “When will you be born, my Christ, and not be crucified any more, but live among us for eternity?”

Kazantzakis’ Christ Recrucified reflects his disillusionment with Communism as the bodies piled up in the Greek Civil War (1945-1949). He was appalled by the lies of the Church and its collusion with the State. He saw Jesus as very human, full of doubt.

Kazantzakis was eventually excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church because of his later book The Last Temptation of Christ, was considered “offensive” by both Catholics and the Greek Orthodox.

Like Fotis, the gunpowder priest and like Kazantzakis, I will ask how many more Jesuses should we martyr on a daily basis and where do we situate them in the hierarchy of oppression?

5 responses to “An atheist at Greek Easter

  1. Martinu’s arresting opera was based on that novel. It might have been worthwhile to mention that.

    JJ Carmody.

  2. Thanks for a great read and reminding me to get back to Kazantzakis.
    In the ’70’s, I attended a Greek Orthodox Easter in Newtown, Sydney with Greek friends; starting with midnight mass and walking back home keeping the candle alight, making the sign of the cross and breaking the fast with the traditional meal; we had kokoretsi not chicken in the soup and all the other lovely things you describe.
    I was and remain an atheist, but this night is among the best memories of my life.

  3. Fotis Kapetopoulos needs to be a little more accurate with his historical references, otherwise he may be accused of “protesting too much”.
    The Coptic (Egyptian) branch of the Christian Church developed, as did many other branches, during the spread of the “message of Jesus” during the first century A.D. It is false to say that it was around at the time of the historical death of Jesus and, further, to say that it existed 800 years before Western Christianity and Islam.
    Islam developed and quite rapidly spread during the 6th century in the Middle East and there were Christian and other religious influences, e.g. through the Greek and Roman heritages, well before 800 years after the life of Jesus. Whilst there was a handful of Middle Eastern countries, as quoted by Fotis as being “non-white” and “Christian”, these were hardly the established religious presence in these countries and in the entire Middle East.
    Historical fact should not be held hostage to enthusiasm for argument or personal situation placed in a universal context.

    1. Robert, you need to be a little bit generous here. Of course there were no Christians around the time of jesus (if he ever existed). Stating that coptics were around the first century implies they were there from pretty much the beginning. And it is also not inaccurate to state Christianity was present in the middle east prior to Islam and it was not white. Being pedantic has merit in some contexts, this is not one of them.

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