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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter Bonfires

Back in 1975, we found ourselves in Greece in April and as we approached Easter, travel schedules, excursions, and visitor attractions were all shutting down. Our disappointment disappeared when we were told that if we wished to truly experience the celebration of a Greek Orthodox Easter - the most significant observance of the Orthodox faith -we should find our way to the island of Crete.

We took a ferry and on Good Friday morning in Crete’s main city, Heraklion, we were awakened by the reverberating sound of the loud bell from a church just next door to us. That church bell continued to slowly toll the whole day and it added drama to the solemn reenactment of the tragic crucifixion of Christ. There were street processions of life-sized effigies from the churches - and the black clad mourners with candles who followed them.

On Saturday, again following a suggestion, we drove east to Agios Nikolas, which turned out to be a small fishing town clinging to the steep coastline. After dinner and a snooze - as instructed - we headed up the hill in the dark to a small village at the top. We found it to be alive with people flocking through the narrow gate to the walled space where the church stood. Feeling like the tourist voyeurs that we were, we slipped past those being blessed by the priest as they entered and followed the crowd to the huge pile of wood in the back courtyard.

On the stroke of midnight, in celebration of Christ's resurrection the roar of cannons being fired below in Agios fairly shook the ground. Then we saw the priest caming out of the church with a candle lit from the alter. With it, he first lit the bonfire and, while candles were passed out, he started lighting them, and they in turn lit others and soon the whole courtyard was filled with the warmth and radiance of the flames.

What happened next was very meaningful. One after another, everyone was blessed again as they left to walk down the road to their homes. There they lit fires in their own hearths with the blessed candle flame. During the forty days of lent when the faithful ate no meat, the hearth had been dark and cold. To celebrate on Easter, they ate lamb, roasted on a spit in their newly rekindled fires.

Since pagan times, symbolism has always played a big part in celebrating the coming of spring after the vernal equinox. Rabbits are a part Easter because they are a symbol of fertility and eggs, the source from which new life springs.

Religious or not – for those of us in northern climes, the coming of spring is a time to rejoice and to revel in anticipation of the wonderful renewal that comes with it as our part of the earth tips toward the sun and, for the whole season, we are blessed with it’s glorious light and warmth. Rie

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