In Travel

Khristós Anésti, Lamb’s Head, and the Beginning of Pascha


(Click here for part one of Greekster.)

The second night of Greekster embodied the saying, “Hurry up and wait.”

We arrived for dinner at the Melanie’s parents’ around 7 p.m., ate a typically delicious meal of grilled chicken, potatoes and asparagus, and proceeded to argue over which movie to watch until it was time to leave for mass at about 11:00 p.m. Just like the day before, we were again planning to arrive late. Some Greeks, I’m discovering, have decided there are portions of service worthy of their time and presence, and other moments are simply like watching the same movie over again.

First we watched the 16th President of the United States slay confederate vampires with an axe. This is a film I’m not making up. We then opted to spend $6 renting KILLING THEM SOFTLY, which was quickly vetoed after a scene with a gentleman describing the dangers of having sex with a dog. “They might nip you in the junk,” was the gist of the concern. So finally we landed on the end of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, a film I really enjoyed but wasn’t able to get my co-viewers to wrap their head around.

“This is stupid. A monkey just talked,” was the gist of Melanie’s critique.

Point is, Greekster night two began in a very Greekster-less fashion.

We successfully arrived 20 minutes late for service, dropping in a few more bucks up front for more candles. This went against Melanie’s father’s wish to simply reuse the candles from the night prior.

“They”ll be exactly the same!” he insisted.

“We are not bringing in those candles,” his wife and Melanie’s mother said in a terse denial.

Slightly different from the night before, we dropped a couple more bucks for more candles, these ones long and slender. We then approached a mantle in between some of the icons I awkwardly avoided kissing the night before (an act I repeated on this particular evening). The mantle was covered in sand with the very same candles resting with a lit flame. We simply lit our own candles off the existing flame, and dug them in alongside. As inquisitive as I had been the night before, you’d think I would have asked what this act represented. I think I ultimately decided that lighting candles next to one another is a common religious practice across the globe. In fact, I’m fairly certain I did the same thing at a Tibetan Buddhist temple in both southern Ohio and Northern India. Maybe that’s why I like it. It’s one of the few aspects of religion that people universally agree on. That is, lighting candles is pretty neat and the God(s) look kindly on the practice.

Inside we were easily able to grab a seat. Though still a large crowd, not as many had come out for the resurrection of Christ as the funeral.

Service itself was short. At least what we stayed for. The priests chanted a bit as the hour ticked closer to midnight. Father Jim read a letter from the Metropolitan in Pittsburgh (Greek archbishop, basically), and began preparations for celebrating the resurrection. This included turning the lights off as altar boys worked their way down the aisles to light our candles. Everyone (except me, of course) sung Khristós Anésti (Christ Has Risen), making crosses at times everyone understood (again, except for me). Father Jim worked his way down to the back of the church to chant some more passages before hiking back up to the altar to announce “Khristós Anésti!” as the church bells rang out in celebratory fashion. In unison, the church replied, “Alithós Anésti!” or “Truly, He has risen.”

I actually understood the cue from Father Jim and nailed my line. Proud of myself for accomplishing an act a decently trained chimp could mimic, I immediately looked over to Melanie for approval, smiling as if I had just nailed the soliloquy in Hamlet. Turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, I was the only one seeking praise for knowing how to respond to a common Greek phrase in a Greek Orthodox church.

With that, the lights kicked back on. Behind us standing alongside the walls were Melanie’s thea and cousins. I emphasize “were,” because they were out the door before Father Jim could continue service. The only thing missing was the cartoonish cloud of dust escaping from under their heels.

Little did I know, however, we would be right behind them. Strategizing a polite exit, we waited for Father JIm to turn his back to the congregation. At least we were respectful in our nonverbal statement that, “We’re tired and would prefer staring at a severed lamb’s head than listen to your liturgy.”

Next we made for the home of another relative in the clan to enjoy salad, avgolemono soup, bread, wine, and how could anyone forget, lamb’s head.

Melanie had prepped me for the eating of the lamb’s head. Traditionally, this is in remembrance of those who broke their fast back in ancient times. For reasons unbeknownst to us, the Greeks of old started with the worst part of the lamb. Today, we honor this weirdness by plopping a cooked lamb’s head on a plate for nobody to enjoy.

I tried a piece of the jaw. It ultimately tasted fine, but nothing I’d fight anyone over. Uncle Tony, meanwhile, dined on the tongue, putting it in his mouth and pretending to lick the now-removed lamb’s brain. Though Melanie had seemingly hoped I would be chased around and pestered to eat the brain, eyes or tongue in some sort of fraternity-esque hazing, I rest assured that everyone would chase after whoever seemed more grossed out. All agreed that would be Melanie, who ended up doing a few laps to escape one of the eyes before her cousin decided he would have a more desired effect on Melanie’s disgust by simply eating the eye in front of her. He was right, and Melanie collapsed onto a nearby couch with pillows to protect her from mischievous teenagers.

With Greekster night two drawing to an end, we said goodnight and shuffled off to the car for a late drive home. It was about 1:30 a.m. at this point, around the same time the liturgy was just finishing. This, everyone agreed, is an area the Greek Orthodox church could stand modernizing a bit on.

Naturally I fell asleep during the 20 minute ride home, waking only to drag myself to the apartment, rip my clothes off, and fall into bed slightly after 2 a.m — an hour I see with increasingly less frequency as my time away from college grows.

In all, I enjoyed this evening’s service more. Contrary to the previous night, everyone kept their mouths shut for a majority of the proceedings, allowing me to truly understand and take in what was going on. Ironic, to me, that worshippers would be more chatty at the funeral of Christ, but embrace a more somber tone in his resurrection. Regardless, the singing of “Khristós Anésti” combined with the church bells, and candle lit church was probably one of the most beautiful and inspiring of religious ceremonies I’ve ever partaken in, which I think is a pretty nice compliment coming from someone who has attended more Buddhist ceremonies than anything else. If there’s a major religion that has nailed the ambiance factor, it’s Buddhism.

My only letdown was the absence of Elwood the Greekster Dragon, who Melanie promised would make an appearance in the evening’s festivities. But I guess you can’t expect day-old holiday mascots to pop up at a moment’s notice. Maybe next year.

Khristós Anésti to all! And to all a good Pascha!

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