Experiencing the Acceptance of Death: A Visit to the Holy Thursday Evening Mass

When you walk from the Monument of Lysicrates towards the Acropolis, you take a small street called Epimenidou. Most people just stroll straight past it: but on your left, you will find a small church that due to its white colour merges into its architectural surroundings. This 17th-century Greek Orthodox Church is dedicated to Saint Demetrius. The plaque at the entrance tells us remarkably enough that Athanasios Diakos, the national hero of the Greek Revolution (1821-1832), served in this church.

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Entrance of the Church of St Demetrius (Epimenidou 5-7, Athens)

The last eight days, Orthodox Athens has celebrated the Holy Week, from the Saturday of Lazarus to the celebration of Pascha. We visit the church on Holy Thursday to attend the evening mass at 7 pm. Upon entering, we find ourselves in a dark space faintly lit by numerous candles and surrounded by people making the sign of the cross while kissing the icons of Saint Demetrius and Virgin Mary. They listen to the priests reading aloud the liturgy of Holy Thursday that is marked by two significant events: the Last Supper of Christ with his disciples and the betrayal by Judas Iscariot. Anticipating the Matins on Good Friday, the Twelve Gospels (twelve passages from the four evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are read: the accounts of Christ’s trial, suffering, and death.

IMG_20180405_191430(1)Plaque at the entrance of the church with the text: “In this church of St Demetrius Athanasios Diakos ministered”

The climax of the Thursday service is the procession of the Crucifix, after the reading of the fifth Gospel. With the exception of a few candles, the church is now completely shrouded in darkness. People kneel and pray for their spiritual well-being, imitating the thief on the cross who confessed his sins and faith to Christ (Luke 23:39-43), and then come forward and kiss the Crucifix. During this ritual, the following hymn is recited:

Fifteenth Antiphon from the Great and Holy Friday Matins (sung between the reading of the fifth and sixth Gospel):

Σήμερον κρεμᾶται ἐπὶ ξύλου, ὁ ἐν ὕδασι τὴν γῆν κρεμάσας.
Στέφανον ἐξ ἀκανθῶν περιτίθεται, ὁ τῶν Ἀγγέλων Βασιλεύς.
Ψευδῆ πορφύραν περιβάλλεται, ὁ περιβάλλων τὸν οὐρανὸν ἐν νεφέλαις.
Ῥάπισμα κατεδέξατο, ὁ ἐν Ἰορδάνῃ ἐλευθερώσας τὸν Ἀδάμ.
Ἣλοις προσηλώθη, ὁ Νυμφίος τῆς Ἐκκλησίας.
Λόγχῃ ἐκεντήθη, ὁ Υἱὸς τῆς Παρθένου.
Προσκυνοῦμέν σου τὰ Πάθη Χριστέ.
Δεῖξον ἡμῖν, καὶ τὴν ἔνδοξόν σου Ἀνάστασιν.

Translation:

Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on a tree.
The King of the Angels is decked with a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped in the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the cross with nails.
The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a spear.
We worship Thy Passion, O Christ.
Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.

Commemorating the passion of Christ, death is an important theme during the Holy Week. This hymn expresses the climax of Christ’s sufferings: he is mocked, beaten, crowned with thorns, nailed to the cross and pierced by a spear. However, he accepts his death willingly. The Cross is the fundamental paradox of Christianity: the crucifixion was the most tragic event in Christianity, yet the most glorious victory of Christ and the biggest defeat of Satan. Christ won by losing. He, in human form, allowed himself to be made sin in order to redeem us. Through his love, he bore all our sins on the cross.

However, this paradox not only explains the redemption of mankind. In Christ’s acceptance of death also lies the opportunity for our acceptance of death as human beings. By reading and singing this hymn, we can reach an (ecstatic) understanding of death that helps us face death. Christ’s humility and obedience to death is worth pursuing. Still, a real acceptance of death is not possible if we keep seeing it as a final victory in life. A real acceptance is only possible if we approach death as a necessary and inevitable component of life, or even better, if we embrace it as a gift of life, as a friend rather than an enemy. By embracing death, Christ shows that death is not the absolute end but just an episode in eternity.

IMG_20180405_192456Courtyard of the church

Then, when the night seems to be at its darkest depths, light begins to dawn. More and more flames of candles start shining in the darkness. The warmth of all the people who have gathered together has spread throughout the small church. For a moment, all of us, both regular churchgoers and curious tourists, become part of one, close family. With a few steps we are outside the church in the courtyard, a sun-drenched hortus conclusus where time seems to have been forgotten and death to have been overcome.

 

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