Easter has always been a holiday that I’ve enjoyed – just like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Of course, as years went by and I grew from a child into an adult, the “benefits” of Thanksgiving (lots of good food!) became more important than the ones at Christmas (gifts). As for Easter, I was happy when the fast was over and it was time to dig into all that lamb!
Of course, as I grew older the significance of each of those holidays – beyond the fringe benefits – became more meaningful to me as well. And most of my Easter memories have been good ones. But this piece focuses on some bad ones – experiences of mine, all church-related, which deserve mention so as to raise the collective consciousness and hopefully prevent others from having to endure them in the future.
While attending church services with my family as a kid – probably around age 9 or 10 – I veered away from the Midnight Service on Holy Saturday, perhaps to use the rest room, to get a drink of water…I can’t remember. I came upon a group of boys, some my age and a few a lot older. One of the boys, several years older than me and about five times my size, had another boy cornered and was verbally berating him, threatening him, and otherwise humiliating him. I was heartbroken watching this – but too young, small, and powerless to do anything about it. As the months and years passed and I grew bigger and stronger, I often wished that I had been that size then, so that I could have intervened.
Anyhow, back to that night – I remember after the Resurrection, we all walked home – church was three blocks away from our Washington Heights building, we lived on the third floor, my aunt and her family on the first. We went to her house to crack some eggs and nosh on some midnight Easter snacks. Everyone was behaving in the usual mode – loud, laughing, bursting with energy, even though it was past 1AM by that point. I had a good time, too, or at least tried to, but the memory of seeing that poor boy humiliated haunted me, and I thought: “if I feel bad about just having watched it, I can only imagine how he felt experiencing it. Right now his family is cracking eggs too, and he’s probably feeling awful.”
With apologies in advance to those Greeks for whom Easter includes igniting firecrackers outside the church, I find the entire tradition utterly annoying and obnoxious. Want to see it done right? Watch a fireworks display on the Fourth of July – where the sky is lit with beautiful colors and patterns. But listening to a barrage of loud crackling is ridiculous. Might as well pull up to the church in car that has a hole in the muffler – same effect.
Well, it was on a Holy Saturday night, either the year before or the year after the bullying event. We were exiting the church – the crowd, both Greeks and New Yorkers, and thereby a horrible combination in terms of knowing how to wait their turn – part of the swarm of people pushing their way to the door. That’s when we heard shouts and screams – apparently, something was going on outside – and the anxious crowd pushed faster, sandwiching everyone in their path. By the time I made it outside, I saw a man standing there, looking stunned. His white Easter suit had streaks of bright red blood on it, as he paced around, very agitated and emotional. Turns out, he had just been hit. A firecracker-related fight (some were blasted too close to someone who didn’t take kindly to it), and the big guy in the white suit tried to break it up – only to get punched in the face. A relative of his – a small, wiry, Greek fireplug, maybe his father or uncle – kept asking him, in Greek: “who did this to you? Who was it? Point him out – I’ll tear him to pieces.” It was comical and admirable all at once – this pint-sized man looking to exact revenge – to go out and bloody those that dared to bloody his beloved (son or nephew). The irony that this all happened while “Christos Anesti-Christ is Risen” was chanted inside – the epitome of turning the other cheek, was not lost on me, even at that young age. And, once again, while my family cracked eggs and sipped magiritsa, I played those images in my head over and over, and felt bad for that man who tried to be a peacemaker (ok – at least that part fit the occasion).
I began to think (and again, I’m not sure which incident came first): “this going to Midnight service stuff isn’t really very enjoyable.
Several years later – I was in my late teens by then, probably a freshman in college – I went to receive Communion on Holy Saturday morning. The clergyman who administered it was a “rising star” in the Archdiocese’s “Who’s Who,” but based on his actions that day, he did not impress me very much. There was no altar boy on hand, and so I had to hold the red cloth napkin under my chin and wipe my mouth, if necessary, after he spoonfed me the Communion. As I lifted the napkin to place it under my chin, I bumped the base of the Chalice that contained the Communion. That jerked the Chalice upward, and the liquidy Communion inside swirled around, though none of it fell out. Anger immediately filled the face of this “man of God.” His eyes intensified, his brows scrunched, and with a look of utter disdain, he said to me: “Oh, God!” I felt as if he had just shunned me from the church. As if I had set the building on fire, for kicks – when all I did was bump the Chalice, which I wouldn’t have if he had an altar boy there in the first place. In fact, I thought to myself: “Seems like you have a shortage of altar boys – hmmm, I wonder why…Could it be that serving under you is no day at the beach?” Mind you, my interpretation of his reaction was not that of a toddler. I was already of college age: not quite a crusty old veteran, but my skin already had a few thick coats on it.
Later on, I thought to myself about what I should have said to him: “Look, dude, I know you value the liquid contained in this cup, I do, too. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here to receive it. But the biggest picture of God’s message is love. These rituals are fine, but it’s all about love. And you displayed no love toward me whatsoever with your reaction to an innocent mishap that didn’t even cause any harm.”
I told one of my cousins about the incident, who, unlike me, was somewhat mesmerized by this clergyman’s budding stardom. “He broke one of the Ten Commandments,” she said, with a smile, acknowledging that his reaction was inappropriate (she meant the Third Commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”)
More than a decade later – I was probably in my early thirties by then – at another Midnight Service, a different “important” clergyman presided over the Liturgy. The moment had come – the church lights were out, and hundreds of congregants waited for him to emerge from the altar with the light of the resurrection. And he did, and immediately after the first verse: “Defte Lavete Fos-Come Receive the (Holy) Light,” he immediately unleashed, at the top of his lungs, a big “SUUUSSS!!” – he meant “Shush” but being Greek-born, struggled to produce the “sh” sound. I kid you not – a big “SUUUSSS!” in between the first phrase and the second – “Ek tou Anesperou Fotos – From the Unwaning Light.” And he did so with the intensity of any Greek – any boorish one, that is – in a position of authority barking out a command: a parent to a child, a teacher to a student, a boss to an employee, an airport customs officer to a traveler…
In between the two phrases – at the climax of the entire 40-day event! Talk about ruining the moment!
Granted, this clergyman had a point. The crowd was chattering, and they shouldn’t have been. In fact, at that particular church (not the same one from my childhood), they are one of the worst crowds I have ever seen in terms of turning a service into a coffee klatch. But to lose one’s temper while at the altar, once again, at the precise moment of the culmination of Jesus’ message of love and actions of tolerance, is the supreme height of irony.
I could have used this space to write a feelgood story about my countless wonderful Easter experiences. And I have plenty. But the warm and fuzzy Easter stories are commonplace. However, there are not enough of the ones like shared here. And there need to be. Because only then – with heightened public awareness and increased sharing of such incidents – can we really make a statement about “anthropia – human decency.”
I do not judge people by how much money they have, how many doo-dads (houses, cars, speedboats) they own, how many jewels they have on their priestly attire, or what “High and Mighty Muckety Muck” title is bestowed upon them by some banana organization. I judge people by how they treat others.
These are four incidents that all happened on or around Easter. Four violations of anthropia. You will notice, I did not name the violators (some of whose names I don’t know, anyway), because it is not my desire to make them look bad – what’s done is done. Instead of their names, I share their acts, because unfortunately, these types of acts – these anthropia violations – are not done. They continue.
It is our duty, our obligation as God’s children, as students of Christ’s example, to strive above all for anthropia, and to have zero tolerance for any violations thereof.
Accordingly, I invite all of you to share with us your “anthropia violation” experiences, too.