There’s something that I do at least once a day when I’m sitting in front of a computer. I will check the webcam overlooking the bay in Kapsali, Kythera, Greece. The camera is almost above the house where my mother was born nearly a hundred years ago. We’ve been there many times, but never for long enough. The swell of the waves, the buzzing of cicadas, and the smell of oregano and thyme blanketing the hills are so much a part of me that sometimes I’m overwhelmed how completely remembrance can eclipse reality.
The truth is that even more than appreciating what an incredibly beautiful place it is, the remembrance is transfigured by knowing how loved I was by my Greek family. We travelled to Greece when we could but, as my grandparents and many other relatives couldn’t read or write, there were very few letters and news was unimaginably slow compared with today. Quite apart from the love I have for the physical place my family came from, I am indebted to them for my Greek Orthodox childhood. I have never reached the boundaries of its influence and it has always enriched my understanding of faith.
Growing up here in London and going to very Anglican schools has, I hope, made me more tolerant and ready to listen and, above all, very aware that we can belong in two places at once. We are here stuck more than ever in our daily lives, and how overwhelmed we have felt in this seemingly endless year-long Lent. A year of loss, grief, disorientation, separation from everyone and everything we took for granted. You can imagine how much I’ve wanted to return to Kapsali, and how the remembrance has at least helped put the present into some perspective.
But there is somewhere else we all need to be. As Lent moves into Passiontide this week we are called to set our face towards Jerusalem as Jesus did. We are called to enter into our common, shared ‘other place’ where we follow in Jesus’ footsteps as he rushes towards suffering and death. We need to put time, space, and current preoccupations to one side and step back into our own faith story and rediscover its truths. It is also a moment to face some of the paradoxes of our existence as human beings. In his incarnation there is nothing Jesus shied away from in his humanity, not even a violent, undeserved death. Keeping paradoxes in tension is a recurring feature of Orthodox liturgy and spirituality. At this time of year I’m reminded of the following lines from the morning of Good Friday’s service:
Today is hung upon the Cross he who hung the earth upon the waters. He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns. He who wraps the heaven in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery. He who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon His face. The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails. The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear. We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ. Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection. (From the Royal Hours of Great Friday)
We should never be afraid of contemplating the wonder and the truth of these seemingly irreconcilable opposites. We’re not meant to be explaining or arguing them away. We are just meant to shut out the noise, think about them and let them speak to us. If we do that in a humble and simple way these coming days, we will find our love of God, our understanding of who Jesus was and is, and our relationship with each other and the world transformed. The ‘other place’ we share with all our sisters and brothers in faith is, of course, most fully experienced in the Eucharist. We have all had our experience of celebrating together with bread and wine turned on its head this past year. But we know that when we have walked with Jesus though suffering and death there comes an Easter morning which we will share with joy and gratitude beyond measure.
Some words of Peter Abelard to take with you through the days ahead.
Alone to sacrifice thou goest, Lord,
giving thyself to Death whom thou hast slain.
For us thy wretched folk is any word?
Who know that for our sins this is thy pain?
For they are ours, O Lord, our deeds, our deeds.
Why must thou suffer torture for our sin?
Let our hearts suffer in thy Passion,
Lord, that very suffering may thy mercy win.
This is the night of tears, the three days’ space,
sorrow abiding of the eventide,
Until the day break with the risen Christ,
and hearts that sorrowed shall be satisfied.
So may our hearts share in thine anguish,
Lord, that they may sharers of thy glory be;
Heavy with weeping may the three days pass,
to win the laughter of thine Easter Day.
Peter Abelard (1079-1142), translated by Helen Waddell