Daily Archives: April 21, 2022

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Holy Week Memories

This date, April 21, has special significance to me. On this date in 1974, I was admitted to Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn—the same hospital in which I was born—to undergo life-saving intestinal by-pass surgery for Superior Mesenteric Artery Syndrome. I often think of that hospital as the place in which I was born—and re-born.

It was also on this date—in 1995—that my mother, Ann Sciabarra, passed away at the age of 76, after a five-year-long battle with lung cancer. It was in the wee hours of Good Friday morning that she left us. She was one of the eight children of Vasilios P. Michalopoulos, my Papouli, who was the first pastor of the Three Hierarchs Church in Brooklyn. Her name in Greek was Anastasia. Father Eugene Pappas of that same church remarked at her funeral that it was just like my mother to have died on Good Friday, “only to be resurrected with Christ on Easter, her name day.” “Anastasia” is a derivative of “Anesti”, of the Resurrection, which is why Greeks say to one another on Orthodox Easter: “Christos Anesti” (or “Christ is Risen”).

This year, Good Friday falls on April 22, but it just so happens that today is Holy Thursday on the Greek Orthodox calendar. Which brings me to another one of those classic family memories …

Every year, Mom took my sister Elizabeth and me to Holy Week services. She never forced us to go weekly to Church as children or to attend Sunday school or Greek school (though, in retrospect, I could have used the latter—instead of a year-length course in dreadful statistics—toward a second foreign language requirement in my doctoral studies). But Holy Week was a different story altogether. We received communion, and typically attended services throughout the week, including Palm Sunday, the anointing of the Holy Unction on Holy Wednesday, the Holy Thursday evening procession of the cross, Jesus’s descent from the cross on Good Friday, and both the midnight resurrection service late Saturday night and the multilingual Easter Sunday morning Vespers of Agape. It should be noted that the Greeks go all-out. Those church services certainly helped me to appreciate the beauties of ritual, which speak to a sublime part of the human soul, whatever your religious beliefs.

On the night of Holy Thursday, in keeping with the Jewish tradition that the new day begins at sunset, Greeks begin to commemorate the events of Good Friday, marking the crucifixion, in which the cross is carried around the church, a replica of the body of Jesus often carried behind, only to be symbolically nailed to the cross once the procession makes its way to the front of the altar.

On this Holy Thursday night, back in 1971, when I was 11 years old, my sister and I accompanied my Mom to Three Hierarchs Church. The Twelve Gospel readings pertaining to the Passion were highlighted, in a re-enactment of the crucifixion. After the Fifth Gospel, the church was darkened and the cross was carried around the church in a mournful procession. Atop the cross were three lit candles. I was seated at the end of one of the front pews in the church, with a right aisle up-close view of the cross. The scent of the incense only heightened the sounds and visuals of the moment.

As the cross passed by me, the priest tipped it ever so slightly and hot wax from one of the candles dripped right onto my scalp. I let out an “Ow!” so loud that a few people turned around in obvious shock and contempt. Liz started to giggle, and I lost it. My mother saw what happened and kicked me under the pew. She leaned over and whispered in my ear: “Shhh! You got burned because you don’t go to Church!”

Well. This did not make matters better; my sister and I became convulsed with laughter, trying desperately to hide it. While elderly Greek women and men were moved to tears by the solemnity of the service, the tears were literally rolling down our faces, as we tried to contain our hysterics. Somehow, we made it out of that church without getting struck by lightning.

Safely outside, even Mom could not contain her own laughter, just shaking her head over the events of the night.

Memories, hilarious memories …