The photograph from Thessaloniki in 1936 that moved Yiannis Ritsos to write his ‘Epitaphios’
Easter – the most important time in the Church Calendar – brings the promise of new life. But for those who mourn and who miss loved ones, this time of the year, Easter, can remain a deeply challenging time. For those who mourn and grieve, where is the promise? Where is their peace? Where can they find hope?
Yet, I am reminded of the relevance the Easter hope holds for us all when I listen to one of my favourite pieces of music and poetry, Epitaphios – written by the radical Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos and set to music by the composer Mikis Theodorakis.
The poem was written 75 years ago in May 1936. That month, the northern Greek port of Thessaloniki was paralysed by a widespread strike against wage controls. When the workers took to the streets, the police opened fire on unarmed strikers. Within minutes, 30 people were dead and 300 were wounded.
The next day, a newspaper published a front-page photograph of a mother dressed in black, weeping as she knelt over the body of her slain son in the streets. Moved by this Pieta-like image, Yiannis Ritsos locked himself away in his room and set to work. Over two days and two nights of intense creativity, he produced his greatest poem, Epitaphios.
The poem was deeply influenced by the Good Friday liturgy, and by the funeral speeches of Thucydides and Lysias. This poem moves at the end from Crucifixion to Resurrection, and ends in the abiding hope that grave injustices can be conquered.
At first, the bereft mother, like Mary with her crucified Son, grieves inconsolably. She extols her son’s virtues and recalls his gifts. She cannot understand why he died; nor can she understand his political convictions. But she gradually changes and begins to see in his local struggle the universal struggle for social justice.
Her grief is sustained as she recalls how her son pointed to the beauties of nature and of creation. She challenges the values of a society that claims to be Christian while killing those who struggle for justice.
But her darkness turns to light as she realises that her son lives on in the lives of his comrades as they continue to struggle. At the end, her vision is of a future in which all are united in love. And in a stirring finale, she vows to take up her son’s struggle and to join his comrades.
A street name in Crete honouring the memory of Gregóris Lambrákis …Epitaphios became the anthem of resistance when he was murdered (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
When this poem was set to music by the exiled composer Mikis Theodorakis, it acquired new life, becoming the anthem of Greek unions and of the struggle against dictators and juntas. It was sung by hundreds of people in the streets – once again in May and once again in Thessaloniki – when a young politician, Gregóris Lambrákis, was murderously assaulted and lay dying and they vowed to ensure his struggle would live on.
In the 1960s and the early 1970s, this poem and song was presented at readings and concerts throughout Europe as a rallying anthem of resistance to the colonels.
It is a reminder that death does not conquer all, that those who struggle against injustices and those who become the victims of violence and oppression do not necessarily die in vain, that death does not have the last word. The story of the murdered young striker in Thessaloniki, and the stories of the struggles his death inspired are reminders that demands for justice do not die when the advocates are beaten, silenced, murdered or die.
And in this Easter season, I find in it a reminder too of the challenge to bring Easter hope to those who struggle and to those who mourn.
In next Sunday’s Gospel reading (John 20: 19-31), the Risen Christ repeats three times: “Peace be with you” (verses 19, 21, 26). It is a promise more than a command, it is addressed to many and not to individuals, and it is addressed to those who fear persecution and death.
But the themes of death and resurrection, hope and promise, overcoming oppression, fear and death, have meaning far beyond the boundaries of the church and of faith communities. Yes, we can hope in new life, we can share the hope that the struggles of those we love are not in vain, that their spirit lives on in those who continue to struggle for justice and against oppression, to make our lives and the lives of others worth living.
And in that we should find peace and hope. “Peace be with you.”
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This reflection was a contribution to the commemoration of International Workers’ Memorial Day, organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in the Irish Labour History Museum, Beggar’s Bush, Dublin, on Thursday 28 April 2011.
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