26 April 2019
I have gone into the centre of Rethymnon this evening [26 April 2019] to follow the Good Friday processions of the Epitaphios or the bier of Christ through the streets.
This is an experience that is unique to Orthodox countries, although the piety, colour and music have many parallels with the Good Friday processions in Barcelona and other parts of the Mediterranean.
Everything comes to a stop throughout Greece on this evening. Yet, Good Friday apart, it is surprising how many shops, restaurants, tavernas and hotels are still closed.
Two of us are spending this Easter weekend in La Stella, a boutique hotel between Platanes and Tsesmes on the eastern suburban fringes of Rethymnon. But many of the hotels, including Varvara’s Diamond, where we stayed last year, are still closed or being redecorated or refurbished ahead of the summer season. A new hotel close to the beach is the busiest – with workers rushing through all the hours to have it completed before the planned opening next month.
We had lunch yesterday afternoon in Vergina in Platanias and dinner in Pagona’s Place in Tsesmes. In both places, the welcome back was warm and over-generous. However, many of our other favourite restaurants here, including Finikas, Myli and Merem, are still closed.
Crete has climbed from fifth place to the fourth spot on Tripadvisor’s 2019 list of the best destinations to visit in the world. Greek newspapers reported earlier this month that the only three destinations that were ranked higher than Crete were London, Paris and Rome. In the rankings for 2019, Crete beat out Bali, which fell from fourth to fifth place this year.
Tripadvisor’s recommendations for Crete, which it describes as a Mediterranean jewel, include the fortresses and monasteries of Rethymnon.
This is late April and, while snow still covers the mountains behind Rethymnon, the temperatures are climbing into the mid-20s. But the beach is still deserted, and during an hour or two on Pavlos Beach yesterday afternoon, no-one else was using the sunbeds, and we had the long stretches of white sand all to ourselves, well almost.
Good Friday and Easter add an extra meaning to death and life in nature too. Beside the new-build hotel, the trunk of an old dead tree lies in a plot of land that has been marked out but is still waiting to be developed.
But colourful flowers are in bloom everywhere. Walking around the gardens at La Stella, the colours of the spring flowers and the sound of birdsong are reminders of the perennial promise of new life that Easter brings.
Today is Good Friday in the Greek calendar [25 April 2019], and later in the day I hope to take part in the Good Friday processions and commemorations in Rethymnon.
But in my reading in Greece this week, I have been reminded of a story of redemptive love, self-sacrifice, atonement and hope that illustrates how these are themes shared in Judaism and in Christianity.
The writings known collectively as Midrash were composed between the years 400 and 1200, and are often contemporaneous with the Talmud. They provide rabbinical exegesis of and commentaries on Biblical books.
In Greece this week, I am interested in how Jerusalem and Athens are contrasted in 10 stories in the Midrash in Eichah Rabbah. Tertullian famously asked: ‘What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?’ And for more than 2,000 years, philosophers and theologians have wrestled with the irreconcilable opposition between Greek rationality, represented by Athens, and biblical revelation, depicted as Jerusalem.
The Midrash on the Book of Lamentations or Eichah Rabbah (איכה רבה), a commentary on the Book of Lamentations (Eichah), is one of the oldest works of Midrash, along with Bereshit Rabbah and the Pesiḳta ascribed to Rab Kahana. In Eichah Rabbah, Jerusalem and Athens are contrasted in 10 stories.
This book is a dirge on the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem and the national destruction that came along with both events. The rabbis regarded this exegesis or commentary as especially appropriate to study on the Ninth of Av (Tisha B’Av), the day recalling the destruction of the Temple.
Historians agree that Phannias ben Samuel (Pinhas ben Shmuel) was the last Jewish High Priest, the 83rd since Aaron. He was from the tribe of Eniachin in the priestly order Jachin, and not from one of the six families from which high priests were traditionally chosen. He died during the destruction of Herod’s Temple on Tisha B’Av in 70 CE.
However, Eichah Rabbah says that Zadok was the last High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, and that after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, two of his children – a small girl and her younger brother – were taken captive by two Roman officers.
The boy was later traded with a prostitute to settle the officer’s debts to her. The girl, for her part, was exchanged by the other officer with an innkeeper for a supply of wine.
Perhaps the writer was also commenting on the Book of the Prophet Joel, where it is written: ‘They drew lots for my people, traded boys for whores, sold girls for wine to drink’ (Joel 4: 3).
Some time later, the prostitute and the innkeeper met and conceived a plan: why not marry off their ill-gotten young charges and use them to breed for profit? They did not realise their traded possessions in human trafficking were brother and sister.
The young couple were placed alone in a room. The girl, weeping and crying, asked with indignation why she, the high-born daughter of a high priest, had been married off to a mere slave.
The boy asked the girl about her family, her home and where she had grown up. She described her family home in Jerusalem, her neighbours and the streets where she once lived, and the younger brother she had not seen since she had been taken into captivity.
This younger brother had a mole on his shoulder, she recalled, and she told how she would kiss him when he came home from school.
The boy asked her whether she would still recognise this birthmark. She said yes, and when he bared his shoulder they recognised each other.
The story concludes with the observation: ‘They embraced each other and kissed each other until their souls departed.’
In telling the story, the rabbis emphasise that this boy and girl remained chaste, but they also fulfil the rabbinic law that one should die a martyr’s death rather than transgress the prohibition on incest.
In this sweet embrace, the Spirit of God, the Kiss of God, draws their souls into the existence of God, and their sacrificial love had been caught up into – is consumed in – the pure love of God.