Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Pascha of Isaac

By Fr. Konstantinos Stratigopoulos

This history, which sounds in one’s ears like a living synaxari of a neomartyr, my grandmother used to tell me, and it has been indelibly inscribed in my memory. Her father was a priest in one of the villages of the northern Bosporus, which is today called Beycoz. Fr. Antonios, that was the name of the priest, had many children, and among them one was called Christodoulos. Christodoulos was ten years old when these terrible events took place. One Good Friday the Jews kidnapped him and took him with them. On that very day they nailed the young child on a cross, like Christ. The next day, certain passers-by found Christodoulos lying unconscious on the road. A few days later, within the atmosphere of the feast of the Resurrection, the young child died. This story was utterly true.[1] Every year, when Pascha approached, similar stories and recollections emerged in our mind and we entered a war climate with Jews. The climax of this war climate was the burning of the Jew (an effigy of Judas) which took place on Good Friday evening, after the procession of the Epitaphios.

In our neighborhood, there at the Crossroads,[2] there were many Jews. During the whole year we had the Jewish boys grouped with us. Our opposition to the Turkish children united us. But on these holy days everything changed. The Jewish boys could not  play with us in our "Christian" games. Holy Week gave us a great chance for games to begin  from the sanctuary of the church of the Panagia and would continue into the church yard and its surroundings.

Isaac lived in a corner house at the long downhill, in Hamalbasi, a few meters from our house. He was  among those Jewish children who were our good friends. There was no cheating in which he did not participate. Indeed, his sharp mind proved important during difficult moments. I remember, once, when a neighbor came to protest, because we banged the bells on the doors of homes, and then ran away. Isaac would then say in a very serious tone:

"It was for your own good that we did this. It’s going to rain and we alerted you so that you can pick up the clothes which you had stretched out on the terrace to dry."

"Come here you brat, where did you see the rain?" Mrs. Katina Balou shouted.

"The weather broadcast on the radio said so," Isaac responded.

Isaac, then, with his sharp mind, who so many times got us out of difficult situations, this time was "ousted." He was a Jew. He could not be with us now. On this Holy and Great Week, he could not play with us. We regarded this natural. Isaac had to be punished, because the Jews had crucified Christ.

It was Good Friday. Day of the big game. The church  stayed open all day. We cut flowers, we sprinkled people with cologne, we kept order in the church, we did the procession of the Epitaphios around the courtyard of the church, and a host of other things that excited us.

During the Service of the Great Hours, the news arrived at the altar, where we were gathered: Isaac appeared at the courtyard. Isaac in the courtyard? This was unacceptable. On such a day?

"He certainly came in order to desecrate us," said Soulis the highhanded.

"Yes, certainly," shouted everyone else.

"He should learn that a Jew cannot go round here on such a day with his head up as if nothing is happening. The Jews crucified Christ and they want to benefit from games," cried Lambis the Go. They called him so, because he pronounced the letter R as Go.

"Deno,[3] are you going to tell him that he is undesirable? You know him much more. He is your neighbor, as well."

"Yes," I said. But I appeared to be rather reluctant.

"Are you afraid, stupid?" Soulis told me, and added: "He is a Jew; do you get it? This week we should not let them relax. They crucified Christ. We will crucify them."

"Christ, however, did not crucify the ones who crucified Him," I ventured to say.

"What are you saying, stupid? What are you saying, stupid? What is this that my ears heard? This is a Holy Day and you are with the Jews? Huh? Tell me?"

"No," I said.

"Leave behind the talk then and do what I say, because you are lost. You will not celebrate Pascha. You are also cut off from the game."

"Ok," I told him with fear, and I went out. Isaac was really there. I approached him, and with a severe look, I asked him: "Isaac, what are you doing here?"

"Why should I not be here? Who can prevent me from doing so?" Then, changing the tone of his voice, he whispered to me: "Deno, what happened to you? Where is our bosom friendship now?"

"Christ separates us, Isaac. You Jews crucified Christ. You cannot step on these grounds on such a Day."

"Your Christ, however, did not turn anyone away."

"Isaac, there is nothing we can do now. After Pascha we shall be friends again," I said, and I ran away, because I could not bear arguing with my bosom friend.

When the service ended and the traditional games started in the courtyard of the church, I felt that a great stone was pressing against my chest. I felt as if I was one of those who crucified Christ. Was I right, or wrong? I could not enjoy the Day. Then, I found a solution. I found it as I was standing by and gazing at the Epitaphios (the wooden replica of the Sepulcher of Christ decorated with flowers and used during Holy Week) and the Icon of the Extreme Humility (which depicts Christ being taken down from His cross following His death). I had to do something. He who was inside the Epitaphios had made such a great condescension. I made my decision. I went to Isaac’s house. He was sitting at the steps with a forbidding countenance. A spark passed through in his eyes, but his external appearance did not show it. So, I told him,

"Isaac, forgive me for what I did this morning. I was representing a group of young boys. You know their mindset. However, I thought of something important. We shall tell the boys that though you are a Jew, in your heart you love Christ and you feel sorry that the Jews crucified Him. You will say that you cannot change it."

Isaac was listening attentively. Looking at me straight in a penetrating and manly way, he said to me, "Deno, even if you were not a prophet, this is indeed how I think."

I took a deep breath.

"I will wait for you tonight at the procession of the Epitaphios. I will deal with the boys personally."

The boys, however, did not believe me at all. I tried hard. Nothing. They were obstinately unconvinced.

"But Christ forgave those who crucified Him!"

"No more words; stop, if you do not wish to be burned tonight along with the Jew," said Soulis.

At night, at the procession of the Epitaphios, there was a drizzle of rain. This is usually the case with every such procession. All of us, the Christian boys, were leading solemnly the procession of the Epitaphios around the great courtyard of the Church of the Panagia. I spotted Isaac among the crowd. Our eyes met. I could not distinguish whether it was drops of rain or tears that ran from the eyes of Isaac, my friend. If they were tears, were they shed because the boys did not accept his confession, or because he was sorry for their hardness-of-heart? After the procession I did not escape from the expected slap of Soulis the highhanded.

"I saw you, stupid, I saw you; you were exchanging looks with the Jew." And he added: "You will not burn the Jew with us tonight."

I said to him: "It does not matter, I will take on all responsibility for Isaac."

I was watching from my house window the unofficial ceremony. At the end of the burning of the Jew, a person sent by Soulis came by. He stood under my window and shouted: "Listen Deno, this year you will not  celebrate the Anastasis (the Resurrection), neither the Jew."

The crucial point was the moment of the Anastasis. In Constantinople, for many years the moment of the Anastasis was not observed at midnight, but at 5 o’clock in the morning. The Anastasis was always a crucial moment. It was Christ coming face to face with Hades. It was the defeat of Hades; the emancipation of the dead.

We experienced all these that morning in the Liturgy of the Anastasis. The boys had arrived there with their pockets full of eggs and firecrackers. At the moment of the “Christos Anesti” (Christ is Risen), at 5 in the morning, there was a turmoil of celebration. Eggs and firecrackers traveled over our heads.

I had arrived there full of fear. I did not dare enter the sanctuary. In any case the boys looked down on me contemptuously. I stood by the platform, where the Anastasis would occur.

"Come and receive the Light! Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen!"

What an ineffable joy. I forgot everything. I was in utter joy. I was not afraid of Soulis the highhanded, or anyone else. I was rejoicing unceasingly. The crackers created a polemic atmosphere. There was shouting; a pandemonium of joy. And in the midst of the noise I heard the shouts of some angry men, as if they were reprimanding or beating someone. I turned towards that direction along with the other boys, which was quite close to where we were. Yes there were true shouts. Isaac’s father had followed his son who left secretly from the house. At the time of "Christos Anesti" he began to hit Isaac mercilessly. How did he, a Jew, dare  to say: "Christ is Risen?”

It was a shame, a great shame, for his family. I saw Isaac being trampled by his father who was outraged.

"What did you say? What did you say? Christ is Risen?" He shouted in a state of frenzy.

Isaac was in an awful condition. Blood was running from his mouth and nose. He dared to say, "Yes father, Christ is Risen! Because we Jews crucified him. Christ is Risen!"

He was rolling over like a martyr, without grumbling.

"Christ is Risen!!!..."

He reminded us of the martyrdom of so many Christians who shouted this “Christ is Risen” in the blood-stained soil of Constantinople.

Then he remained unconscious. We did not dare approach him. The boys were frozen. Isaac’s father lifted him in his arms, or rather pulled him. We remained speechless. Soulis looked at me. I looked at him. He kissed me.

"Truly He is Risen!", he said with tears dripping from his eyes.

"Yes, He is Risen indeed!"

From then on, we lost Isaac. We learned that he remained in bed for months. They left our neighborhood.

Years later, someone spoke to me about a Hieromonk in a Skete of the Holy Mountain, who used to live in Constantinople and was a Jew, but later became a Christian. He was a Hieromonk who was curved because of an accident. He was always silent and said “Christ is Risen” to those who happened to meet him.

I was told that this is my friend Isaac, and I believe it.

Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

1. Though this particular story may be true, it is a fact that from medieval times there were "Blood Libel" stories that were fabricated to justify the persecution of the Jews/ It may have been these stories that were circulated in this village after this tragic crime. See more on blood libels here.

2. A neighborhood in Constantinople.

3. Short name for "Konstantinos".

Source: From the book, The Crossroad of My Heart, p. 9, published by Philokalia, May 2002. Translation and Notes by John Sanidopoulos.

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