Participating together in the Greek Orthodox Easter while contemplating the Mystery of the Passion of Our Lord
Alexandria-Egypt April 2008
Easter of the Christians, of Unity, of Love, of Sorrow and of Piety. 158 persons of different confessions from 24 different countries, united in the Word of God, joined together for the celebration of the Greek-Orthodox Easter, in Alexandria in Egypt.
Day 1 - Holy Thursday
In the course of its 2,300 history, Alexandria was a crossroads for culture and continents (art and literature), and a departure point for the desert for numerous hermits. We found ourselves in that city of 17 million inhabitants and 24 kilometers of Mediterranean coastline, a unified Christian gathering welcomed with love on the morning of Holy Thursday by the Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, K.K. Theodore II, following the Last Supper Service at the St. Savvas' Monastery.
The Patriarch embraced us all with his smile and we were pleasantly surprised by his kindness and his humility. We quenched our thirst for water in the inner courtyard of the monastery and then he gave us a small tour around the hall, where the portraits of former Patriarchs are on display. He then invited us inside the Patriarchate, an oasis of beauty, of sparkling neatness, order and quiet; located in the core of the noisy and chaotic city of Alexandria. The Patriarch (who had for many years been a missionary in many countries of Africa before he was elected Patriarch of Alexandria & All Africa), had a warm-hearted discussion with Vassula and several other travelers. He opened the doors of the Patriarchate with a welcoming embrace and gave a moving speech in the Throne Room to welcome us officially as he said:
"From the depths of my heart, I wish to welcome you all officially, here in the Throne Room, where our companion is St. Mark, the Apostle and Evangelist. In the morning, I received you at the monastery of St. Savvas, a humble monastery, which was founded in the 4th century. Today, I greet you officially here, in our Patriarchate. whose history spans 2,000 years from the time of Jesus Christ to the present. Thus, on the one hand, with the exception of the Apostle Paul, we have our history involving the great Apostles, whose successors were the Great Fathers of the Church. That history brings us to present times and, thus, you can see all the Patriarchs that have been appointed to Alexandria on your right and left.
All this is our heritage, the future lies before us: it is for us the entire land of Africa. That is why I want you to know that, before I ascended the steps to the Throne of St. Mark, I was a missionary in Cameroon, the Sudan, Gabon, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Botswana and Angola. As a missionary, therefore, I really got to know Africa: the difficulties that it faces and the enormous poverty issues but, most of all during my journeys, I meet people that are searching - searching for the love of Jesus. That is why, Vassula, I was very moved when you all sang to Jesus Christ a few minutes ago as my thoughts went immediately to all my African children who also raise their hands towards the heavens and sing in thousands of languages about Christ; the love of Christ that we so desperately need. I am planning shortly to make a long journey to Ghana, having recently returned from Madagascar.
And now, I would like to welcome you all from the bottom of my heart, especially you, Vassula, as I said in church this morning, welcome to your homeland, welcome to the country of your birth, and greetings to all who accompany you. As they say here, Vassula, "Anyone who drinks from the waters of the Nile never forgets this country."
I would also like to greet the Bishop from India - welcome dear brother to our Apostolic Patriarchate. I wish to welcome the monk, you, Sister, you, Father and you, Father from the Roman Catholic Church and tell you all that with much love we receive you, we love you and that we are under the same protection and love of our Great Lord, Jesus Christ.
Vassula, I would like to thank you for this opportunity, to be together over the next few days. This evening, we will follow together the Passion of Our Lord. Tomorrow, we shall worship before His Epitaph and we shall live, in our devoutly beating hearts, His Passion and His Resurrection. And that joy - that is my wish - that the joy of the Resurrection and the Light may be with us always all the days of our lives. In the name of Jesus Christ I wish to bless you all and your families and please know that Alexandria's and the Patriarchate's doors will always be open to you. Thank you"
A warm welcome was extended to Vassula and the rest of us, strangers to each other but brothers and sisters in Christ, who had set off from 24 different countries and represented many confessions of faith as the Patriarch had emphasized, to celebrate Easter together with the Greek Orthodox Christians of Alexandria. The reception ended with a hymn "We praise Thee, we bless Thee" which was chanted beautifully by His Beatitude.
In the Church of the Annunciation that is located in the Patriarchate in the evening, we arrived and as soon as we entered the Church, His Beatitude sent his priest to Vassula to call her to sit in the front row and ask her to bring all our priests to sit opposite him at the place of honour. Then the 12 Gospel readings that describe the Holy Passion were read and we listened devoutly to the service of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. "Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Tree"
Day 2 - Good Friday
On Good Friday, all the Christians of the world relive the climax of the divine drama of Our Lord's passion. In the devout atmosphere of the St. Savvas' Monastery, we participated in the Service commemorating the taking down of Christ's body from the cross. The church choristers were young students of Theology from the university who came from different African countries. During the service, the Patriarch removed the crucified body of our Lord from the cross and wrapped it with a clean cloth. The Holy Body of Christ was placed inside the Epitaph - which had been decorated with flowers by the women of the parish on the previous evening - so that all might worship before Him. The faithful then sprinkled Jesus' body with rose petals to the mournful toll of the church bells. We each knelt in prayer before the Epitaph before departing to meet with the president of the Greek community who had promised us to offer us the theatre to watch Mel Gibson's film "The Passion.".
The majestic style and beauty of the places we visited reflect the influence of the Greeks in earlier times. We were all moved deeply by this film.
After a short rest, it was evening and we set off for the Church of the Annunciation. We attended the service which concluded with the procession of the Epitaph around the grounds of the Church.
Day 3 - Holy Saturday
A morning tour around the city of Alexandria included the site of the famous lighthouse of Alexandria, replaced in the 15th century by a fortress, and a visit to the Catacombs. We walked along the beach, where local traders were selling traditional pastries and gifts, taking souvenir photographs. At night, in the Church of the Annunciation, we attended the magnificent Easter celebration, receiving Holy Communion and the Holy Light of the Resurrection from His Beatitude the Patriarch. Just before midnight, all the lights of the church were switched off and at precisely midnight His Beatitude chanted the hymn "Here, receive the Light". We were all impressed with the openness of his Beatitude when it came to Holy Communion from the first day, because he never made any distinction between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics but gave the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ to us all. Praise be to the Lord and all glory to Him. Amen.
In Jerusalem, after the Holy Light is lit, the Patriarch passes it to the representatives of the other churches and to the faithful present at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Then, the Holy Light is transferred with a special Olympic Airways flight to the Orthodox Cathedral in Athens and to the other cathedrals of Greece and to all the Orthodox Patriarchates, escorted by church, political and military representatives and with the same ceremony that is accorded to a head of state.
Day 4 - Easter Sunday
At 11 am at the Monastery of St. Savvas, we attended the vespers service of love, at which occasion the Gospel is read out in many languages. His Beatitude the Patriarch offered us the customary (Greek Orthodox) red eggs. Traditionally, the eggs are dyed on Holy Thursday, the red dye symbolizing Jesus' blood that has been spilled for our salvation. Red is also the colour associated with joy - joy in Jesus Christ's Resurrection!
Later on, we all set off for the Easter feast that took place in the community gardens. The tables had been set with tents all around to protect us from the very hot sun. We were greeted by the delicious aroma of lamb chops and barbequed sausages and, of course, there was Greek folk music playing on the stereo...all combined to create a very pleasant atmosphere. Afterwards, we said goodbye to the Patriarch and our new friends from the Greek Community of Alexandria, with the hope that we may meet again in the future.
Day 5 - Easter Monday
In the morning, we visited the famous Library of Alexandria. A bust of Alexander the Great dominates the museum forecourt. The New Library of Alexandria is almost in the same location of the Ancient Library. Partly submerged in a pool of water, the building is in the shape of a massive disc inclined towards the Mediterranean Sea, evoking the image of the Egyptian sun illuminating the world. While permitting a clear view of the sea, the inclining roof allows the use of indirect sunlight which enters most of the Library's departments.
On our way from Alexandria to Cairo, which took us more than five ours due to road works we finally arrived at the Coptic monastery of St. Makarios, which is located 92 kilometers away from Cairo, on the east side of the desert. It was founded in 360 AD by Saint Makarios - whose remains are in the monastery - and to this day, monks from all over the world stay there. A very kind monk welcomed us at the entrance of the monastery and, who offered himself as our tour guide. After showing us around, he gave us permission to use the church of St. Makarios - where the relics of three Saints Makarios of Egypt are to be found - so that we could have a Mass celebrated by Bishop Toppo and the priests that participated in the pilgrimage. This was truly a great gift from our beloved Lord, as we heard that this was never permitted before. It was the first time a service was conducted by our priests of TLIG in a Coptic Church! We arrived at our hotel in Cairo late that night, after a tiring journey.
Day 6 - Easter Tuesday
We attended Mass in the Church of St. Joseph with Bishop Toppo and the priests participating in the pilgrimage. Afterwards, we made a tour of Cairo. We visited the famous Pyramids and the Sphinx - monuments symbolic of Egyptian civilization in the middle of the desert. Riding a camel in this part of the world is considered a necessity. The Bedouins were wandering around with their camels in search of customers willing to pay for a ride, while their children pressed tourists, trying to sell historic replicas and handcrafts.
We stopped for a delicious meal. This was our break then as we headed on our way to the hotel we made a small visit at an area by the Nile where, on 12th March, 1976, after the morning Mass, people observed an object floating in the water, near the steps where it is said that the Holy Family disembarked. It was a "floating Bible" opened at Isaiah, verse 19.25: "Blessed be Egypt, My people". The Bible is now kept safely inside the church.
Day 7 - Easter Wednesday
After Mass in the Church of St. Joseph, we visited the Church of Our Lady Mother of God in Zeitoun, where our Blessed Mother appeared over the dome of the church from 1968 for a period of more than two years. Our Lady was seen bathed in light and in the company of pigeons, while the scent of incense filled the air. During the apparitions, miracles occurred to both Christians and non Christians. This recurring miracle of her presence has made that Church into a regular place of pilgrimage where not only Christians visit this Church but many Moslems as well who love our Lady.
Next on our itinerary was the famous market of Khan el Khalil. The market place was built in 1382 and is one of the largest places for shopping in Cairo. Colourful and noisy, it is as a traditional Arabic market should be. Even if you are not interested in shopping, the variety and the colours of the merchandise, the scent of the seasonings and the typical coffee places, make the market one of the most interesting sights in Cairo and a dream for every visitor.
The Church of St. George in old Cairo was familiar to most of us. During the pilgrimage of True Life In God in 2002, His Grace, Theofylactos, Bishop of Babylon, had welcomed us on behalf of the Patriarch of Alexandria in that church,. We knelt before the icon of St. George and waited in a devout manner for our turn to wear the chains of the martyr around our necks.
On our last night in Cairo, we dined on the cruise boat "Nile Pharaoh", a replica of the boats built under the rule of the Ptolemy dynasty. During our two hours aboard, we enjoyed a rich meal accompanied by happy Egyptian music in the background. The companionable atmosphere on the deck, the coolness of the night and the lights on the Nile combined to create a dreamlike impression of Egypt past and present.
We thank the Lord for this blessed union under His Holy Name, and we remain with the hope to be able to follow the Greek Orthodox Easter again next year and join his Beatitude the Patriarch Theodoros II.
True Life In God- Greece
A video of the gathering in Alexandria can be seen HERE