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Our Special Place
I was talking to my barber the other day, an older Italian man who cut your hair with no frills (I have little hair to cut), and who told me that when he was a young man on Christmas they would always go to church, and then go home and go through the ceremony of the holiday.
And every Sunday back in Italy he would go to church, even as a young man, and then after church spend time talking to people and socializing, visiting, sharing coffee and pastry, making the day special because it was special: Sunday was not only a day to stop and reflect, but a day to connect with your friends and family, catch up, make new friends, maybe even meet the person you might spend the rest of your life with.
“Now,” he said, in his Italian accent, brushing my hair off my shoulders, “it’s just another day.”
Which is a shame, because we could all use a time to stop and reflect and connect in these turbulent times we live in—maybe now more than ever. Young people seem to think church is just proselytizing—you must do this and you must not do that—but church is not just a reminder of what the good and just life is. It’s also a reassurance that such a life is possible—that we are the angels of our better nature—and that this pursuit is not a lonely journey: we can share it with others, who are trying to do the same thing.
I went to church religiously with my papoudes back in Greece—I remember one stormy Easter night when thunder was crashing outside and the bishop who was conducting the service tried to outshout the thunder to reassure us. I remember going to Sunday school in the chapel of our church in Chicago and hearing the Presvytera say how much she loved us all every Sunday. I remember being an altar boy with Father Tito at Kimisis in Brooklyn and talking wrestling one minute with my fellow altar boys and the next minute watching in wonder at the splendor and ceremony of the church on Easter–and all the pious old ladies trying to slip past me to get their antidero first.
I remember going back to Greece, to the little churches in the mountains, where the men stood to one side—my papoudes and uncles and cousins in their special stasidia—and the women on the other side in theirs—my yiayiades and thies and girl cousins in their new skirts and satin shoes—and then afterwards walking around in the churchyard with the platanos hundreds of years old and thinking what a special place this was and how we were special being there: every Sunday we were a favored of God and the saints were practically family. In fact, I had an uncle who was a priest back in Chios and he would open up the church for us and show us the empty fruit jars kept behind the altar that now contained the relics of the saints, who were there to help us if we needed them.
Religion wasn’t dogma for those of us who were fortunate to live through those years: it was a comfort in our lives, a special ceremony of connecting with others, and our little bit of Heaven. I hope all of you can experience it this year.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.