The Assumption on 15 August is one of the most respected Christian feasts in Greece. Women and men of all ages attend the neighbourhood church to light a candle, hear part of the liturgy and ask the Virgin Mary to help them, to make them healthier, happier, or simply to honour the religious feast.
GRReporter visited St. Barbara Church in the capital neighbourhood of Anno Patisia to see how those Athenians, who have not gone on vacation on the islands or in their homelands, celebrate. The mass begins at 7 am and the most faithful people from the parish are already in place to light a candle and hear the sacred words. Time is passing by and more people started coming into the church. From a few well-dressed older women in the church at first, it soon became overcrowded with people.
There were many young parents with small children, who came to pay homage on the day of the Assumption. Some older women were quietly crying while the priest was reading the Gospel. Others had brought collections of extracts from the Holy Scripture with them and were singing with the priest and the rest were just listening and making the sign of the cross. An icon depicting the Virgin Mary on her deathbed was exposed in the middle of the church. It was surrounded by floral decorations. When mothers entered the church with their small children they headed first to the icon to kiss it, and then they put the hands of the children on it to touch the image of the Mother of God. No matter whether they are deeply religious or simply out of respect for the tradition, people gathered in the church to take part in the religious ritual.
"The Virgin Mary hears all prayers and even if you do not believe, she helps," Catherine, who sings psalms in St. Barbara, explained to me after the mass. Catherine is a believer and the priest of the church introduced her to me. As a person of faith and an active participant in the local church community, she agreed to try to explain to me why the Assumption of the Mother of God is such a great feast in Greece.
It became clear from her story that the importance of the Virgin Mary comes not only from the fact that she is the Mother of God but also from the silent messages the example of her life leaves. The Virgin Mary experienced public denial and disbelief that she had a child without the burden of original sin. Her love and faith in a higher power gave her the moral principles to overcome the doubts and disapproval of others. She raised her child with peace and perseverance and he was destined to go along a great road - the thought of every mother after giving birth to her offspring. The Virgin Mary witnessed the torture and death of her son, but remained strong until his last breath. When the time of her death came, she accepted it with joy and with the quiet dignity of a woman who lived righteously, receiving her award to become one with the great spirit and live forever with God's son, to whom she had given birth.
"None of us is completely righteous, but the life of the Virgin Mary can show us what is right and we can learn from her," the believer said. "She believes and her selflessness is complete." She is every woman, every mother. The sorrows and afflictions that a woman knows in her life are similar to those of the Virgin Mary. Catherine cited a preist who had told her that the Virgin Mary hears and meets the prayers of righteous people because she had given the human form of the spirit of God. In popular terms, Jesus cannot deny his mother's request that she heard from believers because his appearance (of the Son of God) in human form before the world was due to her. According to believers, this is the reason for the numerous miracles associated with the icons of the Virgin Mary in various parts of the world.
Her image and name are holy in Greece and her Assumption is one of the most revered holidays because it symbolizes the end of a hard life and the beginning of a new eternal life of unity; it embodies the power of faith and spirit with which every woman should bear the vicissitudes of fate. She is believed to be the mother of all people, because her love and mercy are infinite and her righteous life and pain on Earth are an example of stability and strength.
As a person of the 21st century, I took on the task of writing an article for the feast on 15 August with some scepticism and perhaps a little boredom. In my mind, a religious ritual is not among the priorities to reflect reality, especially when serious social and public policy changes are going on around us that will directly affect the development of our lives. However, the enthusiasm and the faith of Catherine have had an impact on me. I cannot say that I am a reborn Christian after my experience today but the meaning implied in the feast of the Assumption made me give a new meaning to the importance and power of symbols and traditions in our life and culture.