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550: Aghios Dimitrios, Koroni, Greece
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St Dimitri, Koroni, Greece.
Mystery Worshipper: Requiem.
The church: Aghios Dimitrios, Koroni, Greece.
Denomination: Greek Orthodox.
The building: The church is an imposingly solid rectangular building made of blocks of pale marble. Inside it's splendidly baroque with decoration piled on decoration. Nothing that could be patterned is plain and anything that might be gilded has been. From the centre of the pale blue, star-strewn ceiling a giant painting of the face of Christ, blackened by years of candle smoke, looks down. The walls are panelled with paintings of saints, each surrounded by a blue and white border surrounded by a red border surrounded by a gold border. The truly gaudy chandelier had been draped with rich purple cloth for the service. In centre stage stood the bier of Christ, piled high with white lilies and red and white roses. It was enclosed in a bower of palm fronds and purple ribbons. In front of it stood a wooden cross, crowned with three candles and hung with a wreath. Both of these were objects of veneration and were kissed over and over by the congregation.
The neighbourhood: Koroni is a pleasant little fishing town in the southern peloponnese. It dates from the 1830's and has changed little. Stepped streets wind up to the very fine Venetian castle on the hilltop. Everything had been freshly whitewashed for Easter and there were brilliant red and pink flowers in pots on the steps. The seafront is a little tacky: a row of gift shops and tavernas catering to the tourists sprawl out in front of the harbour. The town was jam-packed with large numbers of German tourists and Greeks escaping from Athens. Still, there was a real sense of the festivities being by and for the locals, rather than a show put on for the visitors.
The cast: A long-haired priest, suitably funereal in black vestments embroidered with silver crosses, emerged briefly to cense the bier and the congregation.
What was the name of the service?
No idea it was the Good Friday evening service and parade.

How full was the building?
Like good little Anglicans, we were there before the published start time. The chairs were only half full maybe fifty at best mostly elderly women and respectable looking men in dark grey suits. During the service a steady stream flooded in until the body of the church was heaving. The influx was greatest in the last fifteen minutes when there was a queue around the block to get in. The dress circle was filled to bursting, with people hanging over the rail waving their candles and dropping wax on those below. The latecomers had to clamber up two narrow flights of stairs to reach the second balcony. By the time of the procession there must have been several thousand holding candles and walking slowly through the narrow streets.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Two or three fellow congregants grinned and spoke amiably and incomprehensibly to us. They seemed happy to have two slightly strangely dressed tourists in their midst and we certainly didn't feel unwelcome.

Was your pew comfortable?
Rather to my surprise we actually had a pew. A carved wooded bench split into two by a central arm-rail. It was far from comfortable, too hard and upright, but the latecomers didn't even have that.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was an anticipatory hubbub as the congregants present murmured cheerily to each other. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, and there was much kissing of cheeks and exchanging of greetings. Behind us, one of the flower-girls was putting her white robe over her everyday clothes of pink trousers and trainers, surrounded by several clucking elderly ladies. The other girls, ready in front of the bier, played with their baskets and compared rose-petals.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
It's all Greek to me. About ten minutes before the scheduled start of the service a few words were said, the congregation stood, and the altar-left chanter launched in.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books.

What musical instruments were played?
None, unless you count the extra-jangly bells on the thurible.

Did anything distract you?
Where to begin? Everything was distracting. A constant stream of people, each buying half a dozen or so candles, paraded in throughout the service. The chap behind us was counting the takings. A cheerful throng waited to kiss the bier and the candle-topped cross which wobbled alarmingly from the attention. The preening flower girls mimicked the invisible priest, sniffed their petals and played "who can cross themselves for the longest". The candles could have become bonfire-like but for the lady who, with ruthless efficiency, was plucking them out of their stand and tossing them into two smoking sackfuls of discards.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It can only be described as cheerfully chaotic. The service was led by two relay chanting teams, altar left and altar right, who bounced the liturgy back and forth between them. They were heavily microphoned and the resonant chanting was projected via loudspeakers into the surrounding streets. We couldn't understand a word they were saying, but that didn't seem to matter, as the congregation were largely ignoring them. They were far too busy greeting friends, eating the odd surreptitious chocolate, lighting candles by the handful, kissing things and pinching the cheeks of the flower girls.

The flower girls stood excitedly in two rows in front of the bier. The six biggest were robed in white polyester with purple sashes, the two littlest in red. Thrilled to be all dressed up and the centre of attention, they were enthusiastically crossing themselves with their right hands whilst flouncing their skirts with the left. Each was armed with a bowl of rose petals with which, on cue, they pelted the body of our Lord.

The flow of the service was very different from that which I'm used to. The priest was up at the altar, back to us and out of sight, doing his thing. In the body of the church the congregation engaged in individual acts of worship or socializing. People arrived and left at will, the doors were open, the prayers flooded out and the line between inside and outside the church was blurred. Individuals or little groups would chant a few words, sometimes with the leaders, sometimes not, before fading out again. There was certainly no "we will now sing hymn number...."

As the service climaxed, more of the congregation started to join in, although the atmosphere remained more football stadium than ecclesiastic. A few voices at a time joined the chanters until most of the congregation were praying in unison. I waved my candle. The air was thick with incense and candle-smoke and the church was very hot. Over the chanting we could hear bangers and fireworks from the churches who had started parading earlier. Towards the end of the service the bower of palms and streamers was stripped away from the bier and the electric bulbs disconnected. Followed by priest, altar boys, flower girls and finally the chanting and candle-waving congregation, the bier was carried solemnly out of the church.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was nothing I could recognize as a sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The whole thing was truly splendid, in a very over the top way. The church was beautifully dressed, the biers must have taken hours to make and decorate, and there was a real sense of the involvement of the whole community. The chanting, the incense, the candles: it all seemed like something out of another age. Watching the children was lovely. There was no youth church, no simplistic songs with arm gestures, yet each child participated fully. They were lifted up by their parents to light candles and kiss icons, crossed themselves solemnly with the rest, and were accepted and welcomed as part of the congregation.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Clambering up a steep hillside by candlelight in open-toed sandals is far from what you would call fun, especially when you drip hot wax on your toes. The crowd was extremely tight and it felt a little unsafe at times a lass near us had her hair singed and nearly came to blows with the person she thought responsible.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Didn't happen. The bier had been processed for what seemed like miles, and was heading ever higher into the hills. It was very dark and the ground was getting increasingly dodgy, so we sloped off to the sea-front to get ice cream.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No after service coffee it wasn't really that sort of service, and catering for the thousands would have been well nigh impossible.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – Well, it's not what you'd call an every-day service, and I have no intention of becoming either Orthodox or Greek. But the sense of the reality and totalness of Christ's death has never come home to me so strongly before, and I'll carry the memory of that through Good Fridays in the future.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, definitely. Coming from a culture where half-empty churches are the norm rather than the exception, and Easter has become a largely chocolate-related festival, it was wonderful to see Christ at the very centre of the holiday. Everyone in town was in one of those churches, from the very old to babes in arms.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The sense of utter desolation walking back through the empty graveyard through which we had followed the coffin of Christ. The words 'Christ has died' have never had so much impact. Through the lens of the resurrection Christ's death can seem diminished we know it's going to come out alright in the end. For the first time the reality, the completeness, of Christ's death hit me. He was taken down from the cross stiff and bloody, his disciples left his cold body in a tomb and went away to mourn.

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