Letter from Thessaloniki

The snowstorm which came as a shock to those Greeks who were basking in 60-degree temperatures just a couple of weeks ago obstructed, in most places, the highlight of the Epiphany celebration – though not to us in the north, where the sun shone splendidly on Sunday. This prime Christian feast, celebrated on January 6, brings the sanctification of the waters, and the throwing of the cross, as well as the retrieval of the same cross by pious divers. As the Rev George Mastrantonis of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America notes in his concise presentation of the Feast of Epiphany in its Biblical and historical background: «The story of Epiphany is related by the first three Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke – from the Baptist’s proclamation of the arrival of the Savior, to the baptism of Christ and to the witness of the Father and the descending of ‘the Spirit as a Dove.’» This date «is recorded in the annals of the Christian Church as an ancient celebration of an event in the life of Jesus Christ which is considered as the beginning of His official dedication to His Divine Mission in the presence and manifestation of the Triune Christian God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.» Therefore: three in one, one in three. And if you have any doubts about that you could see a maths master. However, today, our Church commemorates St John The Baptist, known also as «Repent-for-the Kingdom-of-Heaven-is-at-hand.» (Still, monks in Athos as well as Orthodox Russians keep Christmas on January 7 – New Style. This has to do with the revised Julian Calender and reckoning the equinox according to the Old Style.) The description we have of Saint John the prophet, and baptist and of his unfortunate meeting with Salome comes not only from the Bible (Mark, 6:22; vi, 21-28, Matthew 14:6-8) but also from one of the most famous classical plays, Oscar Wilde’s «Salome,» written in 1892 – not to mention our Constantine Cavafy’s – minor – poem written in 1896. It is a floral portrait. A small sample: Salome: «I am amorous of thy body, Iokanaan! Thy body is white, like the lilies of the field that the mower hath never mowed. Thy body is white like the snows that lie on the mountains of Judaea, and come down into the valleys. The roses in the garden of the Queen of Arabia are not so white as thy body. Neither the roses of the garden of the Queen of Arabia, nor the feet of the dawn when they light on the leaves, nor the breast of the moon when she lies on the breast of the sea… There is nothing in the world so white as thy body. Suffer me to touch thy body.» Iokanaan: «Back, daughter of Babylon! By woman came evil into the world. Speak not to me. I will not listen to thee. I listen but to the voice of the Lord God.» Both Wilde’s and Cavafy’s Salomes rudimentarily follow the biblical story of King Herod and his unbridled lust for his 14-year-old stepdaughter, Salome. Her arousal over and sexual baiting of the pious Iokanaan (aka John the Baptist) and subsequent rejection by him enrages the teenager. It is, of course, Salome’s desire for Iokanaan that causes her to dance before Herod. She ultimately demands Iokanaan’s severed head to be presented to her – her fee for an arousing performance. Oscar Wilde wrote the play in French, hoping that French actress Sarah Bernhardt would play the lead. The play was, however, banned by the Lord Chamberlain of France. When it was at last published it was in French and sold in purple covers. In 1894, Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, translated the play into English and it was published in England a year later with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. Oscar Wilde, who in his «Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young» notes, «Religions die when they are proved to be true. Science is the record of dead religions,» seemed for once rather pious. For him. He put in St John’s mouth phrases like: Iokanaan: Back, daughter of Sodom! Touch me not. Profane not the temple of the Lord God. Or: Never! daughter of Babylon! Never! In conclusion: a) Should one follow Iokanaan’s example, the social pressure to produce babies would be lifted; b) «The Snow Storm» by Ralph Wardo Emerson: Announced by all the trumpets of the sky Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields, Seems nowhere to alight…

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