“A prophet he was, without words, but with a most beautiful personality. A prophet he was, without words; A prophet–with righteousness and mercy.”
-The Prologue from Ohrid, St. Nikolai Velimirovic (1880/1-1956)
Almost every night at dinner when I was little, my dad would open The Prologue from Ohrid and read a passage on the life of a great saint. This life story usually ended with a gruesome martyrdom (being torn apart by lions in a Roman amphitheater, for example), followed by a prayer invoking the intercessions of the saint (oh holy Saint n., pray to God for me). There are a lot of oddities like this encompassed in early Christian tradition…
It was odd growing up Orthodox in America; I never knew how to explain to people that I was Orthodox, but not Greek or Russian and often felt insecure about being the odd one out at parties. In all my travels up until now, I realized that I had never once been to an Orthodox country.
That changed last month when I went to Macedonia for the first time. Macedonia, if you’re wondering, is a tiny country situated in between Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo (another contested state), and Albania. The country is also referred to as FYROM–the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia–because it is just that. Its national sovereignty is also contested by Greece.
Regardless of Macedonia’s current political status, the country is mostly Orthodox (the second largest religious group being Muslim, I believe). Most people there speak Macedonian (a Slavic language very closely related to Bulgarian), while others speak Albanian (and technically refer to themselves as Albanian, not Macedonian). There is also a Roma population who speaks Romani and something else, I forget what. And that is, unfortunately, the extend of my ethnographical knowledge. Still, the country takes all Eastern Orthodox religious holidays as national holidays, including Good Friday and Bright Monday (the day after Easter/Pascha). So, with my friend whom I was visiting, we went to Ohrid, a lake town about three hours southwest of the capital city, Skopje.
Ohrid reminded me a tiny bit of Jerusalem: textile and sweet shops lined narrow, cobblestone streets as mobs of families and tourists forced their way through. But then, once you turn a few corners, you come to Lake Ohrid and find a beautifully pristine scene reminiscent of southern Italy with its sunny sidewalk cafes:
Indeed, the weather was beautiful, a far cry from the wintry storms I had experienced up until then (and would experience again after leaving Ohrid :(). We took advantage of the sunshine to explore the city’s tiny cobblestone roads. This was how I began to understand its ancient history and the connection to early Christianity.
Ohrid is a city on a hill, with the homes, corner stores, and churches built into the landscape. The further we climbed, the more I began to realize that there was a church on virtually every street corner; sometimes two or three. Not all were very large or even open. But there they sat, sometimes tucked in between homes, always with a sign of patronage (the church of St. Barbara, St. Sophia, Sts. Constantine and Helen, for example). Once we reached the top of the hill, I laid eyes on another ancient site that began to make my brain spin: a half-uncovered Roman amphitheater.
Remarkable as this structure is, it is to be noted that quite possibly, this amphitheater was used to execute Christians in the Roman period before Emperor Constantine legalized and embraced Christianity and shifted the capital east to Constantinople (now Istanbul). After learning this fact, I started to wonder if that’s why Ohrid has so many churches, and why the Prologue (the compilation of martyrs stories I mentioned earlier) was penned from this ancient city.
One can only postulate.
Having this in my mind, I felt very cautious the rest of the weekend. Upon whose bones might I have unknowingly tread? It began to feel even more like Jerusalem, a place where every stone and grain of sand has history.
Yet here I was on Easter weekend, the time when Christians celebrate Christ’s victory over death and the promise of a life that transcends earth. My mind couldn’t understand it. But somewhere deep down, my heart knew something was amiss on the eve of Pascha. I felt afraid and timid as I ventured out of my AirBnb around 10 pm, alone, in the dark, trying to find the Church of Sts. Clement and Panteleimon, where I knew many Macedonians would be gathering. I said a prayer as I walked uphill toward the ancient fortress (another pre-Christian era force of strength built by relatives of Alexander the Conqueror) and it must have been heard, because as soon as I started strolling down a very dark, remote path, someone called to me from a house across the way “not that way!” Through a brief exchange of gestures, I eventually figured out the proper direction. Once I hit the street I was swept up in a loose crowd of people all walking the same direction. Men sat on the side of the street selling candles. I figured I was in the right place. I arrived to the ancient church, which overlooks the lake from high atop the hill. Already families were gathered outside.
I went inside, venerated the icons (a traditional greeting and sign of respect when one enters an Orthodox church) and then stood against a wall, waiting. I was greatly pleased at how normal everything felt. I have always loved this about the Orthodox church. No matter where in the world one may be, the church has the exact same meaning.
Eventually the service began with the traditional invocation. Even though most of the prayers were in Macedonian, I knew essentially what was happening, because again, the services follow the same pattern the world over. About fifteen minutes in to the night, all the lights went out. This signifies the night. Then the priests (there were two, as well as the Bishop present) began to sing…in English, the words are this: Come take light from the Light that is never overtaken by the Night. Come glorify the Christ, Risen from the dead. I can’t tell you what the Macedonian is, but I know its meaning. Which is pretty cool, I think. As they sing, they pass by with candles and share a flame, until every person present has a lighted candle. Then they left the church and we followed out, until we were mostly outside.
At this point, may more prayers were said and the Gospel was read to the crowd. Then the Bishop began to speak. Though I could not understand, I did hear Makedonia mentioned several times in the speech. It was then that I had another thought about the connection between Church and State and how, in some ways, I wondered how differently the Church was perceived in Macedonia. Is it seen as an institution, as most churches are perceived in the States? I’m sure to some extent, yes, though I shouldn’t make assumptions. But it was a great reminder of the limitations of man’s own agenda in the political makeup of history and one of my favorite lines from the Orthodox liturgy (from a Psalm of David):
Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation.
Then the bells began to ring, and a familiar song came through the air:
I apologize for the poor video quality, but the song is this:
Christ is Risen from the dead
trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
The smells of incense and candle smoke perfumed the air as I walked home later on in the early morning hours. I looked over hill top and the moon was smiling at me from above the clouds, illuminating other churches and homes where I knew the same prayers were being said and the same Resurrection was being celebrated. It was as if the night was saying to me, “Why are you afraid? There is Peace. There is Light. And you are wonderfully small.”