Saturday 23 April 2011


“O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” – New Testament, 1 Corinthians, 15:55

Easter Saturday is always full of preparations for the great festival the next day. We did our shopping in the morning and then back home where we spent most of the day getting ready for the evening. Saturday night marks the most glorious liturgy in the Greek Orthodox faith with the vespers leading to the great service of the Resurrection, which begins at midnight.

Usually even non-religious Greeks will attend this glorious liturgy and just before midnight, will observe all the lights being put out in the church except for a lone holy flame burning in the holy of holies. From this ever-burning light the priest will light his Paschal candle and go out into the church and call out: “Come take the light!” The faithful light their own Paschal candles from this and soon the whole congregation that spills out into the surrounds of the church carry aloft their lit candles waiting for the priest to chant the resurrection message:

Χριστός Ανέστη εκ νεκρών,
θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας
και τοις εν τοις μνήμασιν,
ζωήν χαρισάμενος

Christ is risen from dead,
On death treading victorious,
And to those in the grave
He gives the gift of life.

Fireworks are let off, firecrackers lit, people kiss each other as red dyed eggs are cracked. Each greets the other with the Resurrections messages:
Χριστός Ανέστη! – “Christ is risen!”
Αληθώς Ανέστη! “Truly he is risen!”

When the liturgy finishes, everyone hurries home, carrying their lit candles, which they must take home unextinguished so that they bring the holy light of the Resurrection home, thus blessing it. As the head of the household enters the threshold, a cross is made on the lintel of the front door with the smoke of the candle. The Lenten fast is then broken with “mayirítsa”, the traditional rich soup made of lamb offal, dill, spring onions, all in a tart egg-and-lemon sauce. The rest of the lamb will be consumed the next day as it is roasted on the spit whole…

Καλό Πάσχα! - Happy Easter!

Thursday 21 April 2011


“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” – New Testament: 1 Peter 2:24

The day today was spent quietly and at home although we did go out on a couple of occasions. First to visit an elderly friend and take her some Easter eggs, flowers and cookies, and then later in the afternoon when we went to church. Our local Greek Orthodox church is St George and it’s located very close to our house on top of the hill. It is a lovely church, once upon a time it was an Anglican one, St David, but as it was not used it was taken over by the Greeks.

The liturgy of Good Friday is grave and extremely melancholy, as befits the most solemn and sorrowful day in the Christian calendar.  No work should be done on this day of prayer and reflection when one should mourn for Christ’s death on the cross.  No iron tools should be handled and hammers and nails are to be avoided especially, lest you crucify Christ anew.  If clothes are washed on this day, a member of the family will die. As the clothes hang out to dry they will be spotted with blood.  This belief is from the apocryphal story that relates of a washerwoman mockingly throwing dirty washing water on Christ on his way to Calvary.  Parsley seed can be planted on this day, provided a wooden spade is used.

The Greek Orthodox religion is particularly rich in tradition on this day.  Fasting is mandatory and only fruit, vegetables and boiled pulses are to be eaten without any trace of oil. Of course, no eggs, no dairy, no meat or fish can be consumed either. It is customary to drink some vinegar on this day to remember the vinegar Christ was given to drink on the cross when he was athirst.

The Vespers of Good Friday are particularly sombre in the Orthodox faith. There is a re-enactment of the Deposition from the Cross, with a holy embroidered icon called the “Epitaphios”, which depicts the dead Christ. On the afternoon of Good Friday, the priest and deacon place the Epitaphios on the Altar. The priest anoints the Epitaphios with perfumed oil, with a chalice, veil and the Gospel Book placed on top of the Epitaphios. During the reading of the Gospel lesson (compiled from selections of all four Gospels), which recounts the death of Christ, an icon depicting the Soma (body) of Christ is taken down from a cross which has been set up in the middle of the church. The Soma is wrapped in a white cloth and taken into the sanctuary. Near the end of the service, the priest and deacon, accompanied by acolytes with candles and incense, bring the Epitaphios icon in procession, from the Altar into the centre of the church and place it in a richly carved wooden bier which is decorated with flowers.

This bier or catafalque represents the Tomb of Christ. The Tomb is often sprinkled with flower petals and rosewater, decorated with candles, and ceremonially censed as a mark of respect. The bells of the church are tolled, and in traditionally Orthodox countries, flags are lowered to half-mast. Then the priest and faithful venerate the Epitaphios as the choir chants hymns. In Slavic churches, the service of Compline will be served next, during which a special Canon will be chanted which recalls the lamentations of the Virgin Mary.  The faithful continue to visit the tomb and venerate the Epitaphios throughout the afternoon and evening, until Matins, which is usually served in the evening during Holy Week, so that the largest number of people can attend.

The form which the veneration of the Epitaphios takes will vary between ethnic traditions. Some will make three prostrations, then kiss the image of Christ on the Epitaphios and the Gospel Book, and then make three more prostrations. Sometimes, the faithful will crawl under the table on which the Epitaphios has been placed, as though entering into death with Christ. Others may simply light a candle and/or say a short prayer with bowed head.  The priest may hear confessions at the Epitaphios, and he may anoint people who were not able to be present for the Holy Unction service earlier in the week.

After Matins, the bier containing the Epitaphios is carried in procession by the faithful around the church and neighbourhood. The parishioners follow holding lighted candles, to eventually return to the church. The Bier is held high above the entrance and all pass under it, symbolically entering the tomb of Christ.

Here is another of the great hymns of the Orthodox liturgy that is sung these days. It the “Axion Esti” meaning “It is truly worthy” and is an Encomium for Christ. It is sung by Petros Gaïtanos.

Wednesday 20 April 2011


“And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: This is my body. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: And they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.” - New Testament; Mark 22-24

Today is Holy Thursday for Christians and is also called Maundy Thursday. The word Maundymandatum comes from the Latin , which means “commandment”. At the Last Supper, which traditionally is commemorated as occurring on this day, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Prior to breaking the bread with the disciples, Jesus washed their feet. Maundy Thursday worship services include Holy Communion in commemoration of the Last Supper. Following Christ’s example on this day, kings, bishops and other figures of great authority, humble themselves and wash the feet of as many paupers as they had years of age. This is a tradition that is still carried out in some churches.

The Last Supper was a Jewish Pesach Seder meal and Jesus gave a new meaning to two of the special foods used in the celebration: Bread and wine. He told his disciples to eat and drink them as his body and blood. Jesus was referring to his crucifixion the next day when his body would be broken and his blood spilled. Today, most Christians celebrate this with a service in church called Holy Communion. Through receiving the bread and wine they commune with Jesus. This union links them with God and their fellow Christians both now and in the past.

Most Protestant Christians see the bread and wine of Holy Communion as important symbolic reminders of Jesus, whereas Roman Catholic Christians talk about the bread and wine becoming his body and blood. In Roman Catholic churches the bread and wine are called the “Blessed Sacrament” and kept in a Tabernacle with a light burning in front of it. Some churches celebrate Holy Communion every day, some every Sunday, and others once a month or less often. Other Christian groups such as the Salvation Army and the Quakers do not have the ceremony at all.

The Last Supper is also the setting of one of the basest betrayals. Judas’ betrayal of his teacher, friend and mentor, Jesus:

“Jesus looked at each of his disciples. His face was full of sorrow. ‘One of you sitting here will betray me.’ And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, ‘Lord, is it I?’ Jesus answered, ‘The one to whom I shall give this bread.’ Then Jesus took a piece of bread from the loaf, dipped it in the dish of wine and handed it to Judas Iscariot. ‘Do whatever you have to do, but do it quickly.’ Jesus said. With a start, Judas got up from the table, left the room, and walked out into the night.”

I think that this is one of the most poignant scenes in the Passion and is of a deeply symbolic meaning and intent…

In Greek Orthodox tradition, Holy Thursday is full of traditions and in church the Holy Liturgy commemorates the Last Supper, marks the betrayal of Judas and acts out in moving chants the capture of Jesus and His Passion. The chants, which are centuries old are some of the most moving and awe-inspiring in the church tradition. Here is Petros Gaïtanos singling one these chants, “I Zoé en Táfo” (“Life enclosed in the grave”)

In the morning of Holy Thursday households were busily preparing for Easter, baking Easter cookies, tsoureki (Easter sweet bread) and quite importantly dying eggs red. For Greeks, Easter without eggs dyed red is not Easter. For this reason, it is often called “Red Thursday”. In different parts of Greece there are different and quite elaborate traditions relating to the dying of eggs. For example the number of eggs dyed is strictly controlled, in other parts the vessel in which they are dyed must brand new, the dye must not be taken out of the house or it must not be poured down the sink. The way in which the eggs are decorated also varies.

The Easter Egg is associated with beliefs and traditions that are thousands of years old. The egg was an important symbol in the mythologies of many early civilisations, including those of India and Egypt. It was commonly believed that the universe developed from a great egg and that the halves of its shell corresponded to Heaven and Earth. The egg was also connected with the springtime fertility rituals of many pre-Christian and Indo-European peoples, like the old Cretans, and both the Egyptians and the Persians made a practice of colouring eggs in the spring.

The Greeks custom of dying eggs red, signifies the blood of Christ that was shed in self-sacrifice. In recent years the colouring of the eggs has become more adventurous and their decoration more elaborate. The dyed, hard-boiled eggs are distributed on Easter Sunday and people rap their eggs against their friends’ eggs. The object of the custom is to crack as many of your opponents’ eggs as possible with your single (very tough!) egg. The owner of the last uncracked egg is considered lucky.

Tuesday 19 April 2011


“The moon is a friend for the lonesome to talk to.” - Carl Sandburg

The full moon on Monday ushered in the Easter holidays and Spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Easter is a movable feast that is calculated within various seasonal lunar calendar constraints. Easter was an old Spring fertility festival (Eostra was the name of the Celtic Spring goddess).  It is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring Equinox on the 21st of March.  The dates of all other moveable feasts are calculated in connection with the date set for Easter in that year.  If there is no full moon between the Spring equinox calculated according to the Gregorian calendar and the Spring Equinox according to the Julian calendar, then Catholic and Orthodox Easter occur at the same time (Catholic Easter being calculated according to the Gregorian calendar and Orthodox Easter being calculated according to the Julian calendar).

Full moons were very significant in the past when lunar calendars were widespread. Each full moon of the year had its special name, according to what it signified. In medieval times the full moons were named thus:
  • January: Wolf Moon
  • February: Storm (or Ice) Moon
  • March: Chaste Moon
  • April: Seed (or Egg) Moon
  • May: Hare Moon
  • June: Dyan (or Diana) Moon
  • July: Mead (or Rose) Moon
  • August: Corn Moon
  • September: Barley Moon
  • October: Blood (or Harvest) Moon
  • November: Snow Moon
  • December: Oak Moon

I was in the garden in the coldness of evening on Monday, and caught the moon as it was rising. Bats were flying around the treetops and the full moon, bright and silvery peeked through the clouds. It was a magnificent sight and I could understand how it has inspired poets, delighted lovers, kept insomniacs awake and maddened lunatics through the ages. As the nearest heavenly body to earth, the moon exerts an all-powerful influence and is an endless source of inspiration, mythology and folklore to cultures all around the world.

Here is my full moon poem for Poetry Wednesday:

The Moon Tonight

The full moon bites tonight
With red fangs and ice-cold breath
That freezes to the marrow.
Which death would you prefer:
Exsanguination or a gelid sleep
That merges with death slowly?

The full moon mocks me tonight
Through shuttered windows
Sending thin, silver pins of light.
Moonlight still pierces the heart,
Even if shades are drawn;
And death lies still, waiting in the dark.

The full moon cackles tonight
Like an old crone, a witch,
Who weaves evil spells with moonbeams.
The ancient magic catches hearts
With a silvery net, this April night
As Egg Moon waxes full.

The full moon weeps tonight
As it reflects my face gazing at it,
Finally mirroring my heart of hearts.
An old story, a lost love, sadness –
All washed with moonshine tears
And are cleansed, at last redeemed.

Monday 18 April 2011


“And they kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month at even in the wilderness of Sinai: According to all that the LORD commanded Moses, so did the children of Israel.” – Numbers 9:5, Old Testament

Today is the first day of Pesach, or the Jewish feast of the Passover. Pesach is a major Jewish Spring festival, commemorating the Exodus of the captive Jews from Egypt over 3,000 years ago. The ritual observance of this holiday centres around a special home service called the Seder (meaning “order”) and a festive meal. The holiday is characterised by the prohibition of chametz (leaven); and the eating of matzah (an unleavened bread). On the eve of the fifteenth day of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the faithful read from a book called the hagaddah, meaning “telling”, which contains the order of prayers, rituals, readings and songs for the Pesach Seder.

The Pesach Seder is the only ritual meal in the Jewish calendar year for which such an order is prescribed, hence its name. The Seder has a number of scriptural bases. Exodus 12:3-11 describes the meal of lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs, which the Israelites ate just prior to the Exodus. In addition, three separate passages in Exodus (12:26-7, 13:8, 13:14) and one in Deuteronomy (6:20-21) enunciate the duty of the parents to tell the story of the Exodus to their children. The Seder plate contains various symbolic foods referred to in the Seder itself.

In Israel, the first and the seventh days of Pesach are celebrated as full holidays. The five days in between, called the Intermediate Days (Chol Ha-Moed) are celebrated as half holidays. Outside of Israel, Passover is an eight-day holiday. The first two days and the last two days are celebrated as full holidays, and the four Intermediate Days are celebrated as half holidays.

The holiday starts by cleaning the house of all Chametz (leaven) so that it is eliminated from the house. There is a ceremony to search for the Chametz and it is called Bedikat Chametz (the searching out of the leaven) and Biur Chametz (the burning of leaven).   The highlight of Passover is the Seder (which means order). The Seder service is held at the dining table in most homes, and during the service the story of the Exodus from Egypt is told.  During Passover special passages from the Torah and the Haftarah are recited.

The Seder Plate contains the following foods:
Beitzah: The Roasted Egg is symbolic of the festival sacrifice made in biblical times. It is also a symbol of spring - the season in which Passover is always celebrated.

Chazeret: Lettuce is often used in addition to the maroras a bitter herb. The authorities are divided on the requirement of chazeret, so not all communities use it. Since the commandment (in Numbers 9:11) to eat the paschal lamb “with unleavened bread and bitter herbs” uses the plural (“bitter herbs”) most seder plates have a place for chazeret.

Zeroa: The Shankbone is symbolic of the Paschal lamb offered as the Passover sacrifice in biblical times. Some communities use a chicken neck as a substitute. Vegetarian households may use beetrrot.

Charoset: Apple, nuts, and spices ground together and mixed with wine are symbolic of the mortar used by Hebrew slaves to build Egyptian structures. There are several variations in the recipe for charoset. The Mishna describes a mixture of fruits, nuts, and vinegar.

Karpas: Parsley is dipped into salt water during the Seder. The salt water serves as a reminder of the tears shed during Egyptian slavery. The dipping of a vegetable as an appetizer is said to reflect the influence of Greek culture.

Maror: Bitter Herbs (usually horseradish) symbolize the bitterness of Egyptian slavery. The maror is often dipped in charoset to reduce its sharpness. Maror is used in the seder because of the commandment (in Numbers 9:11) to eat the paschal lamb “with unleavened bread and bitter herbs”.

Happy and Healthy Passover to all my Jewish readers and their families!


“I don’t want people who want to dance, I want people who have to dance.” - George Balanchine

We watched the Bruce Beresford 2009 film “Mao’s Last Dancer” at the weekend. This was a film that I had heard a lot about and some friends had recommended the autobiographical book by Li Cunxin, on which the film is based. As the movie was on special at the video shop we decided to get it and watch it. Jan Sardi wrote the screenplay based on this book and as I haven't read the book I shall refrain from commenting on how faithful an adaptation the film was, and thus review the film only.

First, if you dislike ballet, this film is not strictly speaking for you as it is about a ballet dancer and his rise to success. Admittedly, the actual ballet scenes themselves do not make up an enormous part of the film (so if you are a ballet fan, you may think that this is a disadvantage), however, there is lot of time spent on screen on the training of ballet dancers. This may drag on for people who do not like ballet. But, at the same time one cannot be but impressed by the rigour of this training, which is not unlike that of a top athlete (in fact more rigorous than some types of athletic training!).

The story is an oft-told tale of gifted youngster, who grows to be an exceptional artist in a non-Western country. He is given the opportunity to travel to the West and make a choice of whether to defect or not, sacrifice all for his art, fame and fortune, or forget his art and go back to his homeland and family. This film tells the real story of a boy, Li Cunxin, born sixth in a poor peasant family with seven sons. He is picked out from a provincial school in Qingdao by Madame Mao’s artistic scouts to train as a ballet dancer in Beijing in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, a visiting American choreographer from Houston notes Li’s talent and brings him to the USA to dance, where Li gains fame as a ballet dancer in the short time he is there. After experiencing first-hand the differences in the lifestyle and culture of  China and America, Li is faced with a dilemma. Should he return to the motherland to which he had always been taught to be loyal, or should he remain in his newly-found land of freedom and home of the girl he loves?

Beresford is an experienced enough director to weave the story of Li’s childhood and youth in China with his life in the US expertly and in a way that is engaging and lucid. Too many films with flashbacks end up being annoying, but this was well done. Beresford is a veteran Australian director who can produce popular films, and for this film, he definitely pleases the crowd, at least the crowd that likes to watch ballet and ballet dancers.

The two actors playing Li were Chengwu Gao (Li as a boy) and Chi Cao (as an 18-year-old), who both did fantastic work, given that neither is a professional. Chi Chao played in this film his first ever role with aplomb and disarming ingenuousness. As Ben Stevenson, the Houston Ballet artistic director who campaigns for Li to study in the US, Bruce Greenwood displays competency, with a well-grounded performance that ensures Ben’s culture and flamboyant personality is portrayed with restraint. There are fine performances also by all actors playing the Chinese characters, for example Joan Cheng, Chengwo Guo and Ferdinand Hoang. There are a few Australians in the cast also, Penne Hackforth-Jones and Jack Thompson being instantly recognisable faces for Australian viewers.

The film has humour and poignancy, is fast-moving, interesting and yes, even the non-balletic amongst the crowd will find it engaging to watch. The ballet sequences that are portrayed are well done and well-placed within the film. There are some wonderful scenes from Tchaikovsky’s “Swanlake”, Minkus’ “Don Quichotte” and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. We enjoyed the film and recommend it highly.

Interestingly, even though it’s not mentioned in the film, when Li’s dance career came to an end he re-trained as a stockbroker, and he now lives in Melbourne. Certainly a “lived happily ever after in the decadent West” story!

Sunday 17 April 2011


“Artists are just children who refuse to put down their crayons.” - Al Hirschfeld

It was Leonardo da Vinci’s birthday last Friday, so it is only fitting that Art Sunday is dedicated to him. Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was born April 15, 1452, Anchiano, near Vinci, Republic of Florence and he died May 2, 1519, Cloux (now Clos-Lucé), France). He was an Italian Renaissance painter, sculptor, draftsman, architect, engineer, and scientist. It is recorded that not only was he a polymath but also a man of exceptional physical beauty, with an attractive personality and a great singing prowess. The profound depth of his character can be guessed at from the manner in which he had compassionately tended to a dying person and then cut open the same person after his death for making anatomical studies. Apart from his scientific contributions, he also made meticulous studies and recorded his observations in writing and drawing on such varied subjects like plant growth, rock formations, atmospheric conditions, flow of water, draperies, animals, human faces and emotions etc. He was more prolific in his drawings than in his paintings though some of his paintings are believed to have been lost due to his rash painting experiments. His now world renowned fresco “The Last Supper” had started to deteriorate just a few years after he had completed it.

Leonardo’s exquisite portrayal of the human figure was supported by his anatomical studies. His formal training in the anatomy of the human body began with his apprenticeship to Andrea del Verrocchio, this master insisting that all his pupils learn anatomy. As an artist, he quickly became master of topographic anatomy, drawing many studies of muscles, tendons and other visible anatomical features. As a successful artist, he was given permission to dissect human corpses at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence and later at hospitals in Milan and Rome. From 1510 to 1511 he collaborated in his studies with the doctor Marcantonio della Torre.

Leonardo made over 200 pages of drawings and many pages of notes towards a treatise on anatomy. These papers were left to his heir, Francesco Melzi, for publication, a task of overwhelming difficulty because of its scope, and Leonardo’s highly idiosyncratic writing. It was left incomplete at the time of Melzi’s forty years later, with only a small amount of the material on anatomy included in Leonardo’s Treatise on painting, published in France in 1632. During the time that Melzi was ordering the material into chapters for publication, they were examined by a number of anatomists and artists, including Vasari, Cellini and Albrecht Durer who made a number of drawings from them. Leonardo drew many studies of the human skeleton and its parts, as well as muscles and sinews. He studied the mechanical functions of the skeleton and the muscular forces that are applied to it in a manner that prefigured the modern science of biomechanics.

He drew the heart and vascular system, the sex organs and other internal organs, making one of the first scientific drawings of a fetus in utero (see above). As an artist, Leonardo closely observed and recorded the effects of age and of human emotion on the physiology, studying in particular the effects of rage. He also drew many figures who had significant facial deformities or signs of illness. Leonardo also studied and drew the anatomy of many other animals as well, dissecting cows, birds, monkeys, bears, and frogs, and comparing in his drawings their anatomical structure with that of humans. He also made a number of studies of horses.