Good Friday for me is one of the most special days of the year. I have fond memories as a child of taking a special note from Fr. Michael to school, explaining to my teachers in my largely white middle class suburban Pittsburgh school that “Today is Good Friday in the Greek Orthodox Church and Gregory should be excused from school at noon so he may attend services.”
It filled me with a sense of pride to show that letter to the teacher and to explain to my fellow students that I was different than all of you.
I grew up in a tight knit community of Holy Trinity on the North Side of Pittsburgh. Fr. Michael Sfanos (God rest his soul) was the most amazing priest anyone could ever ask for because he was a “real person” who spoke more about real life scenarios of how we should incorporate our faith into our every day lives, and less about saints and scripture.
He certainly used saints and scriptures as examples, but his teaching was more of a road map of how we should live our lives, help others, be kind… rather than a lot of the pure judgement I see these days from the hyper-Orthodox.
Some ultra-religious folk may not have appreciated his un-Orthodox approach to Greek Orthodoxy, but today the fruits of his labors are visible everywhere, in the people he inspired. My own existence today wouldn’t be the same without people like Fr. Michael Sfanos.
I remember his piercing voice singing the Hymns of the Lamentations every Good Friday night and the excitement of taking the Epitaphio outside and around the block.
I walked proudly, holding my lit candle as the “Americans” peeked out their windows and looked below as a sea of flickering lights passed. My dad sang from the top of his lungs too. When he wasn’t at the restaurant, it was his favorite night of the year in church. (The photo above is my dad and Fr. Mike– both long departed but still often praised and remembered).
It was kind of cool to me, as well, that the police would close all of W. North Avenue for the hundreds of us to pass by, as dozens of cars waited, wondering what was going on.
I especially remember Fr. Michael’s favorite part of the Hymns– evident from the change in his voice to a high-pitched cry from the top of his lungs: Έρραναν τον τάφο, οι μυροφόροι μύρα, λίαν πρωί ελθούσαιas as he showered the flower-covered kouvouklion with holy water, before turning to the faithful.
My brother and I always jockeyed for a position to be hit by the holy water. We would actually nudge one another out of the way so we could get wet. Of course, there was the annual ritual of watching, waiting for the hair to catch fire.
We weren’t a wealthy community like the folks at St. Nicholas Cathedral or nearby Holy Cross in the wealthy suburb of Mt. Lebanon. No. Our community was made up of immigrant restaurant owners and factory workers. We had parishioners who had jumped ships in order to become Americans and worked hard to start their families and build this community.
I remember the creeky, off-tune voices of Mrs. Cherpes and Mrs. Haniotakis– black clad, mourning their long-departed husbands, sitting faithfully in the front row.
I remember the Balouris family– pillars of the community who took up two, sometimes three entire rows of pews on Good Friday.
Today, I had every intention of celebrating Good Friday like millions of Greek Orthodox Christians around the world, singing the same praises offered to Jesus Christ by every generation before me.
But the coronavirus changed all of that and instead, I’ll be singing from home, trying to recall the soulful voice of Fr. Michael Sfanos, my mother and father– and all of those generations before us who sang these same lines.
These hymns that lament the death of Jesus are more than theology for me. They’re more than faith or religion.
They’re a connection to my past. To know that my father and mother sang these same hymns carrying a lit candle in their villages in Crete, and eventually brought them to Pittsburgh where they taught them to me to sing… To think that their parents before them did the same. These hymns are a direct, unbroken link to the generations before us who have sung them.
And it’s because of people like Fr. Michael, my parents and so many others before them that “generations will sing His praises” just like they did, and theirs before them, and several generations that will follow, hopefully.
Αι γενεαί πάσαι, ύμνον τη ταφή σου, προσφέρουσι, Χριστέ μου.
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