Christians in Greece defied coronavirus restrictions to attend Epiphany services Wednesday morning, ultimately prompting the government to relent and officially allow churches to open, with some limits remaining on attendance.
Epiphany is a holiday celebrated by most Christian churches on January 6, marking the end of the traditional 12 days of Christmas. The precise meaning of the day and its observances vary somewhat between denominations, but it is broadly understood as the day the full divine nature of Jesus Christ was revealed. It is an exceptionally important holiday for Greek Christians.
The Greek Orthodox Church describes Epiphany, or the Feast of the Holy Theophany, as a commemoration of “the Baptism of Christ and the divine revelation of the Holy Trinity,” the moment when “all three Persons of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – were made manifest.”
The blessing of baptismal waters, in church and in nature, is a major element of the observance, as the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America explains in detail here.
The Greek government had imposed a strict lockdown to control the Chinese coronavirus and on Sunday it made the lockdown even stricter, rescinding an exception granted to churches that would allow up to 50 attendees for Epiphany services in large churches and 25 for small ones. A local ritual that involves a priest throwing a cross into the (very cold) sea and challenging swimmers to retrieve it was banned outright.
The Holy Synod, the governing body of the Greek Orthodox Church, issued an uncommon statement of protest against the restrictions Monday, insisting that the lockdown exceptions for Epiphany services should be honored.
The Greek government responded by urging the Synod to “realize, as it has so far responsibly done, how crucial this time is for society” by giving its full support to the coronavirus lockdown.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with the archbishop of Athens on Tuesday to discuss resolving the issue, and on Wednesday the government relented and officially allowed Epiphany services to proceed with limited attendance.
According to Reuters correspondents, the churches seemed to be adhering to the original agreement about limited attendance for the services. Police officers were present near the churches but used only “mild” measures to discourage overcrowding.
“State orders are one thing and faith is another. No law can order us what to do,” one worshipper told Reuters on her way out of a service on the outskirts of Athens.
“Not all churches opened their doors to the faithful during service but, in those that did, congregations were limited from 25 to 50 persons, for the largest churches, and, in some cases of overflow, the faithful were allowed in, a few at a time, for private prayers after the service was over,” Ekathimerini reported.
The police did take steps to prevent the ritual blessing of the sea waters near the city of Thessaloniki, but someone managed to throw a single cross into the ocean despite their efforts, according to Ekathimerini.