The ordo and meaning systems

August 1999

I am reading Nikos Kazantzakis' novel THE GREEK PASSION. My copy is a 1958 paperback, supposedly his second novel published in the U.S., ZORBA being the first.

The title and basic plot has to do with a passion in the sense of the passion of Jesus Christ before his death and leading to his resurrection. The novel opens in a tiny village of Greece sometime during the Turkish occupation. No hints of time have been given yet as far as I have read -- just a few pages. It is Easter Sunday. The village has a Turkish pasha who rules, but seems to be about the only Turk in town. He lives in with significant power and elegance. Most of the rest of the village are Orthodox Christians.

It is Easter Sunday. There is a meeting of the village "notables," the village big shots which include not only the bishop, but another priest or two, a retired sea captain, a merchant, a rich miser and a couple of more. They decide it is time to have a "passion." In this Greek Orthodox version what they will do is this: the notables will select a cast of characters to play out the passion of Jesus on the NEXT Easter, a full year away. This passion play will be widely advertised and people will come from all over Greece to see and participate.

The notables select a Jesus, a simple but reputedly holy young shepherd, a Peter and James, a Mary Magdalene, even a Judas Iscariot. Each of these people is expected to live the entire year shaping his or her live toward the character he or she will portray. This is especially burdensome on the Jesus character who will be crowned with thorns, scourged and even crucified, but not in the death form of the original. The others are encouraged to become their saintly characters. They are noticeably silent about how the Judas character should live, having great resistance to even play the role from the character they have chosen, the man in the village who most seems to resembles Judas! There is an interesting treatment of the Mary Magdalene character. She is the village prostitute, a kindly and pretty woman. She will not be expected to change. They see her role as critically important to the village as she now lives. The notables are all men. They believe that men just need sex as they would need a drink of water. Given her role in the village she is the safety valve. When a man has a sexual need he knows where to go. Otherwise he would seek it elsewhere. One of the notables compares this fulfillment of need like getting a drink. If there is a well-known public fountain, then men will go there to drink. If there is not, then they will ask any local woman for a drink. What woman could really refuse a thirsty man a drink. Thus the virtue of the local women is dependent upon the role of the prostitute in the village.

I was struck by the role of the church calendar in the lives of the village. I was taken back to my pre-20s days. I would describe myself then as a fairly devote Roman Catholic and a person of serious faith. My life was given direction, organization and meaning by the church calendar.

If we begin with where the Kazantzakis book begins, there was a full forty days of lent. This I took seriously. I fasted, did some particular penitence and mainly gave myself over to the forty days of Lent. This penitence ended with Easter, but not the organization of my life. This was followed by the post-Easter period of 40 more days leading up to the commemoration of the ascension of Jesus to heaven.

Another very sizeable time period was organized by advent and post-Christmas time. A full month of advent, with the advent wreath and candles which we lit each evening at home functioned to keep the coming of Jesus' birth directly before my eyes. Then even after Christmas there was the epiphany and other commemorations which followed. There was the entire month of May which was devoted to Mary and the daily saying of the rosary and various activities which guided my life.

Finally there was a spate of individual feast days of saints and other aspects of Jesus' life, all of which left very little time not "covered" in my meaning system by the year's church calendar.

I was one of those who took all this will a fair amount of seriousness. I would think without question it was the activity which most dramatically organized and guided my daily life. There were other things going on, of course. School, my sports life, family life (the larger family with its birthdays, deaths, weddings, anniversaries and parties), and particular projects in my everyday life -- this or that girl friend, working to buy a bike or fishing pole etc. Nonetheless, the church calendar was the dominant source of meaning and order for my life.

This seems utterly incomprehensible today. I am not who I was then. Of course the sine qua non of that world was faith. I had to have that faith. Without it none of it could really have worked. Today, as the radical individualist and atheist I am, that world is just fantastic. Today, to most people I know, such a world is either totally unknown or only known as an historical curiosity of some centuries past, but not at all known as a twentieth century phenomenon.

The Kazantzakis book brought back this whole world. It just seems so strange.

I liked it because it gave clear order, meaning and direction to my life. Now, however, it seems so much like Santa Claus did when I was very young, a storybook fiction which harmlessly organized the life of a young boy. What is perhaps more astonishing, maybe even scary, about this latter notion is how it organized the life of the me who was supposed to be a responsible adult. I know in some intellectual sense that such faith can really organize the meaning system of serious and responsible adults. I am just so far from that world that it does seem to me a past that is forever gone and hard to take seriously.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett