Good Friday, the Epitaphios, and COVID-19

This week is Holy Week for many Orthodox Christians, but like last year, the COVID pandemic has changed some of the basic rituals of Orthodox life. Giorgos Papantoniou and Thanasis Vionis in a very recent article in the journal Ethnoarchaeology titled “Popular Religion and Material Responses to Pandemic: The Christian Cult of the Epitaphios during the COVID-19 Crisis in Greece and Cyprus.

Papantoniou and Vionis document how practices surrounding the Epitaphios ritual changed in Greece and Cyprus during the pandemic. The Epitaphios is an elaborately decorated wooden bier meant to symbolize the tomb of Christ. The decoration of the bier, generally done by women, is a long-standing tradition during Holy Week that precedes a ritual procession of the Epitaphios by the entire community. The procession of the Epitaphios culminates in the Good Friday mass.

(As an aside I have the fondest memories of watching the Epitaphios processions at East in Athens. It felt like it caused the city to pause for a moment and brought various neighborhoods together both to mourn Christ’s crucifixion, but also to start the final crescendo toward the release of Easter.)

Papantoniou and Vionis document the various ways that people adapted the Epitaphios traditions and rituals to accommodate lockdowns and bans on gatherings. For example, some individuals decorated home made biers in their own homes converting a community and public tradition into a private one that could then be shared on social media with a wider community. They also documented how the church transformed the Good Friday procession of the Epitaphios, another event that precipitated a heighten sense of community typically manifest in the bustling collective ritual, into a remote rite where the community engages with the ritual movement of the Epitaphios from a distance or in virtual ways.

The authors suggest that studying the changes that the pandemic brought to the Epitaphios traditions and rituals offers a model for how rituals change during crisis and both reveals certain underlying values that structure the practices and demonstrates how crises can prompt the adaption of rites. While their research has the feeling of being rather preliminary, it offers an intriguing lens through which to think about materiality during the COVID pandemic by considering a ritual with a rather formal structure and practices. It may be that their work is a point of departure, then, for studies of the post-pandemic world that consider the changes that COVID wrought in our everyday lives.

For all my colleagues and friends who observe, have a blessed and restorative Holy Week! 

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