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Accidental Missionaries

Christopher Orr

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The Philanthropy of the God-Bearing Greeks

The sons and daughters of Greece have made contributions to Christianity that the non-Greek world cannot ever thank them enough for. God has blessed them and their language to carry the Faith in a way (linguistically) similar to how our beloved Panagia carried Christ for us. Greek and the Greeks are therefore God-bearing (theophoros), and their love of mankind (philanthropos) is seen in how they have shared, preserved, and dogmatized Christianity via the original lingua franca, their Greek language.

For instance, the pre-Christian, Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint) prepared the way for the propagation of Christianity by making available to the world the Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messiah. The Evangelists Mark, Luke, John and the Apostles Paul targeted Gentiles in their missions and therefore wrote in Greek. It has also been said that Jesus, born during the Hellenistic age of a Roman world, spoke Greek in the course of his ministry in the Decapolis of Galilee, a Hellenistic region.

On the first Christian Pentecost, our Lord sent down the Holy Spirit to his simple, uneducated Apostles and who were then enabled to speak in Greek and all of the languages of those present to spread Christianity to all peoples. The Lord's commandment to "Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" was not repeated in Aramaic because it was the 'original', but in a language understood by the one being baptized (i.e., most often Greek in the eastern Mediterranean).

Pagan Greek philosophy had providentially sharpened the technical vocabulary of the Greek language over the previous centuries enabling it to fully express the Christian mystery of salvation revealed "in the fullness of time". The Ecumenical Councils debated and decreed in Greek, and a proper understanding of this language is essential to the true understanding of the dogmas touching the Trinity and the Person of Christ. The Church of Old Rome and the West took into its own Latin Mass the Kyrie, eleison in Greek. The Orthodox Catholic faith was also experientially confirmed in Greek by the Athonite Fathers and St. Gregory Palamas, and it was preserved in Greek during the bitter, martyric centuries of the Turkokratia.

The importance of the Greek language and Christian Hellenism in the history of salvation cannot be minimized. In fact, we should recommit ourselves to inculcating them into our children and society at large. They should be the bedrock of a comprehensive Greek Orthodox educational system across the country.

At the same time, however, it is paramount to remember that our most important mission, as Church, is living and learning the Orthodox Christian faith itself. Let us not fool ourselves. Half of a Sunday morning Liturgy and a smattering of Holy Week services in Byzantine Greek will not teach our children Modern Greek. Neither will the casual teaching of demotic Greek in our parishes' Greek Schools make the Greek of the Divine Services and the Septuagint intelligible to Greek-American children when the average, native born young person in Greece does not. The Divine Liturgy calls the laity "the rational sheep" of Christ, and it is irrational to worship and pray in a language unintelligible to us. We must either:

  • Ensure that every member of our parish is educated and fluent in the Greek of the Divine Services, or
  • Worship in the best form of the language of the people.

Summer trips to Greece teach a love of Greece and Greek, but what does a lifetime of incomprehensible Divine Liturgies teach? Our priests' sermons are in English because it is important that we understand the Gospel. By leaving major portions of the Divine Services in Greek only, we are saying they are not important enough to need to be intelligible.

Has the Greek Orthodox Church become reduced to the Greek language alone? Does Greek Orthodoxy have nothing else of value to offer the world and other Orthodox churches? Of course not. St. Kosmas Aitolos struggled to preserve the Greek language so as to preserve the Orthodoxy of the persecuted Greek people, not simply out of love for the Greek language. The Greek Confessors who suffered and persevered under centuries of hostile Muslim rule teach us something no other Orthodox people can.

In fact, nurturing this specifically Greek kind of faith will help to keep second and third generation Greek-Americans faithful members of the Greek Orthodox Church in a secular world less overtly, though perhaps more vigorously, hostile to Orthodoxy than was the Ottoman Empire. As more Greek-Americans have English as their mother tongue, it will be through their Orthodox faith that they will learn to love Greece, the Greek language, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate - and find salvation.

Orthodox Christians are called to follow their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, sacrificing everything thing for the "one thing needful". Muslims converting to the Orthodox Faith face murder at the hands of their own families. Some American Protestants are faced with being "shunned" by their families never to see them again after their conversion to the Orthodoxy. A shared pain of all converts is that public prayers for non-Orthodox parents and grandparents are not allowed- a blessing which is taken for granted by most Orthodox as they serve Memorials for their loved ones. However, Jesus as rose from the dead, so, too, the convert to the Orthodox faith gains Life beyond their previous imagining.

Sts. Cyril and Methodios' work to translate the Bible and the Orthodox services into Slavonic gained for the Greek Church the Slavic churches which dwarf the number of Greek Orthodox Christians. This gift of salvation in the Slav's own language has only strengthened the love of these non-Greek peoples for Greece and the Greek language. These same Slavs, in return, have paid their debt to the Greek Church over the centuries by supporting the persecuted Greek people, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, as well as the Greek monasteries of Agion Oros and the Holy Land.

This love for Greece and Greek can be had here in America, too, born from the salvation brought to them by the accidental, Greek missionaries that came to America as immigrants and refugees. The English-language worship of the Greek Orthodox faithful in America will spur the faithful (Greek and non-Greek) to love, learn and preserve the Christian Hellenism of those who preserved and taught them the Orthodox Faith.

But, how can America (and 3rd generation Greek-Americans) love the Greek Orthodox Church unless they understand it? When these Americans understand, they will respond to the saving philanthropy of the God-bearing Greeks by loving both Greece and Greek. Who cannot but love a people who would give so much?

Christopher Orr splits his time time between New York City and the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. He is a Reader and choir member at an OCA parish in Manhattan. In Pennsylvania, he is an active member of a Greek Orthodox parish where he serves in a number of roles.

Posted: 01-Feb-06



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