Church and Nationality
On the Sunday following the Sunday of all Saint, the national Orthodox Churches around the world celebrate their local saints. Greece celebrates its saints, Romania its own, even Mont Athos has its own celebration. The question I am asking myself, is what saints should we celebrate in our Greek Orthodox parish located in Euless, Texas, USA? We are a part of the Greek Archdiocese, but we live in America; our congregation recites the Lord’s Prayer in at least 6 different languages, and each Sunday we serve a bilingual Greek-English Liturgy. So what is it going to be? Hard choice!
But does it have to be that hard? Should we have to choose between our faith and our ethnicity? Shall we quarrel over linguistics and national allegiances while gathered together as the One Body of Christ? Does our belonging to one ethnic group or another help us or harm us? Let’s analyze the evidence.
In the book of Genesis, the scripture talks about a unified nation with the same mother tongue that was united around a common goal: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4)
God, however, had different plans: “The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth.” (Genesis 11:6-7)
God divides the people into nations and scatters them around the earth. But surely we may ask ourselves, why so? We find a clue in the book of Psalms in a verse that qualifies what the purpose of a nation should actually be: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!” (Psalm 33:12).
Were the people building the tower doing this? Were they trying to glorify God’s name thorough their heritage, culture, and deeds as a nation? They were actually accomplishing the contrary; their goal was to make a name for themselves, not to praise God’s name. Same old story of the betrayal of Lucifer, the fall of Adam, Cain’s murder, and so on. God divided them to humble them and to protect them from the wicked deeds they could have accomplished together.
Out of all these nations, He will be choosing one worthy nation that will properly obey and glorify Him “and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed because you have obeyed Me.” (Genesis 22:18). It would be through this nation that the incarnation of God the Word would be made possible and the salvation of the human race would be accomplished.
So, it’s only one nation that matters in the end? Jesus Christ seemed to say so initially, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). But this same nation that He came to save will betray Him in the end. The same people singing “Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 21:9), for His miracles, will end up crying out, “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” (Mark 15:13).
Rejected by his own people, Jesus Christ turns to the gentiles, sending His disciples into the world with a clear purpose: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). At Pentecost, He gives the Apostles the ability to speak in different languages so that the tongues that were confused after the Tower of Babel will be united again in one voice, the voice of the Spirit permeating Christ’s One body. The Holy Apostle Paul re-affirms in his turn this universal faith in Jesus Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
So now, as Christians, we all are again a new holy nation, united in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit to witness the faith to all the nations, showing Christ’s light unto all. “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people; that you should show forth the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1Peter:2-9)
Does this mean, however, that our cultural ethnic heritage does not matter? That we should all forget that we are Americans, Greeks, Russian, Bulgarians, Jordanians, Romanians, and so forth? Does this really count for nothing?
Here is an answer from Romanian theologian Fr. Dumitru Staniloae:
“There is a type of nationalism which, if practiced with faith, is not detrimental to our salvation, even if it is not the nationalism itself that saves us, but the Christian spirit that we choose to infuse in it. Nationalism does not save on its own, nor it is against salvation. In practice, however, any nationalism either saves or condemns as it is based on the Christian faith or not.”
What kept the Greeks or Serbs, Bulgarians or Romanians from becoming Turks under the Ottoman Empire rule? The faith that they embedded in their national pride until it became synonymous with it. Remember “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”? When the groom was baptized, he did not just become Orthodox, He became Greek! Yes, one can say this is wrong on so many levels, but I know what it meant for the people there: being Greek equals Orthodox. You cannot be Greek without being Orthodox; the Greek nation is a Christian Orthodox nation. Period.
The Greeks are not alone in this belief. Saint Constantin Brancoveanu, the King of Romania, chose to die with his sons, rather than renounce his religion and national identity under the Turks. King Lazar of Serbia died in battle to defend His country and prevent its inclusion into the Ottoman Empire. I know that all Orthodox Nations share similar worthy examples. A true nation is, in the end, defined by its choices, by the way in which it leads its citizens. As such, a nation can lead to salvation or away from it, based on the path it chooses to walk on.
So, again, what shall we celebrate today? I suppose we can celebrate all the saints that we brought here from our mother countries into our new mother country; let America know their example of faith. But we’ll do this without forgetting to celebrate the lives of those who planted the seed of the Orthodox faith in the new country we live in, the American Saints. We should always remember where we came from while being thankful for where we are. We should glorify God through our past, present, and future, wherever we might live, and God will make sure that we all inherit His Heavenly Kingdom, our ultimate nationality.
Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network. You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.