I was privileged to have spent almost two weeks in Greece this summer. I had the pleasant task of baptizing the granddaughter of a very dear friend. Greece is the premier laboratory of western history and civilization. Whatever period of time or era one wishes to examine, it is all there. For Christians who study the New Testament scriptures, there is no better place to walk in the footsteps of St. Paul than Greece.
On Sunday, August 3rd, I took the commuter train from Kifissia, a northern suburb of Athens, to go to Monastiraki, the closest station to the ancient Athenian agora or market place just under the shadow of the Acropolis. I wanted to walk through the ancient city ruins and end up on Mars Hill known in the book of Acts chapter 17 as the Areopagus. It is a small rocky hill where St. Paul stood and addressed the Athenian philosophers and skeptics, preaching to them the gospel message of Jesus Christ. I wanted to stand where Paul stood nearly 2000 years before and to vicariously sense through my spiritual imagination a little of what he saw and experienced.
The train was packed...standing room only. A few feet away from me stood a young man who was intently looking at me. At every station stop he inched his way closer to me. Half way on the 30 minute ride into downtown Athens, we were almost face to face. "Excuse me, may I ask you a question?" he said in Greek. "Are you from Crete?" "Why do you ask?" I responded. "Well I noticed you're dressed all in black and since Cretans love the color of black, I just thought you were from Crete as I am," he said. "I'm dressed in all black because I'm a priest," I replied. "An Orthodox priest?" he asked, somewhat surprised. "Yes" I answered. "You're kidding me! Our priests wear the long black robes and stove pipe type hats," he reminded me. "Well" I said, "I'm a Greek Orthodox priest from the U.S. and there most of our priests when not in church wear the black suit and clerical shirt." "By the way" he continued, in a form of Greek slang. "What's that white "thingamajig" in your collar?" "It is a symbol; a white tab representing my priestly calling," I said. He looked puzzled but reluctantly accepted my answer.
With a dialogue now open, I asked this twenty-something young man, who was wearing an open shirt down to his belt buckle, a question of my own. "May I now ask you a question?" I said in Greek. "Sure, no problem," he answered. "Tell me," I inquired with some humor in my voice. "That "thingamajig" hanging around your neck, what is it?" "It's a gold cross," he answered somewhat caught off balance by my question. "I can see that, but what does it mean to you, and why do you wear it?" I quickly responded.
He seemed stunned by my question. I'm convinced no one ever asked him such a thing. "I don't know, I've worn it most of my life. And besides that, its very trendy and fashionable. I think it is sexy," he said with a satisfied smile.
Our conversation ended as we got off the train at Omonia Station and we went our separate ways. I thought about his answer for a long time. Look around, and you will find literally countless people, like that young man, who wear crosses around their necks as items of jewelry...as accessory accents to their wardrobes. We have them in gold, silver, and brass; crosses in every shape configuration and design, from cheap trinkets to the most exquisite precious stone settings. Crosses are worn by people like you and me, without much thought given as to why we wear them. The fundamental question for St. Paul on Mars Hill speaking to the Athenians and for us today is: What does the cross mean to us? Why do we wear them? What is our response if asked the question by an inquiring stranger?
No answer can be all inclusive, since it must be personal and be backed up by sincere conviction. For me, it means that as Christians who bear witness to the true cross of Christ, we have by grace crucified our "old sinful nature" and can now have the potential be partakers of what St. Peter calls the "divine nature." It follows that to be cross bearers, we are released from the limitations of living for the "flesh alone...for the self alone." We spiritually die to the delusion of sin, being transformed daily by the Holy Spirit and opening ourselves up to the divine circulation of energy and light, while remaining fully engaged in the world we live in. We are saved from the corrosiveness of our own ego and narcissism.
Our "Old Self" states St. Paul, "was crucified with Him so that the sinful body might be destroyed...for sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under grace."(Romans 6:6 and 14) As I stood on that Athenian hill where Paul stood and looked at the Acropolis as he once did, I took my pectoral cross in my hands and reflected with renewed enthusiasm the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost?" (Luke 9:23-25)