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Over the weekend I got into a conversation about how different it is being Orthodox in America versus being Orthodox in Greece. Here in the U.S. we are a vast minority split into several different jurisdictions with a sprinkling of communities that still leave many believers hundreds of miles away from the nearest church. The prevailing culture has very little concept of Orthodoxy, and many aren’t even aware that it exists.

In contrast, Greece is overwhelmingly Orthodox. Its culture is replete with Orthodox traditions. Orthodox churches are everywhere and ever present. In most major cities, a church is five minutes away. In places like Thessaloniki, it seems that you trip over the relics of saints because there are so many. There are places where you can stand and walk where St. Paul preached and went about his missionary work to the Gentiles. Here in America, we tend to associate Greece with the Illiad, the Odyssey, the gods of Mt. Olympus and philosophy. We forget that Greece is a holy place that we can read about in the Bible.

The conversation had an undercurrent in it that wanted to say that Greece being different than America meant it was better. I must emphatically disagree. Being Orthodox anywhere in the world is being Orthodox. It is no more difficult here than in Greece, we just face different challenges and have different tools to work with.

In his Sermon XXIII On the Nativity, St. Leo the Great reminds us that “our fundamentally corrupt origin had to be re-born afresh.” Christ came for everyone, no matter the race, the nationality or the culture. In fact, Orthodoxy has a long tradition of baptizing the cultures that it is in — transforming elements of a culture from their secular or pagan origins into a Christian understanding of the world. We see St. Paul doing this with the altar to the Unknown God in Acts 17. We decorate Christmas trees because we have transformed this pagan symbol of life in the middle of winter into a symbol of the everlasting life Christ gives us through His Nativity.

One of the biggest challenges that we face as Orthodox Christians in America is taking the American culture and transforming it so that it speaks to the Orthodox world-view. This work has already begun. Lest we forget, America also has its saints. We celebrated three of them this weekend — St. Herman of Alaska, St. Peter the Aleut and St. Juvenal of Alaska the Hieromartyr.

Synaxis of North American Saints
Shown forth in this icon of the Synaxis of North American Saints are:

  • St. Alexander the Hieromartyr
  • St. Alexis the Defender of Orthodoxy
  • St. Herman of Alaska
  • St. Innocent of Alaska
  • St. Jacob the Enlightener of Alaska
  • St. John of Chicago, Protomartyr of the Bolshevik Revolution
  • St. Juvenal of Alaska the Hieromartyr
  • St. Tikhon of Moscow
  • St. Peter the Aleut
  • St. Raphael of Brooklyn

We are tasked with continuing the work of these great saints — to take our re-birth in Christ and share it with the culture around us, to enable a re-birth of America.

By grace you transformed the northern wilderness into a Paradise flowering with faith in Christ, and you choked the prince of darkness with your unceasing labors. O Herman, you were sent forth an Apostle to Kodiak, raising to the life in God those once dead in idolatry. Hence, joining choir, O peer of Apostles, we hymn your all-honoured feast with praise. — Kathisma from the Orthros for the Feast of St. Herman of Alaska

Amen.