The auditorium is filled to capacity. The school orchestra is engaged in a lively and loud rendition of Pomp and Circumstance. The academic procession begins. It wends its way in, down the aisle, onto the stage. Faculty and Deans, Trustees and Visiting professors, Presidents from other universities, distinguished guests … all in academic regalia … robes and hoods and caps, velvet and silk in an array of colors.
The occasion is the inauguration of the new President of the American College of Greece. The American College of Greece is Europe’s oldest and largest, comprehensive, U.S.-accredited academic institution and the largest private institute of education in Greece.
I am there, a guest of the President, to offer the Benediction. I have been flown in to deliver a two-minute Benediction. I have been flown from Boston, Massachusetts to Athens, Greece, Business Class, to deliver a two minute Benediction. I have been flown from Boston to Athens, put up in my own apartment, with a stunning, panoramic view of Athens from my private balcony, my kitchen and refrigerator stocked with food, to deliver a two-minute Benediction. It is, hands down, the best gig I have ever had.
President Horner’s invitation to me is very deliberate. The American College of Greece was founded by a female Congregational Missionary from Boston. In 1875, Maria West boarded a ship from a wharf in Boston Harbor and sailed to Asia Minor with the mission of founding there a school for girls … with the express mission of offering to girls the opportunity to learn, to read and to write, to investigate the world, to study science and math, medicine and the arts.
At his Inauguration, President Horner hopes to embody the school’s heritage … the two streams of culture, language and religion, that still course through the school’s bloodstream: Boston and Athens, English and Greek, Orthodox and Congregational, a surprising and delightful synthesis of Occident and Orient.
President Horner struck upon the idea of capturing and representing these two living, vital streams in two representative personages: first and foremost, representing Greece, His Beatitude, Hieronymos the Second, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece; second, last and least, representing Boston Congregationalism: me.
Yet, as we march into the school’s auditorium to the music of Pomp and Circumstance, there is something amiss. President Horner’s thoughtful idea has hit a snag. His Beatitude, Hieronymos the Second, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, is a no show.
Here’s the story as it was told to me. At the last minute, His Beatitude learned I would be part of the ceremony … that he and I were to be paired bookends to the Inauguration: He the invocator … me the benedictor. This, it seems, was not to be borne. A last minute substitution was made. In the place of His Beatitude there appeared a bishop whose name I never learned, whose hand I never shook, with whom I never exchanged a word.
The substitute Bishop was present and did his duty in offering the Invocationand thereby conferring upon the proceedings the imprimatur of the Greek Orthodox Church … but, he refused to participate in the academic procession.
Instead, the Bishop appeared mysteriously from back stage … offered his Invocation and departed by the same mysterious route … his black garb evaporating into the stage’s black curtains … like magic.
That was two years ago, March of 2009. I am recently returned from my second trip to the American College of Greece. Undeterred by his first failure at ecumenical cooperation and understanding, President David Horner invited me back again …this time to help the American College of Greece celebrate an anniversary.
It was my job to explain to the students what became of the Boston Congregationalists left behind in Boston by their founder, Maria West. In other words, I was to tell them about you!
I explained that American Congregationalism and American Democracy grew up together, hand in glove, each shaping and forming the other.
I explained how and why we had changed and evolved to being among the most progressive churches in America … I described the early ordination of women, of persons of color and of openly gay people.
When the students asked me about how I came to be at Old South Church, I explained to them the Congregational dating system in which lonely clergy look for lonely and compatible churches until they find a good match.
Greece is a mono-religious culture. The Greek Orthodox Church is everything and everywhere. Greek Orthodoxy is what Greeks know of Christianity.
Greek Orthodoxy is patriarchal. The liturgical language of the Greek Orthodox Church is New Testament Greek, a language no one in Greece speaks or understands … which is to say, the liturgy—lengthy, rich and complex— is utterly incomprehensible to virtually every single Greek citizen.
In other words, Greek Orthodoxy and New England Congregationalism are as day is to night.
At the American College of Greece I was an object of profound curiosity. The students had many questions: Does anyone go to your church? What do you do all day? What did your parents say when you told them you would do this thing?
Today is Reformation Sunday … a Sunday celebrated throughout Protestant Christendom … we recall our Protesting Reformers: Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, Jan Hus and John Calvin. We sing strong, stirring Protestant hymns. We recall the struggles, the persecutions, the pain and violence that wracked the followers of Jesus as our forebears engaged in an all out, down and dirty battle over the right way to be church. We feel, perhaps, a touch of sinful pride over being better, newer, more evolved than our cousin faiths … than Orthodoxy and Catholicism.
One of the first questions tourists ask upon entering this sanctuary is this: Is this a Catholic Church? Whenever I encounter that question—and I encounter it a lot—I want to ask: “Why does that matter? This is the house and home of God! What’s the difference if it is Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox … Baptist or Lutheran, Eastern or Western? Don’t you dare let that question affect your experience of the Mysterium Tremendum whose home this is!”
Here is what I wish the tourist would ask … I wish they would ask the same questions asked of me by the students of the American College of Greece: Does anyone go to your church? What do you do all day? What did your parents say when you told them you would do this thing?
Those are questions that take us to matters of some substance.
Here is what is true of Orthodoxy, Protestantism and Catholicism: We all call Jesus, the Child of God, our Savior and Friend. We all partake of bread and cup in hushed and holy remembrance. We all light candles, pray prayers, sing hymns and wonder at the Creator of the Whirling Planets. And this: We all bring to these houses of God our most precious possessions: our children to be baptized; our beloved dead to be received home into the everlasting arms; our money, our dollars as symbols of our devotion and trust.
The motto of the American College of Greece is a Latin phrase: Non Ministrari Sed Ministrare.
These were words first spoken in Arabic, but which the Greeks translate into Greek and we translate into English: “I come,” said Jesus, “Not to be served, but to serve.”
It is the language of Jesus, the common language of our common gospel … the good news of Christ’s love.
Everything else is just so much pomp and circumstance.