The double holiday of March 25th is significant because it marks a celebration of both spiritual and earthly freedom – the freedom extended to all mankind from the tyranny of death and necessity which was announced to the Virgin Mary by the archangel, and the freedom won by (a portion) of the Greek people from the yoke of Ottoman subjugation.
The Greeks, of all peoples, are blessed to celebrate their day of independence on such an auspicious occasion, because, after all, Hellenes, more than anyone else, were the first to massively embrace the “good news” of Christ’s Gospel.
The message of freedom from necessity and the problem of death revolutionized the Hellenic worldview and provided the answer to the existential problems that they had been wrestling with for centuries. This is central to explaining why the new-found faith spread as it did throughout the Hellenic world and was safeguarded throughout the centuries in the face of harsh challenges.
The answer to the age-old philosophical question about the role of God – known as the “prime mover” in Aristotelian metaphysics – and his dependency on necessity was finally manifested. Every ancient tragedy inevitable would point to the “oppressive” order of the cosmos, in which everyone was a cog operating within a larger system.
Within this framework, the gods, too, were subject to the laws of the universe. For example, if the “primary mover” has no choice by to move all living things, it then must be concluded that there is something greater than the divinity of the “primary mover” himself; necessity. The law that compels him to exist trumps his own power, thus subjecting him to the laws of nature as well.
Millennia before Bill Murray illustrated how oppressive such an existence can be in Groundhog Day, Greece’s philosophers and thinkers pondered on whether true freedom was ever really achievable. Namely, was it possible for God – the supreme being – to cease existing if he really wished? If not, God, like man, was ultimately bound like Prometheus.
The birth of Christ and the revelation of the Trinitarian relationship that is God’s definite quality as manifested by the Christian faith released Hellenism from its bonds. God’s manner of existence – relational (as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and not absolute as supreme being or prime mover – fundamentally alters the Hellenic worldview.
Existence (and subsequently freedom and life) now moved from an axis centered around the biological laws of nature to an axis centered around ontological relationships that have the power to transcend those laws through communion with divine grace, which took on flesh.
This chapter of salvation begins with the Virgin Mary’s decision to accept the “good news” conveyed to her by the archangel and cooperate in the divine plan. And in bearing Christ through virgin birth, she also bears liberty.
This act of divine intervention immediately captivated the liberty-loving Greeks, who would subsequently identify their presence in history with this salvific event. Throughout the centuries of glory or despair that would follow – whether citizens of one empire or subjects of another, yet cosmopolitan and full of nobility in either instance nonetheless – they devoted their lives to defending this freedom and mode of existence.
Whether quarreling with the Latins over their novelties that threatened to turn the liberating faith into just another legalistic religion or fighting against the Ottomans who sought to impose the tyranny of the orient and subjugate the Hellenic “community of persons” to nomadic whimsies and sultanic excess, the Hellenes (or Romioi – Romans – as they also called themselves) sought to live out their cultural otherness by safeguarding these transcendental relationships.
Their fasts, the humble oil lamp that burned next to the ever-present icon-stand, the blessing of homes with holy water, the common prayers they shared in the language of their forefathers(!), a system of education that treasured both the ancient poetry of Homer and the psalms of King David, both of which served as primers for secret students during the dark days of Ottoman rule, the regular gathering at the parish (the successor to the ancient ecclesia) to celebrate the divine liturgy where everyone could participate by offering and partaking of the holy gifts all served as pre-cursors to the War of Independence in 1821.
It was the continuation of these acts despite measures aimed at wiping them out – which extended from heavy taxation and acts of degradation all the way to kidnapping and murder – that served as the ample wood that kept the revolutionary fire burning deep in the soul of the freedom-loving Greek people.
And when the hour came, the valor that has watered the hero-bearing soil of Hellas with the blood of brave fighters appeared once again and the miracle of 1821 became a reality! Georgios Karaiskakis ably took the place of Miltiades and Odysseas Androutsos of Leonidas.
The Spartan mothers who told their sons to return home with their shields or dead on them were succeeded by brave mothers like Laskarina Bouboulina who bade their husbands and sons to take the battlefield crying freedom or death, and even took up arms in their absence. Members of the clergy like Papaflessas or Athanasios Diakos risked their “individual salvation” to join their countrymen in the armed struggle!
The manic love for freedom possesses the Hellenes, who set out once again on “the road to love,” which is the etymological meaning of the word “eleftheria,” or liberty.
Their struggle to follow what that for which their soul yearned (a guiding principle for Hellenes since ancient times, when Aristotle wrote “to seek utility everywhere is entirely unsuited to men that are magnanimous and free”) was the inspiration for 1821.
It is a liberty that proceeds from the sacred bones of the Hellenes, who once again appear valiant. It is the spirit of liberty, which inspires Greek national poet Dionysios Solomos (translation by Kipling), who calls upon liberty to: “behold now thy sons, with impetuous breath, go forth to the fight, seeking Freedom or Death.”
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