ATHENS – On Palm Sunday I visited the churches of St. Nicholas and the Transfiguration of Christ of Kallithea, a suburb south of Athens. Walking from one to the other, I meditated on the name of the municipality – ‘Kallithea’ means ‘beautiful view’ – like towns named Buena Vista in Spanish – that received its name from residents who delighted in what they could see out of the windows of their homes and as they strolled on their modest, unpaved 19th century streets.
Place names in countries with long histories often reflect geographic and historical realities that no longer exist. New York was established on the Atlantic coast by people who had fond memories of the original city of York and their families in England – there are no longer such ties between the two.
A similar disconnect happened over time south of Athens. Residents of Kallithea are now blocked from what must have been magnificent views of the Acropolis, Philpappous and Lykavitos hills, and the sea by masses of apartment buildings from the 1960s and later. A handful of homes are attractive, the rest can be called non-descript – at best. Walking block after monotonous block evokes thoughts only of … escape, as into the grounds of the gorgeous Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center and nearby existing and soon-to-be-completed parks along the shore.
So, the drab though peaceful neighborhood, notwithstanding its name fails to evoke reflection and observation, which brings us back to the essence of the Holy Week experience.
Historically, it began with Christ riding atop a donkey, with a view of the people cheering him who He knows will soon be calling for his death, and concludes with his view from the Cross and the flash of self-realization of the thief on the right – which is soon rewarded by a view of Paradise.
Observation and perspective.
This is the second year in a row when due to the pandemic Pascha brings together two topics that rarely meet these days – Faith and Science.
It was reassuring to see that clergy and laity in both churches were wearing masks and keeping proper distances, displaying as much concern for the well-being of others as for themselves – taking to heart both the Lord’s Golden Rule and common sense.
Most Leaders of the Church of Greece, from Archbishop Ieronymos on down, are expressing the historical and theological truth that Orthodox Christianity always respects the science of the time – with caveats that scientists themselves appreciate.
Constantinople long ago resolved any conflicts between Athens and Jerusalem – the logic and thought of the ancient Greeks and the faith and feeling of the Hebrews of the Old Testament.
Long ago I read somewhere the instructive quote of St. Basil the Great: “There is nothing more estimable than Reason – it is the light of the rational soul” – i.e. a gift of God, as is all knowledge, including medical science. Indeed which saints are more revered in Orthodoxy than the Holy Unmercenaries, like Saints Kosmas and Damianos, who treated their patients without charging them? They were among the most distinguished physicians of their time, educated in the finest schools of higher learning in the Mediterranean. Those Christian physicians did not wallow in pseudo-science – they were scientists by the standards of their times.
So it pleases me to see that in Kallithea, almost everybody wears masks properly and practices social distancing, which suggests that they also eschew the lies and ignorance of those benighted elements in Church and Society who condemn the only tools – along with patience and prayer – that enable us to overcome COVID. They remind me of the joke, more profound than funny when you think about it, of the drowning man who asked God to save him during a flood, but who drove away the boats and helicopters the Lord sent him.
Which returns us to the idea of a ‘kali’ ‘thea’ (‘kali’ means ‘beautiful’ rather than ‘good’ in ancient Greek), the beautiful vista, both divine and humane, of Christ on His Cross, looking out at suffering and ignorant humanity, loving and forgiving them all. Kalo Pascha!