The last time I was at my seminary, I ran into my friend Fr. Les Ferguson, who graduated a couple years behind me. He was wearing a black t-shirt with white lettering across the front, which I eventually identified as ancient Greek script. I asked what it said, since I barely passed Greek at seminary, and I immediately regretted asking. The words on Fr. Ferguson’s shirt said “It’s all Greek to me.”
St. Paul immediately regretted going to Greece, and arriving in Athens just amplified his regret. The “area was inhabited well before the 6th century BCE. The name Athens stems from the goddess Athena and is pluralized because it took in the territory of a number of smaller villages. The focal point of the city is the naturally raised platform Acropolis. In the early stages of development, while other parts of the ancient Greek world rose to spectacular levels of civilization, Athens was just one of many city-states. Around 620 BCE, Draco, an Athenian aristocrat, initiated the first steps towards order. His reputation for severity comes down to us in the use of the term draconian.”1
Athens became a cultural and educational hub, and also a target. The Athenians famously clashed with the Spartans and with many others, but even when they lost, they bounced back to greater heights. “In 146 BCE, Athens fell under the rule of the rising western power of the Romans who remained its master for over 500 years.”2
It was into this Roman controlled Athens that Paul arrived, and he did not like what he saw. Luke described Paul as being paroxyno. Remember that Luke was a doctor, and he used a medical term in his assessment of Paul: paroxyno describes the symptoms of an epileptic seizure. Paul was physically bothered by his surroundings. He was pitching a fit.
His surroundings? “An ancient historian once said of Athens: “It is easier to find a god there, than a man.” Everywhere Paul looked, there were altars, shrines, and temples. There was one to Athena, one to Zeus, one to Ares, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Neptune, Diana. Athens was a veritable forest of idols.”3 Faithful Jews are not big on idols, nor graven images.
Like James Bond’s martinis, Paul was shaken, but he was also stirred. Stirred by the Holy Spirit, Paul could not abandon the people of Athens to their false gods. “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” Paul knew that what he had to say would not be particularly well received, so complimenting his listeners was a good start. Paul goes on to attach the Living God to a god the Athenians somehow sensed, enough to build an altar to Him, the unknown god, sensed but never knew. He made his argument, witnessed to the risen Christ, and made more than a couple converts that day.
We live in a time and space that’s not so different from first century Athens. Idols are all around, idols I’m too familiar with. In my case, they’re not named Ares, Jupiter, or Athena, but rather Iphone, artisanal meats, and Netflix. Christian values are not the assumed civic norm, and we have all heard of the rise of the “nones”, those who list their religious affiliation as “none”.
It is no longer enough to open the doors and assume people will just come in, though here that actually seems to be rather effective. To fully engage in the mission of Christ in Bordentown, it’s what we do when we go out those doors that will distinguish us. Proclaiming Christ to Bordentown in 2017 might take new approaches, and so we’re on that track. Social media might well be the new Areopagus, and so we post daily on Facebook and Twitter, and our Instagram game is getting stronger. Like Paul, we have to meet the people of Bordentown where they are, wherever that might be, however comfortable or uncomfortable that place might be for us.
The state of the world might give us paroxyno, it might send us into fits, but like Paul, we won’t abandon our city to the forces bent on dominating us. Rather, stirred by the Holy Spirit, we will use every means our Lord provides to witness to the risen Christ.