Trying to separate Orthodox Christianity from the cultures that had been formed by the faith for centuries, in a pluralistic Western culture, is like trying to separate water from wine; simply impossible.
In the same way we can not invent our own history, nor can we pretend that we are isolated from those who have given us a foundation to build upon; we can not discount the faith of those Orthodox Christians who came to North America, nor the cultures they came from. Indeed our faith exists on this continent and in this country, because we have received an inheritance from those who brought it with themselves when they traveled across the world to settle in these “new lands”.
We also can not pretend that our own history precludes the possibility for new stories, encounters and interpretations. Indeed our faith compels us to build upon the foundation of faith we have received (1 Cor. 3:10), as it is the Lord who calls us to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Mt. 28:19). For Orthodox Christians in a non Orthodox culture, maintaining the relevancy of culture and faith – history and the future – heritage and variation, is a difficult balance to achieve. Yet regardless of whether we be converts, or cradle Orthodox Christians, it is an important one that we are called to consider on this feast of All Saints of North America.
From the moment those blessed Orthodox Missionaries set foot in Alaska in 1794, to the work of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco (+1966) or Matushka Olga of Alaska (+1979), this balance of culture and faith – history and the future – heritage and variation, was a struggle they sought to (and did) balance. It wasn’t as if they went to work perfectly recreating life in Greece, Ukraine, Russia, Serbia, or Romania when they set foot in this “new world”, or that they forsake everything to be proper Canadians, or Americans.
For these Saints, the questions about culture and faith – history and the future – heritage and variation was not an “either or” paradigm; rather it was “both”. They found ways to convey our faith that pointed towards the future of the Kingdom, and could include variations so as to be understood by those whom they encountered; without excluding the culture taught them to live the faith; a witness to the heritage of holy history. When St. Tikhon arrived in New York in 1898, he lamented leaving behind his homeland, friends and family; yet he reassured his new flock, however, with words from the prophet Hosea, “I will say to them which were not my people, Thou art my people…” (Hosea 2:23). He told them essentially that, just as he was one with the people of Russia, and loved them; so he now was one with the people of this “new world”, and would love them equally.
This balance is no easy task, as it always will present challenges that are akin to any Cross -and all the Saints we commemorate this day bear those blessed wounds of love. It is also a challenge today for our priests and communities to apply. Truly I have been blessed by priests and communities throughout North America (and especially here in Winnipeg) that have resisted the “either or” paradigm, in their struggle to preach “both”. A witness to the “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit”.
Although only a few of our Churches will be celebrating the feast of All Saints of North America (the parishes part of the Orthodox Church in America), the witness of those blessed Saints that have been revealed to us (and those who are known only unto God) is nonetheless a confirmation of what can happen when we strive for this balance. Strong and healthy communities with Christians who love the Lord God with all their heart’s, all their soul’s, and with all their mind’s (Mt. 22:37) that balance culture and faith – history and the future – heritage and variation, through everything they offer, whether it be in the food they prepare (loukoumades, or Nanaimo bars), the clothing they wear (vyshyvanka, or a three piece suit), and the prayers they sing (Boh predvichnyi, or Silent Night).
It is also a call to us to give glory to God for the richness of those Orthodox cultures that have produced such beautiful saints, customs and services; without excluding the Gospel revelation that “there is neither Jew nor Greek (and we could add, Ukrainian, Serb, Romanian, English or French), there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). There was never an “either or” paradigm for St. Paul, in the same way there was never an “either or” paradigm for the Saints who shone brightly on this continent. There was only “both”; perfected in Jesus Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit, poured into our hearts at the Pentecost that is our baptism.
May the Lord bless us all in giving glory to God for “both”, in the continued work of the Saints who laboured here (even in Manitoba) in our villages, towns and cities, as they did in the villages, towns and cities they came from.