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Vol. 1 No. 1 - Feast of St. Nicholas 2006

Canada: Doorway to a New Christian Commonwealth?

"They will come from the east and the west, from the north and from the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God" - Luke 13:29

Some of us long for the good old days. In the case of some Orthodox Christians, the "good old days" often take the form of the Byzantine Empire - the height of Christian life amoung the Hellenes - or Holy Russia, the age of great monasteries and spiritual elders. Others may look to other, smaller Orthodox kingdoms, east or west, such as the Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Anglo-Saxons or Franks.

For nationalists, there is something very comforting in nostalgia, the sense that the greatness of the past does not ever really pass away. Yet the earthly reality is quite different: Holy Russia crumbled into atheistic Communism, the Byzantines were overrun by Moslem Turks, and most Greeks and Russians today are not calling for a return of their Orthodox Emperors. Like everything carnal, nationalism finds its end in the dust of time - yet unlike everything carnal, something about these great Orthodox Empires lives on in the heart of every Orthodox Christian, in every prayer, in each Divine Liturgy.

What is this essential quality that lives on? It is in fact the very opposite of the narrow nationalism that characterizes much Orthodox parish life in North America: it is in fact the essence of Orthodoxy, which goes beyond culture, which embraces the whole human race in the historic, Orthodox Christian Faith, to such an extent that Orthodox Christianity becomes the culture of an individual or a nation. This was evident in the multiracial - and multilingual - life of the great Orthodox Empires. In the case of Russia, it was Orthodox baptism - not bloodline or ethnicity or language - which determined citizenship in the Empire. The European Slav, the Scandinavian, the Asiatic, the Alaskan Aleut - all were equally citizens of the same Eternal Empire, since all shared the same baptism. This was the inheritance of Byzantium, whose genius transformed the pagan Roman idea of citizenship - loyalty to a false Imperial god - into the only eternal brotherhood of all those who call God their Father. Given centuries of politics, wars, and bloodfeuds, it is remarkable indeed that this sense of eternal citizenship continues to exist at all amoung Orthodox Christians the world over to this day.

The age of states made up of a single people or language is over. Immigration, and the international economy, have made this a thing of the past. This new reality is sometimes discouraging and confusing to Orthodox people, who struggle to find an Orthodox identity in a culturally diverse world. Yet cultural and linguistic diversity are the very situations in which Orthodox Christianity has always flourished. The reason is simple: when the Church is surrounded by diverse cultures and languages, it is forced to look outward, to share the Gospel with those around it. This is the same condition that motivated Saints Cyril and Methodius to create a new written alphabet to share the Gospel with pagan Slavs (in their own day, it was as impossible to imagine Christian Slavs as it would be to imagine Orthodox Saudis or Iranians today - or Orthodox Canadians, for that matter). It was the same cultural diversity, including a complex patchwork of languages, and ethnic intermarriage, which allowed Saint Innocent and the other Alaskan missionaries relative ease in spreading the Orthodox Faith among native Alaskans. Where cultural diversity and contact was greatest, so often was mission work.

Where do we find the greatest degree of such cultural diversity today? We do not need to look very far: it's in Canada. And linguistic diversity? Again, the answer is in Canada. In particular, the city of Toronto allows an individual to encounter virtually every culture and language in the world living within a one mile area. Montreal, Vancouver, and to a lesser extent other Canadian cities, present a similar picture. This is the same picture that confronted the missionary saints of past centuries.

What does this mean for Orthodox Christians in Canada? Regrettably, many Orthodox mourn the loss of their ancestral tongue, and try to drown their sorrows in the pursuit of better heritage language and dance programs for their children and grandchildren. Neither of these has anything to do with the work of the Church. If we view our Canadian situation with the eyes of saints like Cyril, Methodius, Innocent, Gregory the Great, and others, our best investment in eternity would be time spent in the heritage language classes of other cultures, such as the Chinese and Arabs, whose numbers swell in Canadian cities, and whose children fill our public schools. Our funds would flow toward the translation of liturgical texts, lives of the saints, and writings of holy elders into Urdu, Mandarin, and Vietnamese (and for our American neighbours, Spanish, which accounts for over forty percent of the first language of all American citizens). French missions deserve special attention. Canada is blessed with freedom of movement throughout the largest national landmass in the world, and the Lord's providence has preserved us free from war on our soil since a small group of American troops were driven back to Niagrara Falls generations ago.

Canada presents the greatest missionary opportunity in the history of the world, a doorway into every culture and nation on earth, and the legal protections to offer some safety from fear of reprisals to those from every background who would embrace Christ. Even Holy Russia and Byzantium could not guarantee such security in certain of their regions - but we can, and do.

Of course, most Orthodox Christians in Canada will not pay attention to any of this, preferring to die a demographic death within their own nationalist ghetto. Yet a few will follow in the path of saints live Cyril, Methodius, Innocent, and Gregory the Great, and will grab the opportunity the Lord has presented to us. Regardless of the language or culture of a mission parish, it is in this - and only in this - that we find the true inheritance of Byzantium and Holy Russia: that outward-looking Christian love that recognizes its only real citizenship is a Heavenly one.

Father Geoffrey Korz, (Feast of St. Nicholas, 2006)

© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.