Vol. 1 No. 2 - Nativity 2006
Terrorism, Airlines, and the Mission of Saint John
"If I go up into heaven, Thou art there..." - Psalm 138(9):8
For much of Church history, Saint Nicholas has held a special place in the hearts of the faithful from every place, including his unique place as patron of travelers, particularly seafarers. For the modern commuter, the holy Prophet Elias (Elijah), who was taken into Heaven in a chariot of fire, is an intercessor whose prayers should be more frequently invoked for safe travel by automobile (this is one reason many Orthodox faithful have their cars blessed on the summertime feastday of the Prophet Elias).
Although gasoline prices command the intermittent attention of the millions who travel by car, no one with access to the media can escape the inevitable attention given to air travel in the age of international terrorism. Just as air travel has opened up immigration, and the increasing internationalization of most countries in the world, so too has it become the focus of those who would tear down bridges, and replace them with walls. International terrorism is about much more than disrupting travel or making political inroads: it is about imposing one cultural worldview - even one language - on the whole world, in the form of religion.
Only two world religions - Christianity and Islam - might make the claim to be faiths for all people, for all cultures. Yet the realities of international terrorism - Islamic terrorism that follows in the same pattern as its founder - put the lie to any claim that Islam has multicultural aims. Islam has always been the vehicle for exporting the supremacy of one culture - the Quraish tribe of seventh century Arabia - whose norms and values it encapsulates. Whether in its militant or moderate forms, Islam remains a religion which holds one language (Arabic) as the language of Heaven, and esteems one culture (the Arab culture) above all others in the eyes of Heaven. International terrorism is but a blunt expression of the meanderings of over a millennium of Islamic history.
Christianity expresses the opposite of this cultural-religious imperialism. From the witness of the first apostles, we see a mission to the Gentiles, a mission to all nations in which travel - not military campaigns - became a vehicle for evangelism. Contacts with other cultures became a means of integrating the Christian faith in a new land, without compromising the inherited tradition of the saints. And integrate the saints did: Saint Paul became a Gentile for the Gentiles; Saint Nina laid the roots of the Church in Georgia, quite distinct from any Hellenization. The Ethiopian mission absorbed the art, music, and Judaic inheritance of that land, while Saint Cyril penned a new written language for the Slavs, in order that their Christian life might be preserved not in Greek, but in their native languages (many say this is the reason the Slavs remained Orthodox, rather than uni-cultural Latin Christians). It is said that the prince of Rus, Saint Vladimir, finally chose Orthodox Christianity over Islam, not simply because of the splendour of the Liturgy at Constantinople, but also because the mullahs would forbid members of his court to drink wine - an unthinkable strangeness in Slavic culture, but a pro forma requirement for those who would emulate the Arabic Quraish.
It is no accident that the roads pagan Rome used to conquer nations and Romanize them, became for Saint Paul and others the avenues for Christianization, an effort to transform a culture from within, rather than imposing a new and artificial culture from without. Just as Christ transfigures each person beginning with the spiritual heart, so too, real Christian mission travels to other cultures to bring them, as they are, to the fullness of what they are, in Christ. Come to Christ as what you are, Saint Paul tells us, and become more than you are now (1 Cor. 7:17-24).
The advent of international air travel, and multicultural communities, provide all sorts of complications to life in the modern world, especially in the West. But for Orthodox Christians, the speed of travel provides one great opportunity: crossing cultures with the Gospel of Christ at a rate never experienced since the Tower of Babel. The acceleration of Orthodox missions in places like Africa, the Philippines, Indonesia, and China, must give one pause when one considers the Lord's words, "This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to the nations, and then the end will come." (Matt. 24:14). Thirty years ago, many Orthodox would have thought this referred to the work of the Gideons Bible Society; now we're waking up to the reality that the Lord was actually referring to us doing the preaching, and to all nations becoming Orthodox Christians.
In 1966, Saint John Maximovich, the first glorified saint to ever travel by air, reposed in San Francisco, where his incorrupt and miracle-working relics rest to this day. His life was essentially a travelogue of missionary work to a dozen different cultures and languages: Russians, Serbs, French, Dutch, Philippinos, Chinese, Dutch, and North Americans of all cultural backgrounds. It was Saint John who made widely known the plight of Orthodox Christians in the Far East. It was Saint John who insisted on the reintroduction of Orthodox saints of the West onto the calendar of the Russian Church. It was Saint John who laboured to establish and strengthen indigenous Orthodox churches in each of the countries he visited - not Russian imports for non-Russians, but rather the fullness of Orthodox life, within the context of the culture in which he found himself. It is said that these efforts made such an impact on him, that by the end of his life, he enjoyed (perhaps even preferred?) serving the Divine Liturgy in Mandarin Chinese. (One Russian Canadian woman who knew the saint in Shanghai in his early days spoke of his discomfort with using the Chinese language; here again, we see the growth of God's grace as even the saints labour in love to reach out beyond themselves, thereby growing in grace).
Perhaps as we celebrate the feast of Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco each Canada Day weekend (Old Style Church Calendar), we should remember him not only as a great saint of North America, but also as patron of air travel, and of the many immigrants and refugees who, like him, seek refuge on North American shores. For in this we will find the essence of the thing that sets Orthodox Christianity apart from all other religious claims: it is the Faith which is itself a citizenship above nation, whose Communion unites those divided by time, space, and culture, and the spread of which is an opportunity Saint John has, by his prayers, laid at our very doorstep.
Father Geoffrey Korz, (Nativity, 2006)
© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.