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At the Crossroads of Progress & Tradition

Though it has been nearly two and a half years since I first heard the booming voice of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in the speech he gave in the beautiful and renowned Gaston Hall of Georgetown University, his words still ring as clear to me now as when he first spoke them. Time has passed in a blur since that day in early November of 2009; however, the essence of his speech A Changeless Faith for a Changing World, continue to remind me of the importance of the balance between progress and tradition, an ideal that is especially valuable in today’s society where social change is at its apex.

To be completely honest, I did not know what to expect when I entered Gaston Hall that morning as a Greek-American and junior at Georgetown. Upon entry, one is awe-struck by the campus landmark, and although I had taken a seat in that hall several times before, I yet again had to take a moment to absorb the almost sacred ambiance, an amazing auditorium that has hosted important figures including Hilary Clinton, Barak Obama, and Prince Charles of Britain in recent years. On that day though, a religious figure and one of the most prominent in Orthodox Christianity shared his enlightening thoughts regarding three themes: non-violence, philanthropy, and environmentalism.

As this man of more than a few incredible titles  (“Archbishop of Constantinople,” “Archbishop of New Rome,” “Ecumenical Patriarch,” and “His All Holiness”) took the stage, there was a palpable sense of reverence for the 270th successor of St. Andrew the Apostle in the storied auditorium of Georgetown. I remember wondering how this figure who is considered a “First Among Equals” in the Eastern Orthodox Church and is so integral to a religious sect and Christianity as a whole would discuss such important, secular developments. But as he began to speak about our faith, the current state of our society, and the ways they overlap in our daily lives, he showed how our secular and spiritual lives are interwoven in the need to work together for the betterment of people. He delivered an elegant and powerful message from which Orthodox Greeks, Christians, and people as a whole can learn a great deal.

One of the most important concepts – and there were many – that he touched on was the fact that progressive movements and conservatism are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they can coexist, for as Patriarch Bartholomew explained poignantly, “True progress is a balance between preserving the essence of a certain way of life and changing things that are not essential.” His Holiness went on to describe how the Orthodox faith has steadfastly held onto its core beliefs, and despite not changing as a religion, has revolutionized aspects of society over the past 2,000 years. Underlying all that change are love and forgiveness, two ideals that are integral to the Christian faith and at the forefront of the Lenten season and Holy Week.

Although his speech was over two years ago, his words are especially memorable and meaningful this week, as the Orthodox community celebrates Holy Week and the Easter holiday through the remembrance of the sacrifice and love expressed in Christ’s death and resurrection. One particular Greek tradition, τσούγκρισμα, which is the tradition of cracking together eggs that have been dyed red to symbolize the blood of Christ and his crucifixion, strikes me in a different way this year, particularly when I recall the significance of the Patriarch’s words. Translated into English, the ritual means “a clinking together; a clashing.” However, this seems not only to apply to the physical action of cracking the eggs, but also to society in general and our way of life in an ever-changing global community.

Holy Week and its significant religious events is replete with symbolism that seems to clash or clink together, so to speak. This egg-cracking festivity has pagan roots, yet it has become a mainstay in our celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The cross itself, which is the symbol for all Christians, was a Roman device used to execute criminals. The Easter holiday occurs during the transition from winter to spring, as trees reemerge from the dead of winter green with leaves and flowers begin to blossom. The egg is a simultaneously a symbol of both life and death, which is the seminal sequence of events for Christians as Jesus gives His life for humanity, saving us and allowing us to live through God’s love.

Our world today is more diverse than ever, as a global population of over seven billion people, wh0 adhere to different beliefs, political ideologies, customs, and rituals, are becoming more interconnected every day. Concurrently, we are reaching new levels of development but are simultaneously causing enormous harm to our home, the environment. We have access to an unthinkable amount of information (both good and bad), and with that information in hand, have the opportunity to act in a way that can be either beneficial or harmful to our global community. We have a divide between two generations, one born into a world devoid of the technological marvels that exist today and forced to rely on hard work and skill to succeed; the other with everything at its fingertips and perhaps feeling entitled to something it has not yet earned.

So how do we reconcile these clashing traditions and emerging issues? How do we achieve sustainable development in order to continue to grow but also preserve our home for our children and future generations? How do we live together as people in a world filled with so many contrasting ideas, beliefs, and developments? How do we move forward without losing the past?

Perhaps the key are those two core elements – love and forgiveness – which the Patriarch continually referenced throughout his speech: a love for humanity and a love for the world in which we live, along with the ability to forgive even when faced with evil and clashes. (Matthew 5: 38-39, 43-44) In a world filled with differences, there has to be the ability to absorb the clashes and to bounce back to a peaceful equilibrium. Very simply, we have to be able to forgive.

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

The words above were not spoken by a Greek or by a Christian. They were, however, spoken by a man who embraced both the traditional ideals of love and forgiveness as he set about to affect change in the world. That man, whom Patriarch Bartholomew highlighted in his speech as one who epitomized non-violent change, was Mahatma Gandhi. Thus, love and forgiveness are not only cornerstones of Christianity, but they are universal characteristics of humanity that transcend race, religion, social status, and time. So as we continue to progress, let us not lose sight of these traditional virtues that are the means to maintain harmony in a changing world.

(To all fellow Greeks, Καλή Ανάσταση, and let the better egg win this Sunday!)