By Harrison Blackman and Amanda Blanco
The Book of Acts describes how the Apostle Paul traveled to Athens in the first century A.D. and visited town leaders on a large outcropping below the Acropolis, at a spot known as Areopagus Hill.
Acts 17:23 quotes Paul as saying; “For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”
After the homily, the passage tells us, “Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.” The sermon’s influence had been established for history.
More than two millennia later, on June 29, 2016, the celebration of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul was alive and well on the Areopagus Hill.
A cross and Greek flag had been installed on the rock outcrop, and a grandstand was set up below. A marching band played “Ayios Yiorgos” (St. George) and a color guard entered the scene, followed by a procession carrying the an icon of St. Paul and a group of clergy, including Hieronymos II of Athens, the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece. Since 2008, Hieronymus II has been the head of the Church of Greece, which is an independent branch of the Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Originally a part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Church of Greece was established 1833 after the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire.
The juxtaposition of state symbols (marching band, soldiers, Greek flag) and religious displays (the cross and icons) may have seemed jarring for visitors accustomed to the separation of church and state. However, for Athanasia Kamperi, an Athens-based lawyer who attended the service, Greek culture and Christianity are one and the same.
“[The Greeks] gave their blood to Christ, you cannot set apart Greeks from Orthodoxy,” Kamperi said. “That is the true roots of our country.”
After the service concluded, Kamperi walked towards an icon placed in front of the Areopagus, and following a line of venerators, she kissed the Byzantine-style painting of St. Peter and St. Paul.
“When we go to church, we venerate,” Kamperi said, explaining that the ritual expresses love in the same way one would show affection for a loved one. “When you cross yourself it’s like saying what you believe,” she added.
Kamperi climbed the stairs to the top of the Areopagus, admiring the sunset views of the Acropolis and the city below.
“People come up here and drink beer on the rocks,” she said, indicating that many visitors to the Areopagus are unaware of the greater significance of the site. If there’s one thing Kamperi emphasized, it is imperative for visitors to learn about the Orthodox roots of Greek culture.
“Learn about orthodoxy,” she said, “Learn about Christ.”