Day 1 in Athens: ancient temples, pink food, and new words

Kalispera, friends!That’s Greek for “Good afternoon” or “Good evening!”

 We Greco-Turkish travelers are safely across the pond and well into our trip! After a nearly 9 hour journey from Charlotte to Munich, and a 3 hour flight from Munich to Athens, we arrived weary and hungry at the Titania Hotel in downtown Athens, Greece. There are twelve of us: 9 pastors, 2 laypeople (family members of two our pastors), and 1 professor; actually he’s one of my old professors from Duke, Dr. Douglas Campbell, probably the most cutting-edge Paul scholar alive today. 

Tonight I’m blogging from the hotel lobby, one of the few places with free wifi.

From our hotel balcony, we have a spectacular view of the Acropolis, the hill atop which sits the Parthenon and a couple other temples. At night, it is lit up to beat the band, and you can’t even see the scaffolding and cranes that are being used to restore some of the crumbliest parts. Here’s an interesting tidbit: From the distance we are, the Parthenon looks perfectly well-balanced, as though its builders had access to great technological tools, to align everything perfectly. However, when you get up close, you realize that it is not geometrically perfect! Every distance and angle and line  is perfectly calculated… not for correct geometry, but for optical illusion! The columns tilt inward slightly, the roof is slightly smaller than the base, and the lines of the foundation and the roof are all ever so slightly convex, all so that, from a great distance, the look of perfection comes upon the temple. The roof looks perfectly proportionate, the columns perfectly straight, the lines all perfectly parallel.

  

It’s amazing what tricks our eyes play on us, and even more amazing that these architects, living some 400 years before Christ, could anticipate and plan for them!

***
So today, we climbed up the steep marble steps to see the Parthenon with our own eyes, steps that were slippery with age and wonder. We passed under a Roman gate and the Temple of Nike, goddess of Victory. When the temple was younger, her statue stood inside, though with her wings chopped off. This was done by the Athenians in the hopes that, wingless, Nike would not be allowed to fly away from the city, leaving it vulnerable to defeat.

  

We saw many other ruins there, including the Maidens on their porch (above) and that grand wonder of the world, the Temple of Athena. The temple peeked out at us, as though  blushing, from under her cover of scaffolding. She is gorgeous, this ancient stone structure, columns lilting skyward in defiance of all the earth’s seismic barrages. She is noble, too, despite the looting and plunder of her marble, perpetrated by time and pollution, vandals and thieves, Crusaders and UK archaeologists. Pieces of her have been carried off, along with the statues of wingless Nike and the great Athena herself, to other lands, to be displayed behind glass or traded on the black market. The goddess Athena really stood no chance, being made in parts of gold and ivory. 
I wonder, what does a temple do when her god is gone?

***

We saw the Agora, the marketplace in which Paul mingled with the Athenians and spoke with their philosophers. But the place that really captured my attention was Mars Hill, the place where, in Acts 17:15f, Paul stood before the Areopagus, the city council, and preached that great philosophical sermon. Dr. Campbell explained to us that this was not a sermon he was invited to preach; rather, he had been hauled before this council to be tried for the dual crimes of: 1. Preaching foreign gods among the people and 2. Spreading “new ideas,” something which the philosophers of Athens did not take lightly.
This rock, which is truly one solid rock, like a big boulder, is called Mars for a reason (though I think “hill” is a bad name… It might conjure an image of Stone Mountain in your mind, but this rock is really roughly the size of a two-story house). Mars is the god of war, and this rock is craggy and steep and fearsome to behold. 

  
(That’s me and members of my group atop Mars Hill, with the Acropolis behind)

So here on War Rock, the apostle Paul preached the Gospel of Peace. Here where the city council tried people for heresy and sedition and murder (the same council had condemned Socrates to death for the same charges they were leveling against Paul!), he spoke of resurrection and new life. This is now a place where young people come to profess love to each other, drink wine, and sing to the moon. I like that. War Hill has become Peace and Love Rock.

In Paul’s sermon, he utilizes the philosophical way of arguing that ruled Athens at that time, the Socratic method. In this method of debating, opponents try to trip one another up by using their own words against them! We see this in Paul’s sermon; he is actually quoting one of the most popular Athenian poets when he writes in verse 28, “In God we live and move and have our being.” Using the language of the Athenians, language they love and use themselves, and he is arguing for his life, but more importantly for his God, the one true God. And Acts is happy to inform us that all the intelligent people in the crowd decide they will hear Paul out (v. 32-34a).

***

From there, we ate fabulous Greek food at the Acropolis Museum restaurant. My adventuresome choice of meal was “Trachanas,” some kind of quinoa-esque dish served with cream, sausage, and beets. It was neon pink. Think pepto bismol, but brighter. It was also delicious. 

Inside the Acropolis Museum we saw a million tiny sculptures and relics and pieces of pottery and statuary. We learned that there used to be statues and relics littering nearly every square foot of Athens. Every street corner, every building’s roof, every home contained statues– of gods, goddesses, men, women, lions, bulls, owls, dogs. The people truly believed that the statues of gods and goddesses contained the deities within them. And so they cared for their statues. They brushed their stone hair, “fed” them with good food and wine, put fine clothes on them, even took them for walks! 

This, then, was part of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill. Acts 17:25– Paul preaches that God, the true God, the God who is Jesus Christ, has no need for human help in any way! Revolutionary, huh?

***

On the long walk back from the Acropolis and its museum, we admired the fur coats in windows, the political rally setting up outside the parliament building, and the multicolored macaroons in bakeries. We saw many designs, including the classic Greek “meander.” 

  
But then, one of the designs we saw stopped us in our tracks. On the gates to a home rested hundreds of swastikas! How awful, we thought, a Nazi must have lived here! Our guide, however, was quick to tell us: that symbol is far older that Naziism and, in this context, completely innocent. Since the sixth century before Christ in Greece, and possibly even before that in India, people used it as a sign of eternity. Nothing evil or sinister about it; our tour guide mourned the corruption of such an innocent symbol by one of the greatest evils in history.

***

Tonight we will rest, and reflect, in preparation for our journey to Corinth tomorrow. I invite you to reflect, as well:

  • Piracles, the architect of the Parthenon, used optical illusions to make the structure look perfect from a distance, but up close one can see his tricks exposed. What tricks are you using in your life to make you seem perfect from a distance? Whom have you allowed in lately, allowed to see you for who you are, warts and all? And, just as the Parthenon’s “flaws” simply make it more magnificent, how can you come to accept your flaws as part of a perfect design?
  • Paul used the Socratic trick of using people’s own words to tell them about Jesus. In what ways should our evangelism use the language of the people to whom we’re speaking and not the “churchy” language lifelong Christians would be used to?
  •  When we saw the swastikas in the city, we were quick to judge the person living behind those gates. How often we judge books by their cover! Even when we feel sure we know the meaning behind what we are seeing (ie., that person has tattoos, so they have a rough past; that person is homeless so they’re probably on drugs; etc), how can we treat them charitably, and try to imagine more hopeful and charitable reasons behind symbols, and people?
  • Like Nike, her wings removed, have we tried in any ways to clip the wings of God, to cause God to stay right where we want God? Have we tried in that way to tame our wild lion of a God?
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2 thoughts on “Day 1 in Athens: ancient temples, pink food, and new words

  1. Wow! Thanks for sharing what you have seen and learned, and for giving me something to reflect on as I go to sleep tonight. I have to say, it made me chuckle to see you say, beat the band! Can’t wait for your next installment! Be safe!

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