Constantine Cavafy’s poem, A Great Procession of Priests and Lavmen, opens with this description (in the Keeley/Sherrard translation): “A procession of priests and laymen,/ each walk of life represented,/ passes through streets, through squares, and through gates/ of the famous city of Antioch./ At the head (of the great imposing procession/ a beautiful white-clad youth is holding/ with upraised hands the Cross,/ our strength and our hope, the holy Cross.” This poem of two dozen lines) concludes with this passage, “This is an annual Christian festival./ But today, observe, it takes place more splendidly./ The empire is delivered at last./ The most depraved, the appalling/ [Emperor] Julian reigns no longer./ For the most pious [Emperor] Jovian let our prayers be given.”
What is celebrated thus is the Fall, in the Year A.D. 363, of Julian the Apostate, the Emperor who had dared to attempt to restore Pagan worship in the Roman Empire. This is often said to have been the last gasp of the old way among the Mediterranean Pagans.
Julian had attempted, that is, to resurrect the “culture” that modern Greeks recognize as a vital part of their heritage. It is a heritage, like that of the Christian Bible itself, which is grounded in the Greek language.
Thus, no matter how emphatic the repudiation of the Emperor Julian’s efforts may have been, he nevertheless stood for something well known to (if not even cherished by) the Greeks, that pagan system which has left both physical and intellectual monuments treasured to this day by the Hellenes, however Christian they consider themselves in their spiritual allegiance.
Reminders of the tension here may be found not only in the use of “Jovian” (a pagan divinity) for the name of a Christian Emperor but also in the casual use today of Classical names for modern Greeks (such as the name of Pericles for one of my grandfathers). Such are the (subversive?) associations that routinely come with the “culture” upon which the language of the New Testament has to depend.
One can suspect that Cavafy himself may have believed that the Christianity of the modern Greeks is richer for the pagan heritage routinely taken for granted in their language. Some Greeks may even dare to feel that their faith is thereby naturally far richer than that of any other people who presume to consider themselves Christians.
Even so, it can be wondered by Purists among the Faithful whether the inherited Greek heritage is somehow like the Trojan Horse of old. What, indeed, is contained within that venerable heritage which may complicate what is offered worldwide by “the holy Cross”?
George Anastaplo is Professor of Law, Loyola University of Chicago, Lecturer in the Liberal Arts, The University of Chicago, and Professor Emeritus of Political Science and of Philosophy, Dominican University. His publications include The Christian Heritage: Problems and Prospects (Lexington Books, 2010) (with a Foreword by Martin E. Marty). See, for additional publications, http://www.anastaplo.wordpress.com.
This article was prepared for publication at Christmas, 2011, in The Greek Star, a newspaper for the Greek-American community in Chicago.