Lessons From St. Demetrios
Recently, I had the opportunity to journey to Greece and Turkey as part of a Footsteps of Paul tour with members and friends of my church.
As part of that journey, we went to Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, located in the country's northern region. It's also the city where the Apostle Paul visited and helped start a church during his missionary journeys.
Thessaloniki experienced a rapid surge in churches built during the Byzantine Empire, including the impressive Church of Saint Demetrios, refurbished and expanded from earlier constructions.
There had been a church on the site since the early 4th Century dedicated to St. Demetrios (patron of Thessaloniki), a young man who was executed there for defending his Christian friend against persecution by a Roman soldier.
Demetrios was not a Christian but was later afforded legendary stories that included a conversion to the Christian faith.
During the Ottoman occupation of Greece, most churches, including St. Demetrios, were converted to Mosques but were eventually all restored as churches after the Ottoman Empire collapsed for good following WWI (they picked the wrong side in the war).
One of the most interesting and sobering aspects of the history of the Church of St. Demetrios is that during the restoration efforts in 1940, the restorers used the shattered and broken tombstones from a desecrated Jewish graveyard nearby as part of the materials.
The graveyard had been destroyed by both Greeks and Nazi soldiers in the early days of the Nazi occupation of the city.
Before the Nazis arrived, 54,000 Jews lived in Thessaloniki, most of whom had been there for generations. Out of those 54,000, only 2,000 made their way back after the war. The other 52,000 died at Auschwitz or in the ghettos before being transported.
Many Greek neighbors to the Salonika Jews either remained silent or actively assisted the Nazis in their efforts.
I thought it strange that for people whose patron saint was a young pagan man who had been executed for defending his Christian friend from being murdered by a Roman, they could so easily turn on their Jewish neighbors.
But then again, so much of the world did then---all over Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and anywhere Nazi boots marched during those trying and dreadful times.
There are also stories of people risking their lives to save their Jewish neighbors and many more of how some would take in perfect strangers to hide them, even though it might mean the destruction of their own family if they were found.
As I stood there in the Church of St. Demetrios, all of these thoughts ran through my head, and as I entered his shrine (beneath a guy who was cleaning the candelabra hanging from the ceiling), I said a prayer, which was actually more of a feeling that I couldn't form into words until later.
It went something like this:
Keep your Church from falling to such depths that we forget we are our sibling's keeper. And our siblings are everywhere, and they are your children, just as we are. And they may not even pray in the name of Jesus as we do. But in Jesus' name and in the name of St. Demetrios, I pray that we learn to keep one another well because we're failing miserably, and we need Jesus' light and love now more than ever.
May it be so, and may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us now and always. Amen.