[Ed. note: This piece was written at the very beginning of my blogging days, I thought it quite timely once again, considering the recent attempt on Times Square. I have edited it with a more Orthodox understanding and added some patristics in there to clarify the intent of the Scripture.]
Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. (Acts 17:16)
One question jumps to mind after reading about St. Paul’s mission in Athens: What would he have thought of Times Square? Would St. Paul have raged about the city, soapboxing on street corners like the doomsday preachers, condemning like Jonah hitting Nineveh? Would he have snorted at the idolatry, being unable to help himself? Would he have transformed an enraged Islamist, ready to blow the place up?
Answer: None of the above. St. John Chrysostom points out that the term describing St. Paul’s emotion “stirred” was Greek παρωξύνετο (paroxuno), which means something closer to excited in a good way. St Paul was “roused,” not agitated, wrote Chrysostom, “for the gift is far removed from anger and exasperation… Nowhere else were so many objects to be seen.” In fact, one definition of “paroxuno,” is “to sharpen alongside.” St. Paul was sharpened like a cold blade on a warm steel. In other words, upon entering Athens and seeing so many idols, he was actually a bit excited about the opportunity to teach the people about Christ. This was a city full of potential!
Then, back to Times Square… The fundamentalist might grumble that today’s world, with all of its visuals, its temptations, and its flash is worthy of the fires below, but I believe that the real Christian can look at all the narcissisticzazzle of modernistic dazzle to be an symptom of the disease and not want to condemn it wholesale. Maybe the sordid visuals of a world gone sex crazy or noise of a world gone beat crazy creates the stench, but the underlying impulse that drives modern society to its dizzying tempo creates the corruption. And that is the idolatrous part: It’s the tendency to worship one’s career, or one’s self-importance, or one’s social life, or one’s football team. It’s all sublimation for God. Or would he have proclaimed God’s majesty in all the brave new visuals and sounds, the people, the barrage of divinely powered vehicles, the bustle – amazed at what the Lord of Hosts had allowed humankind to achieve?
Why is the act of worshipping something other than God so corrosive to one’s spiritual walk, yet so ubiquitous still? The O.T. abounded with tales of God’s wrath against the recidivist house of Israel. The N.T. went to the core of the problem, and I believe that the Church has always sought to remedy the problem — through worship. Christ rebuked His followers for worrying about wealth instead of love. He rebuked religiosity for its hypocrisy, and likened that to a sin greater even the a primitive bowing down to a wooden statue. This was the new idolatry.
And of course, as an Orthodox Christian, I gladly submit this: We hear all the time that we are a bunch of idolaters, with all of our icons… I can tell you this, icons (images) have been around since the beginning. Images were madeeverywhere from the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18) to the veil of the Holy of Holies (Exodus 26:31). The issue of icons is much better explained by men more qualified than I, but I can say that the proscription against “graven images” was explicitly against the worshiping of pagan gods, whose statues themselves were seen to have great powers. All icon power comes from God Himself, and the icons that we venerate (not worship) help us focus on our Most High God.