Monday, January 27, 2014

What is the Parish?

Dear Parish Faithful,

I recently asked someone for some help on the Greek word for "parish," and in return received this substantial and impressive summary of the long history of the word as it has appeared in various languages in addition to the original Greek. I will assume that this will also be of interest to you and I am therefore sharing it with you this (cold) Monday morning:

The word "parish" has its origins both in scriptural use and from territorial references used in the Roman Empire. The word "parish" itself is derived from the Anglo-French parosse (about 1075), later as paroche (about 1292), then in Old French paroisse, and from Latin paroechia meaning a  diocese. 
In Greek, παρоικία (paroikia) meaning "district" or "diocese,"  is derived from the Greek παρά (beside), οίκος (house). The Greek term παρоικία, "district" or "diocese," originally meant "sojourn in a foreign land" (in the Septuagint) or "community of sojourners," with reference to the Jewish people in a foreign land, later with reference to earthly life as a temporary abode (1st century A.D.), and also in 1 Peter  1:17, 2:11); whence the term was applied to the "Christian community" as a whole (3rd century), then to the "diocese" (3rd century), and ultimately "parish" (4th century).

The English language word "parish" is derived from the alternate Latin spelling parochia (which came from the Greek: πάροχος = "riding in the same chariot as," "beside the chariot of"), a local official in the Roman provinces who furnished public officials with food and other supplies when they passed through the local area.

What I was particularly interested in  was the understanding of the Greek paroikia as used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made a couple of centuries before Christ).  There, the paroikia was understood to be a "community of sojourners;" something of a "pilgrim people" who are moving beyond the constraints and restrictions of  a purely historical  existence.  The paroikia, especially in its Christian manifestation, is moving toward the great Sabbath rest as envisioned in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Ch. 4). In that same Epistle, we hear:  "For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come" (13:14). This is beautifully expressed in the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus, probably from the early 2nd c. In this passage, the author is trying to explain the Christian perception and experience of life in this world, and he expressed this in words that are well-known to this day:

For instance, though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behavior is more like that of transients; they take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything and everything as if they were aliens.  For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country... Though destiny has placed them here in the flesh, they do not live after the flesh; their days are passed on the earth, but their citizenship is above in the heavens.

Thus, the very existence of the parish struck me as another meaningful Christian paradox.  On the one hand, we seek stability in our parish life.  The over-all structure of the parish as it is organized on a local level, with the presence of a parish priest who is not looking for an opportunity to "move on;" together with its various ministries and a sound financial basis, is meant to make the community stable for the present and hopefully into at least the foreseeable future.  This stability is the enduring sign of genuine commitment on the part of the faithful flock to the Gospel and it local manifestation in the parish.  Anyone visiting the parish will be able to  sense this, and for those who are further attracted to the Orthodox Faith, this is a very important factor. Without stability the parish may seem to be "floating along" and scrambling to survive from year to year - if not from day to day.

On the other hand, as we heard expressed in the texts cited above, the paroikia/parish may be stable, but it is actually moving toward a greater reality — the Kingdom of God in all of its fullness and beauty, when "God may be everything to every one" (I COR. 15:28).  Stability does not mean permanence and an unchanging static existence.  There is no permanence in "this world: "For the form of this world is passing away" (I COR. 7:31) We remain a pilgrim people, and we can never get too comfortable in this world.  The parish is stable; and yet the parish is dynamic.  Is there such a thing as "dynamic stability?"  As we all contribute to the stability of the parish - and as we hope to "hand it over" one day to our children and grandchildren - we also realize simultaneously that we are a "community of sojourners" with no permanent place in this world:  "For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God" (COL. 3:3).

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