A New Lenten Fast

I was listening to the Olympics and the above commercial played.  It was, of course, selling the iPhone and using the ubiquitous selfie as the tool.  The “spokesperson” for this effort is non other than the late Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest boxers of all time, but also one of the least humble people of all time – especially during his boxing career.  I think Apple has, perhaps inadvertently, identified the most important aspect of the selfie, and thus identified its biggest problem.  Every selfie we post is an exercise in self promotion.  It is a demonstration of a lack of humility.

Now, of course, we all lack humility at times, and the posting of an occasional selfie may not be indicative of some serious spiritual malady, but I think the habit that many, especially our youth, have gotten into of constant posting of selfies leads to a habit of pride.  The most popular social media outlets for youth (I believe) at the time of this posting are Instagram and Snapchat.  Both of these largely invite selfies.  Especially snapchat.  We see a great many celebrities maintaining their fame via selfie, and a number of their fans follow suit, assuming that this is the new proper way to behave.

I’ve seen occasional articles arguing against smart phones, especially among youth.  I’ve argued elsewhere that we may be looking at the topic incorrectly.  I don’t think kids are being less social.  While online bullying has certainly grown, I think that is a symptom of the underlying problem, not the problem itself.  We see a great deal of good coming from the online experience, but where we see negative, it is undoubtedly pride that is underlying that problem.  People are offended by those who disagree with them, they feel they have something useful to add on virtually every topic, and know better than those who disagree with them.  Pride.  Simple, nefarious, pride.  Selfies are simplya more frequent demonstration of pride.

If you look at the Instagram feed of many girls from teenager to young adult, you will undoubtedly see a selfie, with a string of comments telling the poster how perfect, hot, beautiful, etc. they are.  Their pride is being fed.  Since we know what the reaction is going to be, one has to assume that anyone posting a selfie is, at least a little bit, looking for that reinforcement of their pride.  When “Snapping” to one another, I doubt that we see those sorts of comments, but the snapper is still frequently taking pictures of themselves and sending them.  They want just the right look, and are unhappy if the picture or video isn’t what they were looking for (retake, after retake, and occasional frustration when the picture isn’t right).  Even complaints of being ugly come off more as complimenting fishing exercises (or disappointment that they aren’t as good looking as pride tells them they should be).

St. Timothy warns us of the way people will be in the last days.  The first item on his list is love of self, the third is boastful, the fourth is proud.  Do we see a pattern here?  The Fathers refer to Pride as the mother of all sin.

There are those who take a fast from the internet or computers for part or all of Great Lent.  I think that is fine if that works for them.  In my job, that is decidedly not an option.  For a great number of youth, we would be asking them to disconnect from their community.  I’m not entirely sure that is the right idea.  Perhaps, instead, we should challenge them to take a selfie fast.  Instead of selfies when you are snapping to a friend, take a picture of a flower, your pet, a cloud outside. Anything but yourself or something you’ve made.

Someone who’s spiritual insights I respect has mentioned that he thinks there is more to the selfie than just pride.  As I pondered that, I think one such thing is the sense of belonging.  My wife mentioned to me this morning an article that girls are pressured into posting sexualized pictures of themselves.  The “like” becomes a sort of validation of themselves, and solidifies their standing within their group.  Man was created to be communal, and so it is inherent in our being to want to belong to a group.  Over the years, this need to belong has been warped at times to the detriment of mankind.  The mob mentality is such an example, whether it be the local mob, or the mob at a state level (think Nazi Germany, among many other examples).  I think the selfie as the “like” become tools in the hand of the enemy to use the proper need to belong to a community and warp it into, yes, a source of pride, and, at the same time, a source of fear and despair.  I realize I don’t have much of a following, but if you have insights to add, please do.  I’ll ponder this some more and hopefully post some additional thoughts on the topic.

What would you do?

I recently saw Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Silence.  Its a movie that is broadly about the persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan.  Specifically, though it is about the search of two priests for their spiritual mentor who was a priest in Japan and rumored to have apostatized.  With that as a foundation, the whole movie becomes an exploration of the spiritual struggle that people make when faced with the choice to undergo punishment or renounce the faith.  What follows are some thoughts on the central issues of the movie.  I must provide the caveat here that I would undoubtedly fail miserably, so my analysis is more from a academic perspective than a judgmental one.

In the film, we are faced with two circumstances.  In one, individuals are physically tortured for failing to apostatize.  For most of us raised in Churches where the stories of martyrs are told, we are familiar with this circumstance, and we all hope to be strong enough to remain faithful to the end, although we often suspect that we are not that strong.  If we don’t suspect that, we probably should.  To underscore this point, we are faced, throughout the film, with a character who repeatedly apostatizes or betrays the priests and then comes to confess his sins.  The reality is that this represents many of us, who sin in some fashion, go to confession, and yet return to the same sin.  Every time we sin, we are, to at least a small degree, renouncing the faith.

The other circumstance, which becomes the predominant theme of the movie, is when an individual is presented with the opportunity to relieve the suffering of others by apostatizing.  In many cases, those being tortured have already apostatized and yet they are being tortured because someone else has not.  Time and again in the movie, the priests do not apostatize, regardless of how strongly they are tempted.  One of the two priests is killed while trying to save Christians being martyred, so he is ultimately relieved of the need to make this most difficult moral choice.  The other priest is not so lucky.  He remains relatively strong, even though he hears a voice telling him that it is okay, until he discovers that his spiritual mentor has, himself, apostatized and is now writing against Christianity.  That seems to be the proverbial straw that breaks his back, leading him to finally apostatize.

The question arises, of course, of whether or not it is the right thing to do.  The priests and others are constantly told that it is only a mere formality and that it doesn’t necessarily reflect a real renunciation, but it will be sufficient.  The question becomes, then, why is it so important to the Inquisitor that this action be taken.  I think the answer to that is the key.  Even though it may only be a formality, the act of renunciation, at the very least, becomes a means of leading others to do the same.  We see that with the apostasy of Fr. Ferraira.  His renunciation of the faith becomes the basis for Fr. Rodriques’ renunciation.  It is interesting to note that throughout the movie we are reminded, frequently by Fr. Rodrigues himself, that the Christians in Japan have a stronger faith than him.  However, they all look to him as spiritual father.  When he falls, how many ultimately fall with him, I wonder?  The movie never reveals that.

The thing that struck me in the movie, and I’m led to understand was a bit of a theme in the book, was the reaction of the priest to the martyrdom of fellow Christians.  One of the points of the book, at least, and so it carried over to the movie, was that the process of martyrdom was not as glorious as Fr. Rodrigues supposed.  As the Christians in the movie are brutally tortured and killed, they frequently (although there are exceptions) scream in anguish, which stands in contrast to many of the stories we read of the great martyrs in Christian history.  One of the exceptions was during the slow drowning of the Christians on the crosses at the beach.  Granted its very much a different scenario than burning, but these were particularly fervent members of the local Christian community, and we see, at some level, the peace that comes from a deep faith.

If we reflect on the fact that martyrdom is a glorious event from a spiritual perspective (after all, it is the martyrs that live under the altar in the book of Revelation), then apostatizing to keep others from experiencing martyrdom is depriving them of something great, in spite of the temporal suffering they must undergo.  Of course, when Fr. Rodrigues actually sees their suffering, which is far more real than the descriptions from the martyrologies,  he appears to only see the suffering, and perhaps his own spiritual blindness prevents him from seeing the greater glory they will experience.  Again, I would probably fall faster than he, so this is not so much judgment as analysis.  Of note in all of this, as well, is that the voice of Christ he thinks he is hearing, is fundamentally telling him the same things as his captors.  Whether or not this was intentional I do not know.  If intentional, its an interesting indictment of Roman Catholic spirituality, which at times is very much focused on visions and the like.

As an interesting final note, the reading for the Monday after we saw the movie is either for St. Clement in some jurisdictions, and in others would be the reading for the Monday of the 32nd week, which is from St. James Universal Letter discussing faith without works.  At the end of the movie, Fr. Rodrigues is shown as his body is taken away to be cremated, holding a crucifix, apparently indicating that he retained his faith.  However, given St. James’ admonition that “as the body apart from the spirit is dead, s faith apart from works is dead,” one is left wondering, given that he had spent decades by that point working against the faith, exactly what faith he really had.

Being who you are…

Taylor Lipsett

Taylor Lipsett

This is, perhaps, a bit out of scope for this blog, but on the other hand I am hoping that in the process of writing down these thoughts it would force me to apply some Orthodox phronema to my thoughts and attitudes, and perhaps provide me with a bit of guidance.

I have a genetic bone disorder, known as Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI).  I have type I and a fairly mild case of it.  By shortly after my 15th birthday, I had broken a bit over 20 bones.  I don’t remember the exact number, but after that I stopped fracturing for another 23 years.  Because I was so mild, I really wanted to be normal.  It was so close that I always felt that it was right there in front of me.  My parents, who had to deal with the results of broken bones – the cost, the challenges to everyones day to day activities, and the difficulty of having a child in pain, ultimately opted to have me stay in a wheelchair throughout much of my childhood.  Until fairly recently, I disagreed with that decision.  Now I’m not so sure.

In college, I gave up my wheelchair.  I put it away and never looked back.  I took up boogey boarding and racquetball.  I loved being normal.  The problem is that I really wasn’t.  The risk of subsequent fracture was always there, but pushed out of the way.  Only when I attempted to learn to ride a bike, was I reminded of that.  My own sense of self preservation made such an effort fruitless, and I ultimately gave it up.  As married life, children, and work took up much of my time, I moved away from any form of exercise.  I tried tennis briefly, but it was too difficult to run that fast.  Again, a bit of fear was in the back of my mind, and perhaps that kept me from more damage.  Then, at 38, the fractures started again, in a big way.  Now, 11 years, three broken femurs, one crushed tibia, and numerous stress fractures later, things are a bit different.  Along the way, I did finally get a bike.  Well, actually, a trike.  Fortunately it was pretty cool looking, so I didn’t feel quite so abnormal.  Lots of “normal” folks ride them too, and that was important to me.

This year, I had an epiphany.  It was a bit slow in the making, but once it hit, well…

It started with the 2014 paralympic games in Sochi.  There was an event I had never heard of before called sled hockey.  And there was a member of the US team with OI, named Taylor Lipsett.  He had the same type as I did, but appears to mostly break legs.  He largely used a wheelchair for day to day activities.  In hindsight I suspect that this is because the risk is too high to walk about.  If he breaks a leg, he won’t be playing hockey for a while.  Why take that risk?  He accepted that he wasn’t normal.  There is absolutely no way he could ever play standard hockey.  Instead he opted to accept who he was and what he had and chose to become an international class athlete.  He has achieved more being disabled than he would have had he attempted to be normal.  In other words, he accepted who he was, and worked with that.

How does this apply to Orthodoxy?  Orthodoxy is all about transformation.  Leaving the fallen state that we are in to become

Jordanne Whiley

Jordanne Whiley

deified, to become one with God.  It is very much not about accepting our limitations.  Isn’t that the opposite of what Taylor did?  Not at all.  His limitations are real, and there is nothing he can do about them to make them go away.  He has brittle bones, and, for the time being, nobody has developed a means to make that go away.  So his choice is to either accept that and simply never develop his physical talents, or to accept that and, through it find a means to develop his talent.  Like the parable, he can either bury the talent, or put it to work.  By accepting his weakness, he can actually move beyond it.  Many of the holy men and women we learn about in the Church, have found in their various physical maladies a means to grow stronger, much like Taylor has in a physical sense.  I’ve since met other athletes much like Taylor, including Jordanne Whiley, who also has OI, and, like her father, and Taylor, has decided to accept that and move far beyond the limitations such a disorder can present.

But there is another piece to this.  To some degree, you can live in a state of delusion.  I refused to use a wheelchair as if by that refusal I wouldn’t have a disability.  Instead, I increased my disability – and failed to see the pathway to growth and development of some talents.  But then, the epiphany happened.  Not very long ago, I decided to accept my disability.  I started using  wheelchair more often for daily activities, and I took up a wheelchair sport.  Now I can do more than I could trying to pretend that I wasn’t disabled.  I’ve decided to be who I am, and take that and make it grow, and it has been a world of difference.  That is, I think, a more Orthodox way.

The blog author competing at Indian Wells this year

The blog author competing at Indian Wells this year

The Decline of Orthodoxy in America

St. Seraphim and Motovilov

St. Seraphim and Motovilov

A friend sent out an email recently regarding this article from Orthodox Christian Laity, in which it is noted that the Orthodox church in the United States is shrinking according to a recent PEW forum survey.  The question posed, then, is what do we make of this?

Logic alone tells that there are only two possible reasons why the numbers are shrinking.  The first is people leaving the church, and the second is few new people coming in.  I anticipate that both reasons are in play.  Typically, I would expect each reason to require a different response, and frequently we see people approaching these as having two different causes.  People not coming in is because we don’t evangelize enough.  We don’t get the message out, we don’t invite people to our church, we don’t welcome people when they do come for a visit.  People leaving is because we aren’t providing the programs that they want, or aren’t satisfying them in some way.  Outside of the Orthodox Church we see pushes for more dynamic entertaining worship services.  Even Within the Church there is a drive to model our behaviors on those of apparently successful megachurches.  I say apparently because these churches only exist for a while, typically, then fall apart as their charismatic leader either retires or falls from grace due to some indiscretion.  What they do is create programs that tickle the current perceived needs of the spiritually starving masses, then market their product, pretty much using the same approaches as one would use to market a Ford Fusion or the latest Carl’s Jr. hamburger.

But why are people really leaving?  I would argue that they are leaving because the Orthodox Church, in America especially, but perhaps everywhere, has become irrelevant.  Many members of the Church from my generation went to church on Sunday morning because it is what they were trained to do.  I saw this during my life as an Episcopalian (born and raised).  Of greater importance, they grew up in an American culture where people went to Church on Sunday.  Little Tommy Romero went to the Catholic Church, Johnny Berg went to the local Presbyterian or Lutheran Church, and Ben Ludlow attended the Episcopal Church.  Nick Maropolous?  To the Greek Church.  It was what was done.  21st century America, on the other hand, no longer has need of church on Sunday.  If there is no cultural imperative to attend church on Sunday, why bother with the Orthodox Church, or any other?  Church, itself, is irrelevant.  I think this comic captures the notion best.

The purpose of the Orthodox Church is to create saints.  I’ve heard this before, and was reminded of it again during a recent visit to another parish in the San Diego area on All Saints.  The priest made this and some other key points during his homily.  If parishes are actively engaged in this “saint building” practice, then we should expect that membership would not be on the decline quite as much.  After all, the Church is providing something other than simply a cultural experience.  Unfortunately, for a great number of Orthodox parishes, there is very little focus on the building of saints, and instead the primary focus is on cultural activities.  As new generations of members come to adulthood, they will find themselves less connected to their ethnic origins, and these cultural activities will also become less relevant.  At that point, where there is no cultural motivation, people simply leave.  They go to other churches that “feel” better, or more than likely, they simply stop entirely.  I’ve seen it outside the Orthodox Church (in particular in the Episcopal Church), and thus I’m not surprised to see it here.

What about bringing in new members?  What is limiting us here?  As pointed out earlier, many would have us model our evangelism after those of popular mega-churches.  We should market our church as if it is simply a competing product.  In an environment where we are not focused on the building of saints, but rather other less central programs, then we are simply a competing product.  Unfortunately, we are a competing product of ancient music, long services, and ethnic isolation.  There is little within that to be of much appeal to the average American.  If I felt like I needed to do something “spiritual” on a Sunday, I’d rather go to the local St. Starbucks and have a frap while watching a rock band (yes, a local North County megachurch is known for having an on-site Starbucks).  Of course, if I was really smart, I’d simply sleep in then go play for the rest of my last day off before the work week.

However, if we were to offer something of great spiritual significance, like a means to grow saints, to provide a pathway for people to become united with God, then we would have something.  Well, the Orthodox Church has that means.  We’ve had it from the beginning.  The question is, how do we let people know?  Many proponents of marketing campaigns would look to to glitzy ads, social media, and the like to get the point across.  They would point to the New Testament and early Church looking for examples of people spreading the gospel to non-believers.  Frequently, however, they overlook a key component.  Who is it within the New Testament and Early Church that is doing the evangelism?  Who is drawing believers to the Church?  Typically it is a saint.  We see that all the way up to the modern times.  So, if we have a proper saint building program within the Church, we will have the means of drawing people in.  Holiness is really quite attractive to many people.  We cannot simply say we have something.  We have to demonstrate it.

What this means is that the solution to both causes of the decline of the Orthodox Church is to focus on the building of saints.  The Orthodox Church has that program.  It is the sacraments, fasting (and related ascetic practices), and confession (which included spiritual guidance).  It requires a proper catechetical underpinning so that people are properly educated.  Nothing new needs to be invented, we simply need to do what the Church has always done, at least until recent times.  In the sermon I mentioned earlier, the priest also reminded us that becoming a saint requires suffering, hence the focus in the Orthodox Church on asceticism.  This stands in contrast to the feel good focus that underlies many of the megachurches in the US, as well as competing religious systems.  That, by itself, is a bit challenging to market.  However, like a good sports program, if you develop a number of top level athletes, then people will be drawn to the program, even if you tell them they will need to work hard and suffer to achieve their objectives.  There is, of course, an interesting corollary to this.  If, instead of a great athlete, the sports program puts out a consummate couch potato as the example of what they produce, will that be very appealing?

If we look around the Orthodox Church in the United States, we can find many examples of growing parishes, and the one thing they have in common is a focus on the growth of saints.  Those parishes who have, as a primary focus, cultural activities, are simply another flavor of country club.  One without golf, tennis, and with an inconvenient program time.

The Incarnation is the Reason for the Season

November 21st, 2010

I’m sitting here on a Sunday morning during the Nativity Fast, getting the book cart ready for business. Up on the stage in the hall, the Sunday School children are preparing for the annual Christmas pageant and practicing carols. Unfortunately, that is not where they should be, nor is it what they should be doing.

Today is one of the 12 feasts of the Church. As such, the children should be in class (or in the Church for a sermon), learning about the feast. In most parishes, this would be the case, thankfully, but for those that are most interested in looking like Western churches, this time is spent learning predominantly Protestant carols in preparation for the annual Christmas pageant.

So, what could possibly be wrong with Protestant/Western Christmas carols? Many (especially the older ones) range from simply cheerful to majestic. The lyrics are generally devoid of theological error. Of course, I’m not talking about Rudolph or Frosty, but rather O Come All Ye Faithful, and What Child is This.

A couple of years ago, 9.West blogged on the subject of Protestant Christmas carols. He was responding to an episode of Issues, etc., that found fault with many Christmas carols for not focusing sufficiently on the cross. At the time, I responded with a criticism that Protestant, and, in particular, Lutheran, theology is too focused on the cross. As a result, their understanding of other aspects of God, and His relationship with us, have become atrophied. My focus was on the resurrection, but as I sat there listening to the Protestant carols, I realized another aspect of Protestant theology which was weak, and this weakness is the reason I have a problem with spending time teaching Orthodox children Protestant carols. This is especially true when this time is spent during time that would otherwise be devoted to teaching them about Orthodoxy. Protestant carols generally do a bad job of expressing the incarnation. Frequently it isn’t mentioned, and when it is, no attempt is made to engage the mystery of the incarnation at any level.

Let’s look at some of the hymns the kids were practicing the morning that I first started working on this entry. The selection of carols is “O Come All Ye Faithful,” then there is “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” “Little Drummer Boy”, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, “The First Noel”, and “Angels We Have Heard on High”. There is one question I think we should ask in two different ways. The question is, “is there anything about singing this that would cause an Arian to feel he has gone against his faith?”. The two ways in which this should be asked is first with regard to the first verse (which is pretty much all that will be sung at this pageant), and secondly with regard to the entire carol.

For Silent Night, I’m not sure anything, anywhere in the song demands an understanding that we’re discussing God when we’re discussing Jesus. The closest might be the third verse, but that really doesn’t pass muster. For Joy to the World, the Little Drummer Boy, Angels We Heave Heard on High (one of my all time favorites, I’ll add), and The First Noel, you have the same problem. Again, the last verse of The First Noel can be argued, but its not terribly clear. O Little Town of Bethlehem gets pretty close, if you’re willing to wait until the last verse. The phrase, “o come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel” makes it relatively clear that this song might be addressed to God. Which is good for the song, but in the children’s case, they won’t learn this verse because they never go that far. Hark, the Herald Angels Sing hits the nail right on the head, no question about it, in the second verse, “Offspring of a Virgin’s womb, veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate Deity.” Finally, after all of these carols, we get to one which unambiguously proclaims the incarnation, which is, after all, the point of the holiday.

Compare this to a couple of Orthodox hymns, or carols from Orthodox countries:

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,
hath shone forth the light of wisdom upon the world;
for therein those who worship the stars
have been taught by a star
to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness,
and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on


O Lord, glory be to Thee! (Troparion of the Nativity, Tone 4)

Today the Virgin giveth birth to the Transcendent One,
and the earth offereth a cave to the Unapproachable One.
Angels with shepherds give glory,
the magi journey with a star,
for our sakes, a young Child is born, Who is Pre-eternal God! (Kontakion of the Nativity, Tone 3).

One of my favorites, from the Royal Hours on Christmas Eve:

Today He Who holds the whole creation in His hand is born of a Virgin.
He Whose essence none can touch is bound in swaddling-clothes as a
mortal man.
God, Who in the beginning fashioned the heavens, lies in a manger.
He who rained manna on His people in the wilderness is fed on milk from
His mother’s breast.
The Bridegroom of the Church summons the wise men;
the Son of the Virgin accepts their gifts.
We worship Your birth, O Christ.
We worship Your birth, O Christ.
We worship Your birth, O Christ.
Show us also Your Holy Theophany!

Finally, the following, a traditional Greek carol:

Good evening noblemen,
may i sing at your mansion,
this day celebrating Jesus’ holy birth,

that Jesus is being born today
in the town of Bethlehem
The skies rejoice
the whole nature is happy

In the cave he is being born
in the horses’ trough
the king of the skies
and maker of everything

Again, I don’t have anything against Protestant/Western Christmas carols. Many are very pretty, and I’m sure they serve Protestant/Western theology just fine. However, the Orthodox think the Incarnation is extremely important, hence our hymnography. As Orthodox, I don’t think we should be wasting the limited amount of time available to us to instruct our youth in the Orthodox faith with hymns that are not designed to do that at all.


Why We Don’t “Do” Santa

Discussing the Polar Express, I felt compelled to republish this.

I mentioned in an earlier entry that we don’t do Santa at our house. I thought it would be worthwhile explaining why. My intent is not to cast a bah humbug over the day, but rather to provide one person’s view.

Initially, our intent behind not doing the Santa myth was two fold. The first was that we really wanted to focus on Christ, and things that the Church felt was important for us around the Nativity. Even more important was a concern we had that creating this make believe semi spiritual character and working hard to convince the children that he is real, only to have them ultimately learn otherwise, could have unintended consequences in other aspects of their spiritual lives.

It never ceases to amaze me the amount of trouble people go through to convince their children that Santa is real. From the simpler things, like leaving out a plate of cookies that are ultimately consumed, to the more elaborate of leaving footprints outside and people coming in the house dressed as Santa, it becomes of utmost importance to lead the children to believe in this make believe character. When the children ultimately learn otherwise, they can be heartbroken.

While I realize that not every child, maybe not even most, will be terribly bothered by the revelation, I propose that something much more serious could affect all of them. If mom and dad have been so dishonest over this never seen figure, how are children supposed to accept that they are being honest about God? Children will go through enough significant struggles as they grow older. Will they automatically turn to God and the Church for help, or will they think of God as merely some nice make believe character that their parents pretend exist in the interest of getting their children to behave?

I find it interesting that most Santa related movies that I’m aware of have to do with a loss of faith. People, who, for a variety of reasons don’t believe in Santa anymore. If you think I’m wrong that most Santa movies have that as a theme, name me one that doesn’t. Miracle on 34th Street, Polar Express, Elf, The Santa Clause, The Santa Clause 2 (where one character hates things Christmas because she was lied to about Santa), etc., all have loss of faith as a theme. I think the reason is that the film makers understand that it is the Santa myth that causes people to lose faith. All of these movies feel like a desperate cry for something to believe in. I remember an incident with one of our children when they asked a teacher if Santa Claus was real. When told that he was, there was confusion. Were mom and dad wrong? Worse, did their beloved teacher lie to them?

What’s interesting, I suppose, is that I find myself in interesting company. Googling on the whole notion of Santa Claus, I found an atheist website, and then this Op-Ed piece. An interesting quote appears part of the way through the article:

I’ve amassed recollections of “finding out the truth about Santa,” and many were stories of genuine embarrassment and resentment. The systematic deception makes children feel taken advantage of or like the butt of a joke.

If all of this isn’t a good enough reason, as we became Orthodox, it occurred to me that Santa represents a somewhat misguided theology. If Santa ultimately reflects a Christian world view, then in that world God punishes us if we’re bad and rewards us if we are good. On the one hand, a sort of Pelagianism, and on the other hand a Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God scenario. Neither is really consistent with Orthodox theology.

I think it would be far better for Santa to simply fade away. After all, he is mostly a marketing gimmick, if not created by Coke, exploited by them and most everyone else. Instead let’s spend December 6th learning about St. Nicholas, and celebrating him with Church services (<self serving> like this concert that was performed after our Pan-Orthodox St. Nicholas Vespers </self serving>). Let’s leave the feast of the Nativity for focus on Christ and his incarnation, and what that means to us. You can read some hymns that might be beneficial in that study.

Knowledge of Religion

A recent Pew Forum survey demonstrates what appears, at first blush, to be an embarrassing lack of knowledge of things religious by Americans who claim to be religious. There are a few problems with the way this is being reported, not the least of which is the fact that believers appear to be more knowledgeable about their beliefs than non-believers, although they know less about other religions. It is this latter realization that I think may prove to be quite dangerous.

In general, for the living out of life as an Orthodox Christian, knowing that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, or that most people in Pakistan are Muslim, serves little purpose. Surprisingly, knowing the order of books in the Bible isn’t very important either. Knowing who Moses is, or Job, and being familiar with the ten commandments, those are all very important. More importantly, knowing that Christ died for us, and rose again is important. That Martin Luther triggered the Reformation isn’t.

As I blogged about recently, there has been a growing tendency, as a result of the ecumenical movement, to believe that all religions are essentially the same. Certainly many act that way. I think there is a relationship between both the stated tendency, and this demonstration of the lack of religious knowledge. If someone, particularly someone who acts as if they are knowledgeable, that a certain item is fact, in the absence of any independent knowledge of my own, I am likely to believe them. In general, it is the job of our shepherds to guide us in these issues, much as St. Theophan the Recluse did in this work. Unfortunately, these days it is frequently the hierarchs that are engaged in much of the ecumenical behavior. So, instead of protecting the faithful, they are leading them astray. It is only a strong knowledge of our own faith, and faith of others, that will allow us to see the truth.

At our recent Greek Festival, we had a lot of great conversations with folks from other faiths at our booth. Frequently, though, we would have someone who was Roman (or in some cases Eastern) Catholic come and tell us how we were basically the same. The problem is, that we really aren’t. Superficially that may appear to be the case, but Rome has established doctrines that are at odds with the historic faith, and declared key elements of historic Orthodoxy to be, themselves, heresy. Unfortunately, many people are not sufficiently knowledgeable about their own faith to know this. They certainly aren’t knowledgeable enough about other faiths in most cases to know what the teachings actually are.

If this is truly the case, which is what the Pew survey suggests, and if the shepherds will not guide the flock any longer, how can they continue to follow the Way? Thankfully, not all of the shepherds have given up their responsibilities. There are still many holy bishops and priests to guide the faithful, and we have the tradition as found in our prayers and hymns and liturgies. We have the Monks and Nuns who have long been a source of nourishment for the Church. Finally, and most importantly, we have Christ as our head, and the Holy Spirit to guide us.

However, in this modern era, when the teachings of our Church are so readily available to those seeking them, we shouldn’t merely be content that God will protect the Church over time. As in everything else, we must be ready and willing to assist. We do this first and foremost by looking after our own education.

Do We Celebrate Christmas?

One of the frustrations we’ve had as parents over the years is with the issue of holidays at school. Claudia has written letters and/or spoken to teachers at the elementary schools every year. Mostly the conversations are around Halloween, but we do also mention that we don’t do the Santa Claus thing. Why we don’t do Santa is a different subject, we just don’t. These notes and conversations don’t do any good. The kids have still spent time coloring pictures of Jack O’ Lantern’s, black cats, and the like. They have learned a variety of secular Christmas songs, and learned about Santa and some of the way’s in which Christmas is celebrated in other cultures (as well as Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, etc.). The biggest problem has been that what they are taught about Christmas is entirely secular. In other words, it has nothing to do with the actual Nativity of our Lord.

During the same time frame as our older children were experiencing this, we grew increasingly irritated with the fact that so many people around us were busily celebrating Christmas before Christmas even arrived. As AngloCatholics at the time, we knew full well that we were in Advent – a penitential season. By the time Christmas actually arrived, most people would remark that they were glad that Christmas was finally over. In actual fact, Christmas had only just arrived, and would be around for the next 12 days. This, too, was very irritating. Once we became Orthodox, with the Orthodox Church experiencing a 40 day fasting period known as the Winter Lent, the frustration only grew.

Finally, this year, in part after reading a blog entry by Molly Sabourin, it dawned on me that we were actually talking about two different holidays. One was the Christmas of the secular America. This holiday was frankly rooted in the Evangelical/Protestant side of America. Especially with Evangelicalism, the loss of any sense of penitential behavior, meant that Advent itself was lost. No longer did people prepare for the incarnation of God, and that allowed for the introduction of parties throughout the preparation period.

Over time, market forces took control of the “season,” spending massive amounts of dollars to convince people to do likewise. With the advent of “Santa Claus,” the Coca Cola marketing ploy, the new holiday began to take its final shape. The point of the holiday had become the giving and receiving of presents. What had been the giving of a few gifts in recognition of the gift that God gave us (or the gifts of the Magi, depending on how one views it), became a holiday to celebrate the giving of presents in and of itself. It has become a holiday that completes a month or more of over indulgence. It has, in many ways, become fairly Bacchanalian, which is antithetical to the Christian life.

The other holiday, our holiday, is known in the east as the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas being a Latin construct, the name doesn’t exist in the east). This is the feast of the ancient Church. Marked by a period of fasting beforehand, and followed by 12 days of feasting, we celebrate the great and awesome mystery of the Incarnation. Western Christianity has, in many ways, forgotten that the incarnation is more than a means of providing someone to hang on a cross. I could be mistaken, but I think it is this loss that has ultimately led to Christmas (vs. the Nativity) becoming a secular holiday.

So, from our perspective, we can just let this secular holiday continue on being a secular holiday. We’ll celebrate ours in our way. I think at times, that it would be better if we were on the old calendar, in which case Christmas would be on January 7th. It would drive the kids a bit nuts, but it would make things abundantly clear that we are, in fact, celebrating a different holiday.