Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Let Not Many of You Become Teachers (James 3:1)

1 My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.

From the context of St. James’ epistle, it is clear that many people in St. James’ audience tended to be proud and even arrogant. Many wanted to become teachers, but not for the right reasons. As FF states, “Their desire to become teachers was…not motivated by a love of wisdom and a desire to spread it. Rather, it was motivated by a love of status and a desire to dominate” (37). In other words, too many of the early Christians wanted to be chiefs, and not enough were content to be braves!

To whom exactly was St. James referring when he spoke of “teachers?” According to FF, “The office of teacher (Gk. didaskalos) was a common one (see Acts 13:1: Eph. 4:11). Teaching, along with ruling, was one of the tasks of the elders or presbyters, and elders who labored hard at it were accounted worthy of double honor (see 1 Tim. 5:17). (The offices of teacher and presbyter in fact tended to coalesce; Paul refers to both shepherds and teachers in the same breath in Eph 4:11, probably because both roles were often filled by the same man.) Especially in a Jewish context, with its cultural respect for teaching rabbis, the office of teacher was a prestigious one, and it is not surprising that those who loved the praise of man gravitated to it” (37).

But lest these teacher wannabes get carried away with the desire for praise and position, St. James warns them that teachers will receive a stricter judgment. Fr. Farley elaborates on this, saying “The words rendered more judgment (Gk. meizon krima) could also be rendered “stricter judgment” [indeed, this is exactly how the NKJV translates the phrase] or even “more condemnation.” (The word krima often has an unfavorable connotation; compare its use in Rom. 3:8; 5:16; 2 Pet 2:3; Jude 4; Rev. 17:1). Teachers’ words affect many, and so if their teaching misleads, many others suffer harm. This is the reason they will incur more judgment on the Last Day (37).”

I must admit that this verse scares me. As a teacher, I pray that I am not bringing condemnation on myself by my own teaching ministry. This is why I approach my teaching with fear and trembling, and I try to be very careful about what I write and say. For I know that I will receive stricter judgment.

And those today who aspire to teach in the church or to become a member of the clergy need to especially keep this verse in mind. They need to know that along with the privileges of leadership come great responsibility and great accountability.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Vigil (An MK Comes Home, Part 13) - by James Hargrave

Christ the Saviour Cathedral on the banks of the Moscow River

The experience of the Paschal Liturgy at the Donskoy Monastery cathedral left an impression that I just couldn’t shake. I was still quite prejudiced against Christianity in general and Orthodox Christianity in particular—I had studied Russian history and “knew” that the Church had been an agent of violence and oppression, etc. If American-style Evangelicalism was too superstitious and unenlightened for someone of my intelligence, then Russian Orthodoxy was positively backwater.

But I also knew that I had encountered God that night at the cathedral. I knew that I had been in the presence of God. And the people around me had actually behaved as though they were in God’s presence. I wanted to be among them.

So I located another church a little closer to my dorm—Holy Trinity on Shabalovka. This is a temple that seems to have been taken over by the Bolsheviks, converted into something else, and only recently returned to the Church. I could see the scars in the walls and dome where walls and floors had been removed. The floor, walls and ceiling were chipped and cracked. I was pretty clueless about the cycle of services in traditional Christianity, but saw that they had a Saturday evening service and thought that would be worth visiting.

The New Jerusalem Monastery in a Moscow suburb

The service, which was called “All-Night Vigil,” lasted about 90 minutes and I began to attend regularly. I later learned that this is a combination of Vespers and Matins in preparation for Liturgy on Sunday morning, but at the time had no idea it was different from any other Orthodox Christian service. My favorite part was singing “Khristos Voskrese” (Christ is Risen) and being anointed with oil at the end.

And in the middle of the service (I’m still not sure whether this was at the Matins Gospel or O Gladsome Light), nuns would come through and extinguish every candle in the temple. I could buy a candle for a ruble, and then the priest would emerge from the altar with a single lit candle; we’d all light ours from his. And the candles on stands scattered throughout the nave would be re-lit from ours. Sunset at this time of year brought beams of light from the western windows shining on the altar and royal doors; altogether this moment was very powerful.

Sergiev Posad, site of the Monastery of the Holy Trinity

I started doing more of my tourism at religious sites, observing the pilgrims and mimicking their movements and behavior. I learned to cross myself Russian-style (you finish with a sweeping bow), and began making the sign of the Cross when I passed temples on the street. I visited the monastic complexes of New Jerusalem and Sergiev Posad, the medieval churches at Vladimir and Suzdal, and the brand-new Christ the Savior cathedral on the banks of the Moscow River.

Uspensky (Dormition) Cathedral in Vladimir

Liudmila Stepanovna, the professor who had taken me to Pasternak’s grave at Peredelkino, lent me a Russian-language pamphlet titled “So you’ve entered a temple,” which was a great introduction to the architecture, services, and experiences that a person encounters in an Orthodox Christian temple. I still wasn’t interested in believing the things that Christians believe. But I’d become very interested in their worship...

Friday, December 25, 2009


From the Early family to you, a blessed Feast of the Nativity. May God's richest blessings be yours, now and in the coming year.

Blogging will be sparse for the remainder of this year, since I'll be traveling for much of the rest of the year, and busy visiting friends and family and conducting services. I'll "see" you soon.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Culture Shock and the Orthodox Church-- by Debbie Hale

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn, Estonia. This was the first Orthodox Church that we ever entered

When you move to a new country you experience a strange phenomenon known as “Culture shock.” Everyone has experienced this, to some degree, when they move to a new city, change careers, or anytime something big in your life changes. It is never as intense, however, as when moving to a new country, where language and culture are profoundly different than what you are used to.

Being former Protestant missionaries to the small country of Estonia, Clint and I know this phenomenon all too well. What is strange about it is that when we were actually living through it, we did not realize it. In fact, most of the time, we were in complete denial. It was not until much later, when we were home in America, reminiscing, that we could look back and see it.

The first phase of culture shock is Excitement, also known as “The Honeymoon Period” and it is just what it sounds like. For the first few weeks after we moved to Estonia everything was like one big vacation. We enjoyed sight-seeing, and eating out, and getting to know our new home country. Everything was new and different and exciting.

However, that quickly changed once we had to actually start living it, and we had to do things like find a home, grocery shop, or get car insurance. All of a sudden, “normal” everyday things suddenly became stressful and confusing—people were acting in unpredictable ways, the culture felt strange. We could not read anything, or communicate effectively. Because of this we started to withdraw, and began disliking the things that just a few months ago seemed exciting. For us, that usually meant getting a babysitter, going to our favorite Chinese Food restaurant and sitting around with our fellow missionaries “criticizing” all the dumb things about Estonia.

During this time you are also experiencing something else—homesickness. Even though Clint and I were used to not living near family, homesickness still occurred. But it is not just people we missed, it was everything from home—people, places, food – that we longed for. We were also completely helpless to do anything about it. We could not just hop on a plane whenever we wanted to, and we could not call on the phone very often because it was so expensive. Thankfully we did have email, but even that did not relieve our homesickness. You just feel so lonely, and after awhile that turns into anger, and sometimes even depression.

The thing is, we still did not realize it as being part of culture shock. Even when I would go completely ballistic over little things like the fact that they had never heard of cheddar cheese, or fried chicken, or customer service, or that we had to pay to use the bathroom at McDonald’s, we still did not see it. We honestly thought that our new “home” was a completely stupid and “backward” place. Estonia was the problem, not us.

This feeling can go on for years, until one of two things happens. Either you eventually get over it and realize that this foreign place is just different than home, and even learn to appreciate the new and different culture, or you can remedy the situation by abandoning everything, packing up, and going home.

So, you might ask, why all this talk of “culture shock?” Well, I will tell you. It is because I am experiencing it all over again. Our conversion to Orthodoxy is just as unfamiliar a land, as Estonia ever was, and it is having the same effect. The great thing about hindsight is that it becomes easier to recognize the signs so hopefully we can handle it better.

This is from the ordination of a good friend in Estonia

When I was first introduced to the church, and began going regularly, it was just like visiting a foreign country – everything was new and beautiful and exciting, and the sights, sounds and smells were enticing. I was constantly devouring the new experiences with gusto, and drinking in as much information as I could. I was so caught up in my new-found faith that I did not want to think about what it might mean later.

Now that we have settled into the routines of the church, I now find that I am homesick. Don’t get me wrong, I am not thinking of leaving the church—I am not homesick for Protestantism, but for my friends and family. Growing up, attending church was always a HUGE part of our family life. Everyone, including aunts, uncles and cousins are all part of the same church, and anytime we would get together, church was usually part of it. I have always thought that it was this unity that made our family so close-knit. Even though most of the year we lived in different cities, and went to different congregations, we still were unified in our beliefs.

Right now we are the only ones to come home to Orthodoxy, and I miss my friends and family terribly. I find that each Sunday I come to Liturgy without them that I become more and more saddened by the fact that they are not with us. I pray to God every night that through our examples our families will one day come to the church, but I also have to deal with the fact that that may never happen. I am thankful for the wonderful caring people in our Parish who love us, and try to make us feel at home, but it is still not the same.

Christmas is especially hard right now, because we feel ripped in two, wanting to be in two places at once. What should be a time of joy and celebration is now a time of frustration and heartache because we now have to choose – something we never had to do before. We know how important it is to be at the Divine Service on Christmas morning, but choosing between church and family is not as simple as it seems. We simply do not live close enough to do both. So, we either go to Liturgy and reject family, or spend it with family and miss out on church – neither sounds very appealing.

So, what do new converts do? Just like culture shock, it can end two ways. Either they eventually come to terms with their new arrangement and settle in, or they find the constant stress to be too much and give up and leave. For us, the latter is simply not an option. I honestly do not know what would have happened to us in Estonia, since we ended up coming home before we could find out, but Orthodoxy is not something we could turn our backs on. However, I do not want to live in a constant state of stress and confusion either. I pray that I will eventually feel completely at home in the Orthodox Church, and that either my family will come to know it too, or the heartache I feel will be easier to bear.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

St. Ignatius Brianchaninov on our Dealings with Our Neighbor

St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, nineteenth century Russian monastic, bishop, and writer

On Sunday, I wrote briefly about St. Ignatius of Antioch. Today, I would like to share with you a brief excerpt from the writings of another saint who took his name from St. Ignatius: St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, the nineteenth-century Russian monastic, bishop, and writer. I have recently been reading through St. Brianchaninov's classic work The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism. This selection is from the sixteenth chapter, which is entitled "Humility In Our Dealings with our Neighbor is a Means of Attaining to Love For Our Neighbor." It struck me as especially powerful, and I'm sure it will likewise strike you. May it be a blessing to you.

Holy monks constantly remembered Christ's words: "Truly I tell you, when you did it to the least of one of these My brethren, you did it to me." They did not stop to consider whether their neighbor deserved their respect or not; they paid no attention to his numerous and obvious defects. Their attention was taken up with seeing what they did not somehow fail to realize that our neighbor is the image of God, and that Christ accepts what we do to our neighbor as if it were done to Him...

The realization of this truth becomes a source of the sweetest compunction, of the most fervent, undistracted, most concentrated prayer. Holy Abba Dorotheus used to say to his disciple, St. Dositheus, whenever he was overcome by anger: "Dositheus! You get angry, and are you not ashamed that you get angry and offend your brother? Do you not realize that he is Christ and that you offend Christ?"

The great Saint Apollos often used to tell his disciples regarding the reception of strange brethren who came to him that they must be given honor with a prostration to the earth. In bowing to them we bow not to them but to God. "Have you seen your brother? You have seen the Lord your God. This," he said, "we have received from Abraham. And that we must welcome and show hospitality to the brethren we have learnt from Lot who urged (persuaded) the Angels to spend the night at this house..."

St. Cassian the Roman, an ecclesiastical writer of the fourth century, relates the following: "When we (St. Cassian and his friend in the Lord St. Germanus), wishing to learn the rules of the elders, arrived from the region of Syria in the province of Egypt, we were astonished to find that they receive us there with extraordinary kindness. Moreover they never observed the rule for the use of food, for which a fixed hour is appointed, contrary to what we had learned in the Palestinian monasteries. Whenever we went the regular fast for that day was relaxed, with the exception of the canonical (Church) fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. We asked one of the elders: "Why do you all without distinction disregarded the daily fasting?" He replied: "Fasting is always with me, but you I must send away eventually and I cannot always have you with me. Although fasting is beneficial and constantly necessary, yet it is a gift and a voluntary sacrifice, whereas the observance of love in a practical way is an invariable duty required by the commandment. I receive Christ in your person, and I must show Him wholehearted hospitality; but when I have seen you off after showing the love of which He is the cause, I can make up for the relaxation by increased fasting in solitude. "Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? But when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast lawfully."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

St.Ignatius of Antioch

St. Ignatius "Theophoros," third bishop of Antioch

I don't usually do writeups of saints' lives on their feast days, mainly because there are so many other places where you can find their stories. But today I thought I would briefly mention one of today's saints, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch. St. Ignatius of Antioch is one of my very favorite saints, not just because of his courage and strength in the face of impending martyrdom, but also because of the seven beautiful epistles he left us.

St. Ignatius' epistles provide us with one of the earliest witnesses to what the late first century and early second century Church believed and practiced. When I first read them, I was shocked to discover that the Church of St. Ignatius' day was much more like today's Orthodox Church than it was to my tradition at the time (the Baptist church). I could not believe that this holy man of God, who had been a disciple of St. John the Evangelist, called the Eucharist the "medicine of immortality" (hardly an endorsement of the idea that the Eucharist is purely symbolic!).

I also found it astonishing to read St. Ignatius speak of a three-fold (not two-fold) division of the clergy, differentiating between bishops, priests, and deacons. Not only that, but he urges all Christians to be obedient to the bishops and other clergy and reminds us that each bishop is an icon of our Lord Jesus Himself. One of his most famous statements is "Where the bishop is, there also is the Catholic [i.e., complete and whole] Church."

These statements, along with all of his writings, played a great role in my decision to become Orthodox. And for this, I feel a special sense of gratitude to this great man of God.

To read a full story of the life of St. Ignatius, there are many places you can go, including the websites of the Orthodox Church in America, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, or Orthodox Wiki. For starters, however, click here.

And if you would like to read (or re-read) his epistles, click here. (Or better yet, read them in print form. My favorite version is found in The Apostolic Fathers, edited by Fr. Jack Sparks.

Holy Father St. Ignatius, pray to God for us!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Fr. Farley on the Alleged Contradiction Between St. James and St. Paul

A significant number of biblical scholars believe that the teachings of St. Paul and St. James on the relationship between faith and works are in contradiction to each other. A few have even posited that St. James and St. Paul actively opposed each other and even ended up (perhaps inadvertently) founding two separate branches of Christianity, of which St. Paul's won out. I believe that neither of these ideas is correct. Fr. Farley agrees. I thought that you might enjoy his excellent discussion called "On Faith and Works in James and Paul," found on pages 35 and 36 of his commentary on the epistle. Here it is in its entirety.

The perceived tension between James and Paul on the subject of faith and works is one that has vexed theologians. Some have suggested that Paul and James are speaking in conscious opposition to each other, or at the very least that their teachings are antithetical.

This, however, is not the case. James was writing before Paul began his literary work, so James was obviously not writing in contradictioin of Paul. Nor, in fact, was Paul writing in contradiction of James. Both addressed separate issues and confronted different (and opposite) errors.

When Paul wrote that a man is saved by faith, not by works (e.g. Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16), he was striving against those Jews who said that merely being an obedient disciple of Jesus was not enough to be saved. One also needed, they insisted, to earn God's favor by performing works of the Law (the first of which, for the Gentile, was circumcision). This was the spirit of the Pharisees, the proud determination to earn salvation by one's own efforts. These Jews said that a Gentile could not be truly forgiven and saved as he was, but that he needed to become a circumcised Jew first. For Paul, such an attitude indicated a complete failure to understand the Gospel, and involved subverting everything to make Christ's saving Cross subordinate to the Law.

[Fr. James' note: I personally believe that every time St. Paul states that salvation is not by works, he is referring to the works of The Law, that is the Mosaic Law, not any type of works in general. He says as much explicitly in Galatians, and the context of Romans demands it as well. If he does mean mean works in general, then he is contradicting himself, for he states on more than one occassion that those who do good works will be saved (see Rom. 2, for example).]

When James wrote that a man is saved by works and not by faith alone (2:24), he was striving against those Jewish Christians who felt that to be saved it was sufficient simply to confess the faith, and that the quality of one's life was irrelevant. For these people, a merely nominal and cerebral faith was all that was needed, and it did not matter that their supposed discipleship to Jesus was not at all manifested in their daily lives. For James, such an attitude indicated a complete failure to understand the Gospel, and those who clung to such an attitude were no true disciples of Jesus at all.

For James, as for Paul, what saves a man is heartfelt discipleship to Christ. One is saved by faith, faithfulness (both English words translated by the Gk. pistis), a relationship of humble love for God. This relationship begins when one receives forgiveness as a free gift through Christ and is sustained by a life of repentant striving to please God. Both James and Paul knew that a love for God that is not reflected in love for man is an illusion.

James found this truth under attack by nominalists who said that a life of striving to please God was not necessary, as long as one gave intellectual assent to certain doctrinal truths (such as the unity of God). He therefore insisted that one is saved by works, so that one's inner faith is shown to be authentic by the quality of one's life. Paul found this truth under attack by legalists who said that this life was not received as a free gift, but needed to be earned by piling up good works. He therefore insisted that one is saved by faith, by receiving forgiveness freely as one comes to God in Christ. [In his recent interview with Fr. Chris Metropoulos on Come Receive the Light, Fr. Farley used the analogy of "two separate phone conversations."] Neither apostle contradicted the other, but each protected the same Gospel from different foes and distortions.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Saint Basil of Ostrog

St. Basil of Ostrog

When we lived in Banja Luka, we had a nanny/housekeeper named Brana. She had (and still has) two daughters. Maja, the older of the two was in college at the time. She later married an Orthodox deacon and moved to Australia, where they still live today. Maja's husband is an assistant to one of the Serbian Orthodox bishops in Australia.

Recently I received a surprise package in the mail (always a good experience, as long as the package is not ticking...). The package was from Maja. It contained two books, one of which was a beautiful coffee-table book published in Montenegro. The book was about a saint who is very well-known in Serbia and Montenegro, but whom I had never heard of: St. Basil of Ostrog. The book contained a detailed biography of this holy man, along with many stories about how he has continued to minister to people down to the present time. Also figuring prominently in the book are stories about the monastery that the saint founded, with stories about the monastery and words of wisdom of the monks that live there.

Being a coffee-table book, the book obviously had huge pages...300 to be precise. And even though quite a few of the pages contain full-size (beautiful) pictures, it still took me forever to read it. But it was well-worth it. I thought I would share with you a brief biography of St. Basil (from Wikipedia), and then one of the many miracle stories from the book (this one was my personal favorite). I hope you enjoy them.

Basil of Ostrog was Bishop of Zahumlje in Herzegovina. He was born in Popovo Selo, Herzegovina on December 12, 1610, and became a monk at the Monastery of the Dormition TvrdoŇ° near Trebinje.

His modesty forbidding him to push himself forward to occupy the high positions his piety and capabilities recommended him for, he was elected as Bishop of Zahumlje and Skenderia against his will.

After his death in 1671 he was buried at the Ostrog Monastery he had founded in Montenegro, and his tomb in a cave-church soon became a site of pilgrimage for Christians (both Orthodox and Roman Catholic) and Muslims drawn by reports of miracles occurring through the intercession of the saint. The Monastery of Ostrog is now one of the major pilgrimage sites in the Balkans, and large numbers of pilgrims gather particularly at Pentecost. St. Basil of Ostrog is commemorated in the Serbian orthodox liturgical calendar on April 29.

Now, here is the miracle story from the book. It is being told by a young pilgrim to the monastery who is relating a story his grandfather used to tell him.

" was sometime around the Feast of St. Elijah in 1921 when a great plague of locusts came upon the land from the direction of Byelopavlichi and Chevo to our side of the mountain, at Tsutse. Wherever the locusts settled, they devoured everything: the fields, the orchards, anything that had a green leaf or a tender fruit on it! The people tried to defend themselves from this attack, killing the locusts as they could, but it was no good. They just came and came.

Now, my Grandfather had planted corn, wheat and some rye in his field. They were poor; it was all he had to feed his family and he was afraid that if the locusts ate everything, his family would go hungry. One day, he had just let the sheep out to graze in the meadows when they were startled by something and came running back. He looked and saw a terrible sight: a sea of locusts was on its way across the land towards his crops!

My Grandfather then ran into the house, and, hospitable as he was and full of the fear of God, he took a tray with some bread and salt on it. Telling his family not to do anything bad to the locusts, he ran out with the bread and salt and put it down on the boundry line of his property for the first locusts to eat. Then he turned towards the East, crossed himself and prayed to God that this plague might be taken away from him. As the first locusts crawled onto his land, he greeted them as though they were real guests! 'Come, locusts,' he said. 'No one will bother you, for I know that you have been sent by God as a punishment for our sins. Eat your fill but do not leave us hungry!'

The swarm of locusts fell upon his crop and what did my Grandfather do? He ran back to the house and brought out an icon of St. Basil [of Ostrog], glory and mercy be upon him, which he hung up on the branches of a tree in the middle of his field. And so he put his life into the hands of God and St. Basil.

The locusts stayed on his property for three full days. When they left his property and flew away, there were so many of them that they blocked out the sun. They had not touched the rye, corn or other crops. After a few days my Grandfather and his sons went to reap the crop and saw that the year's crop was of better quality than any other year. There was a tiny hole at the top of each grain of wheat, as though someone had pricked it with the point of a needle.

They say that the word about this miracle spread all over the place and that even some police officers from Tsetinye came to see Grandfather and learn more about the miracle."

Pretty cool, eh? Reading this book has been a great blessing to me. It has also made me want to visit the historic monastery at Ostrog, and to venerate the relics of this great saint. May God grant that this will one day be a reality.

Metropolitan AMFILOHIJE of Montenegro and the Littoral in front of the relics of St. Basil (at the Ostrog Monastery)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Be Careful What you Do (Part Two)

Pontius Pilate, played by actor Hristo Shopov in the 2004 film The Passion of the Christ

Here's a reflection I wrote some time ago. I haven't posted it on the blog, because it is so similar to the one on the same subject (remember Og and Sihon) that I posted a couple of weeks ago. But I decided you might like it anyway, so here it is. This is something we all need to hear again and again (or at least I do!).

Be very careful what you do; you never know who will find out about it…and for how long they will remember.

Case in point: Long ago, in the greatest superpower in the world at the time, there was a governor who made a fateful decision. This particular governor served for ten years in one of the empire’s most insignificant provinces. Eventually he was fired for incompetence and corruption… in an empire where a certain amount of graft was tolerated and almost expected.

Like all governors in this empire, this governor’s main responsibility was twofold: maintain peace in his province and keep the taxes flowing in to the central government. In order to do the former, he had to occasionally crack some heads. He had to prove that he was boss, and that no dissent, much less rebellion, would be tolerated. If this required him to put a few thousand people to death, so be it! And this he did, with remarkable efficiency. Virtually none of this governor’s victims are remembered today, and neither would he be remembered, except by scholars who focus on the history of the empire, had he not put to death one particular person.

That person’s name was Jesus of Nazareth.

During the Divine Liturgy, while the Nicene Creed is being recited, I have often been struck by how the name of Pontius Pilate, this otherwise nondescript governor of a far-flung province of the Roman Empire, has been spoken by millions upon millions of Christians all over the world for nearly two thousand years. And if you think about just how many Orthodox and Roman Catholic parishes there are around the world, and how often Divine Liturgies and Masses are served (not to mention prayer rules and other services that include the Creed), it would probably be safe to say that Pontius Pilate’s name is called out at least once every hour of every day.

When Pilate cowardly gave in to the will of the Sanhedrin and allowed Jesus to be crucified, could he have had any idea that his deed would live in infamy for the rest of human history? I seriously doubt it. To Pilate, Jesus was just one more Jewish rabble-rouser who would surely be forgotten within a few years. The governor had no way of knowing that that this peasant from Galilee would rise from the dead and ascend into heaven, and that the number of his followers would grow exponentially and spread throughout the world.

So the next time you recite the Creed and you say “and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,” think of course about the great self-giving sacrifice that our Lord made for us. At the same time, however, think about Pilate, and how this seemingly routine deed has been remembered and commemorated by an untold multitude of people, and will be forever. Then think about your own life and your own deeds. How long will your own deeds be remembered, and by how many people? For most of us, the answer will be “not long, and not many.” But you never know…

Friday, December 11, 2009

On the Date of Nativity

A few months after I started working as an engineer at International Paper in Georgetown, I met a colleague who was an elder in the Church of Christ. This was in December. I noticed he was photocopying some pages out of a biblical commentary, and so naturally, we started talking about the Bible, church, etc. I asked him something about Christmas, and he shocked me by saying "We don't celebrate Christmas!" After I got up off the floor, I asked why. He said, "It doesn't say anywhere in the Bible that we are to celebrate Christmas. Besides, it's just an old pagan feast that the corrupted Church adopted."

At that time, I had never heard of a Christian who didn't celebrate Christmas. In fact, the possibility of that happening had never even crossed my mind! And I have never met such a Christian since.

However, I do know many Christians who, while they celebrate Christmas, aren't really completely comfortable with it. Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine who is a Baptist pastor about the date of Christmas. He told me the oft-repeated theory that most evangelical Protestants hold regaring why December 25th was chosen: some time after the conversion of Constantine, the Church chose the date of the Roman festival of the Unconquered Sun so as to (in his words) "cozy up to the pagans." He mentioned a writing from Pope Gregory the Great in which the latter encouraged the conversion of pagan feasts to Christian ones (not taking into account the fact that Gregory wrote long after December 25 was selected as the day to celebrate Christ's birth).

This idea that the Church "took over" or "baptized" the pagan festival of the Unconquered Sun is quite widespread, and not just among fundamentalists. Even some Orthodox writers, including one very well-known Orthodox lecturer and podcaster, subscribe to it (although the latter certainly doesn't believe the Church was trying to "cozy up" to the pagans!)

But there are other theories, including one I read about a few years ago in Touchstone magazine. This article is so great, I thought I would reprint it inn full here. The name of the article is Calculating Christmas, by William J. Tighe. It is long but well worth reading. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Calculating Christmas

Many Christians think that Christians celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25th because the church fathers appropriated the date of a pagan festival. Almost no one minds, except for a few groups on the fringes of American Evangelicalism, who seem to think that this makes Christmas itself a pagan festival. But it is perhaps interesting to know that the choice of December 25th is the result of attempts among the earliest Christians to figure out the date of Jesus’ birth based on calendrical calculations that had nothing to do with pagan festivals.

Rather, the pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Son” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the “pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance.

A Mistake

The idea that the date was taken from the pagans goes back to two scholars from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant, wished to show that the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was one of the many “paganizations” of Christianity that the Church of the fourth century embraced, as one of many “degenerations” that transformed pure apostolic Christianity into Catholicism. Dom Jean Hardouin, a Benedictine monk, tried to show that the Catholic Church adopted pagan festivals for Christian purposes without paganizing the gospel.

In the Julian calendar, created in 45 B.C. under Julius Caesar, the winter solstice fell on December 25th, and it therefore seemed obvious to Jablonski and Hardouin that the day must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one. But in fact, the date had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.

There were two temples of the sun in Rome, one of which (maintained by the clan into which Aurelian was born or adopted) celebrated its dedication festival on August 9th, the other of which celebrated its dedication festival on August 28th. But both of these cults fell into neglect in the second century, when eastern cults of the sun, such as Mithraism, began to win a following in Rome. And in any case, none of these cults, old or new, had festivals associated with solstices or equinoxes.

As things actually happened, Aurelian, who ruled from 270 until his assassination in 275, was hostile to Christianity and appears to have promoted the establishment of the festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” as a device to unify the various pagan cults of the Roman Empire around a commemoration of the annual “rebirth” of the sun. He led an empire that appeared to be collapsing in the face of internal unrest, rebellions in the provinces, economic decay, and repeated attacks from German tribes to the north and the Persian Empire to the east.

In creating the new feast, he intended the beginning of the lengthening of the daylight, and the arresting of the lengthening of darkness, on December 25th to be a symbol of the hoped-for “rebirth,” or perpetual rejuvenation, of the Roman Empire, resulting from the maintenance of the worship of the gods whose tutelage (the Romans thought) had brought Rome to greatness and world-rule. If it co-opted the Christian celebration, so much the better.

A By-Product

It is true that the first evidence of Christians celebrating December 25th as the date of the Lord’s nativity comes from Rome some years after Aurelian, in A.D. 336, but there is evidence from both the Greek East and the Latin West that Christians attempted to figure out the date of Christ’s birth long before they began to celebrate it liturgically, even in the second and third centuries. The evidence indicates, in fact, that the attribution of the date of December 25th was a by-product of attempts to determine when to celebrate his death and resurrection.

How did this happen? There is a seeming contradiction between the date of the Lord’s death as given in the synoptic Gospels and in John’s Gospel. The synoptics would appear to place it on Passover Day (after the Lord had celebrated the Passover Meal on the preceding evening), and John on the Eve of Passover, just when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Jerusalem Temple for the feast that was to ensue after sunset on that day.

Solving this problem involves answering the question of whether the Lord’s Last Supper was a Passover Meal, or a meal celebrated a day earlier, which we cannot enter into here. Suffice it to say that the early Church followed John rather than the synoptics, and thus believed that Christ’s death would have taken place on 14 Nisan, according to the Jewish lunar calendar. (Modern scholars agree, by the way, that the death of Christ could have taken place only in A.D. 30 or 33, as those two are the only years of that time when the eve of Passover could have fallen on a Friday, the possibilities being either 7 April 30 or 3 April 33.)

However, as the early Church was forcibly separated from Judaism, it entered into a world with different calendars, and had to devise its own time to celebrate the Lord’s Passion, not least so as to be independent of the rabbinic calculations of the date of Passover. Also, since the Jewish calendar was a lunar calendar consisting of twelve months of thirty days each, every few years a thirteenth month had to be added by a decree of the Sanhedrin to keep the calendar in synchronization with the equinoxes and solstices, as well as to prevent the seasons from “straying” into inappropriate months.

Apart from the difficulty Christians would have had in following—or perhaps even being accurately informed about—the dating of Passover in any given year, to follow a lunar calendar of their own devising would have set them at odds with both Jews and pagans, and very likely embroiled them in endless disputes among themselves. (The second century saw severe disputes about whether Pascha had always to fall on a Sunday or on whatever weekday followed two days after 14 Artemision/Nisan, but to have followed a lunar calendar would have made such problems much worse.)

These difficulties played out in different ways among the Greek Christians in the eastern part of the empire and the Latin Christians in the western part of it. Greek Christians seem to have wanted to find a date equivalent to 14 Nisan in their own solar calendar, and since Nisan was the month in which the spring equinox occurred, they chose the 14th day of Artemision, the month in which the spring equinox invariably fell in their own calendar. Around A.D. 300, the Greek calendar was superseded by the Roman calendar, and since the dates of the beginnings and endings of the months in these two systems did not coincide, 14 Artemision became April 6th.

In contrast, second-century Latin Christians in Rome and North Africa appear to have desired to establish the historical date on which the Lord Jesus died. By the time of Tertullian they had concluded that he died on Friday, 25 March 29. (As an aside, I will note that this is impossible: 25 March 29 was not a Friday, and Passover Eve in A.D. 29 did not fall on a Friday and was not on March 25th, or in March at all.)

Integral Age

So in the East we have April 6th, in the West, March 25th. At this point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which, as it is nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the “integral age” of the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception.

This notion is a key factor in understanding how some early Christians came to believe that December 25th is the date of Christ’s birth. The early Christians applied this idea to Jesus, so that March 25th and April 6th were not only the supposed dates of Christ’s death, but of his conception or birth as well. There is some fleeting evidence that at least some first- and second-century Christians thought of March 25th or April 6th as the date of Christ’s birth, but rather quickly the assignment of March 25th as the date of Christ’s conception prevailed.

It is to this day, commemorated almost universally among Christians as the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel brought the good tidings of a savior to the Virgin Mary, upon whose acquiescence the Eternal Word of God (“Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten of the Father before all ages”) forthwith became incarnate in her womb. What is the length of pregnancy? Nine months. Add nine months to March 25th and you get December 25th; add it to April 6th and you get January 6th. December 25th is Christmas, and January 6th is Epiphany.

Christmas (December 25th) is a feast of Western Christian origin. In Constantinople it appears to have been introduced in 379 or 380. From a sermon of St. John Chrysostom, at the time a renowned ascetic and preacher in his native Antioch, it appears that the feast was first celebrated there on 25 December 386. From these centers it spread throughout the Christian East, being adopted in Alexandria around 432 and in Jerusalem a century or more later. The Armenians, alone among ancient Christian churches, have never adopted it, and to this day celebrate Christ’s birth, manifestation to the magi, and baptism on January 6th.

Western churches, in turn, gradually adopted the January 6th Epiphany feast from the East, Rome doing so sometime between 366 and 394. But in the West, the feast was generally presented as the commemoration of the visit of the magi to the infant Christ, and as such, it was an important feast, but not one of the most important ones—a striking contrast to its position in the East, where it remains the second most important festival of the church year, second only to Pascha (Easter).

In the East, Epiphany far outstrips Christmas. The reason is that the feast celebrates Christ’s baptism in the Jordan and the occasion on which the Voice of the Father and the Descent of the Spirit both manifested for the first time to mortal men the divinity of the Incarnate Christ and the Trinity of the Persons in the One Godhead.

A Christian Feast

Thus, December 25th as the date of the Christ’s birth appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences upon the practice of the Church during or after Constantine’s time. It is wholly unlikely to have been the actual date of Christ’s birth, but it arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death.

And the pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians. The Christians, in turn, could at a later date re-appropriate the pagan “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” to refer, on the occasion of the birth of Christ, to the rising of the “Sun of Salvation” or the “Sun of Justice.”

The author refers interested readers to Thomas J. Talley’s The Origins of the Liturgical Year (The Liturgical Press). A draft of this article appeared on the listserve Virtuosity.

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a faculty advisor to the Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a Member of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Memory Eternal! Laura Lynn Meador 1972-2009

Please forgive me for the length of this post, and for the sentimental nature of parts of it. I'm trying to work through some grief right now.

I am the youngest of four siblings, and my parents were in their late forties when I was born. Not surprisingly, my siblings are all quite a bit older than me. The two who are closest to me in age are my brother Cleland and sister Lisa, who are 15 and 11 years older than me, respectively. Cleland left home to go to college when I was three, and Lisa followed suit four years later. They both attended UT Austin, and both have lived in Texas ever since their graduations. Because of this, I have been able to see them fairly often throughout my adult life, except, of course, for the years that I lived in Eastern Europe.

But I have one other sister, Mary, whom I have not been able to see very often. She is 22 years older than me. The year I was born, she graduated from college, married, and moved with her new husband to California. Within four years of her marriage, Mary had three children: Thomas in 1969, Allan in 1971, and Laura in 1972. Like all children in our extended family (heh, heh), all three of these children are good-looking, intelligent, and multi-talented! And yes, your math is correct--that means I have a niece who is four years younger than me and nephews who are three and yea, only ONE year younger than me.

Needless to say, with Mary and the kids in California and the rest of our family in Texas, I didn't get to see my nieces and nephews very often. In fact, I barely even remember seeing them at all for the first twelve years of my life, even though I know I must have. One fond memory of them that I do have comes from the summer of 1980, when I was 12. I don't remember exactly why this occurred, but for some reason, Mary asked if she and the kids could come live with us during the summer. So, my parents and I got in the car, made the three-day trip to LA, spent some time there, and came back with Mary and the kids. There were seven of us riding in one car from LA to Houston. Good thing my parents had a Cadillac with a powerful AC at the time!

Mary, Thomas, Allan, and Laura stayed with us nearly the entire summer. During that time, I spent a lot of time with these great kids, who due to their closeness to me in age, became like brothers and a sister to me. We had some wonderful times that I will always cherish. At that time in my life, I was very much into drawing cartoons and comic strips, and I taught Thomas and Allan how to do it. In doing so, I instilled a love for drawing in them that has stuck with both of them to this day. Both of them have had comic strips and other drawings that have been published. I had no idea what I was starting!

When the summer was over, my parents bought Mary and the kids plane tickets, and they flew back to LA. The next time I saw them was four years later. My parents and I went to California that summer (flying this time), and I was able to spend a little time with my nephews and niece, though obviously nowhere near as much time as I had four years earlier. Sadly, I barely remember the time I spent with them. By then, I was 16 and thought I was just too cool to spend time with younger kids like them (and I was not mature enough to know just how stupid and IMmature I was, let alone how important family is).

After we returned that summer, I got busy with school, work, friends, and girls. Then it was college, then work, then marriage, then kids, then life overseas, then more work, and so on and so on.

Since 1984, I've seen Mary perhaps half a dozen times. I saw Thomas once when he came down to Houston about two years ago. I haven't seen Allan or Laura since.

I have just found out that I'll never see Laura again, at least not in this life.

I had exchanged a few emails with her a couple of years after we moved back to Texas from Bosnia. We chatted about family, career, and (of course) faith. Among other things, I learned that she was married and had two boys. Then, as often happens, the conversation trailed off and ended. That was perhaps '03 or '04 at the latest. We never conversed again.

We recently became "friends" on Facebook, but never even exchanged a single message. Of course, I had plans to. I wanted to get caught up again and hopefully to see her sometime in the near future. But life has a nasty habit of getting in the way of such plans. We assume that both we and those whom we love will be around forever. Oh, we know INTELLECTUALLY that we won't, but practically speaking, we usually act as if we are immortal. Or at least I do....

This past Sunday afternoon, I received the following email from Mary:

"I have some rather disturbing news. My beautiful, intelligent, and sweet-natured daughter, Laura, has been diagnosed with a rather advanced cancer. Now we're all optimistic, because while it has spread, only one tumor is dangerous, and there are wonderful new procedures that they can use, and they have formulated a plan of action. There is also the chance that they will send her to one of the best cancer centers in the country, which is in Portland, OR, which is only a couple of hours away. But all of you who know me know that I'm not dependent on allopathy alone; I believe in getting help from the Other Side as well...James, if you could get some of your parishioners to pray for Laura, that too would be greatly appreciated...she's in Sacred Heart Hospital, Eugene, Oregon.

She's in good spirits, and is optimistic, as I am, though Thomas and Allan are very frightened. She still looks beautiful, and her sons give her a reason to keep going. But the family is frightened, as you might know. Those of you who want to do more can go to this website which will give you more details. Allan set it up. Here's the URL:

Again, I'm upset that she has to go through all this pain and surgery and everything, but she has a million friends who are pulling for her - and again, I'm optimistic. But any help that you might give would be greatly appreciated."

I responded immediately with the following:

"Mary, I'll definitely keep Laura in my prayers. Please keep us posted. If there's any way possible, I'm going to try to go up there sometime and see her in the near future."

Then she sent the following on Monday morning, at which time I was on my way to a conference in Austin (for my job with the school district):

"Dear James - Thank you so much. She has a lot of people pulling and praying for her; she's very well loved. Laura would love to see you, and you'd love meeting her boys. Very, very bright! Almost like little adults - yet with the spontaneity and imagination so typical of our family!

She made it through the surgery, and they finally stopped the bleeding. Last I heard, she was doing very well. Now they are going to do radiation therapy to get rid of the tumors in her head. The way I understand it, only one tumor is incurable, and that's the one on the liver - and they can cut off some of the liver because I THINK the liver regenerates. So please, please keep her in your prayers. So many of my friends are helping out. And I know from experience that it works."

I thought, I'll keep praying, ask others to pray, and try to fly up to see her during the Christmas Holidays. Then this morning, on the last day of the conference, I woke to find this email from Mary:

"Dear James, Laura died at 5:30 AM. We're still in shock. A week ago we were planning a Christmas with her and the boys.

I know that she is in a better place, and that her pain as over, but as my old friend Carol once said, "your body misses that body." I'm trying to hang in there for Allan and Thomas, but it's hard. Parents should never outlive their children.

Love to you and to Jennifer and the girls. Pray for my baby."

Needless to say, I was stunned. It has been a hard day. Even though I hadn't seen Laura in 25 years and hadn't communicated with her in five years, I feel a deep sense of loss.

The lesson I am drawing from this is one that I thought I had learned before. But just when I thought I had gotten my "degree," something like this happens, and I'm right back in my freshman year. The lesson for me (and all of us, although I'm sure that you, dear readers, know this well) is this: Don't assume that your loved ones will be around for all that much longer. Don't assume that you will be able to write that letter, make that phone call, send that email, make that visit, etc, next month or next year. Tell your loved ones how much they mean to you, and do whatever it takes to see them every so often. Certainly don't wait 25 years like I did in the case of my dear niece.

Don't worry; I'm not beating myself up about this. You don't need to tell me that there is no way I could have known that Laura had terminal cancer, much less that she would leave this earth only three days after it was discovered. Still, it is inevitable that I feel at least a touch of regret for not having done better about staying in touch with her and getting to know her better. My life is very much the poorer by this neglect. And I cannot help but feel a deep sense of grief over the loss of this beautiful human being.

I love you, Laura, and I will miss you. I will never stop praying for you. May your memory be eternal. May God grant you a place in His Kingdom, and may He comfort those you have left behind, especially your dear boys.

Laura Lynn Meador