The Hijacking of Halloween

A Pumpkin

While September is the beginning of the ecclesiastical year which is marked by our commemoration of the great devotion to God and extreme ascetism of St.Simeon the Stylite, the old custom of the Celtic peoples of Britain, Ireland and northern France was to bring in the new year at the end of October, but in a much darker fashion.

According to an article by the Russian Archpriest Victor Potapov, these people believe that physical life was born from death so it was logical for them to welcome the “new year” in the fall when, as they believed, the season of cold, darkness, decay and death began. The Celts believed that a certain deity, whom they called Samhain, was the lord of death. To him they gave honor at their New Year’s festival. On the eve of the festival the priests of the Celtic cult, the Druids, instructed their people to extinguish all hearth fires and lights and they ignited one large bonfire which was believed to be sacred. It was at that bonfire that sacrifices were made to the lord of death, Samhain. They believed that their lord, pleased with the offerings, would allow the dead to return to their homes. It was this belief that brought the tradition of wondering about in the dark dressed in costumes indicating ghosts, witches and demons.

Another belief of these ancient people was that their souls, if they were pleased by the offerings presented at the bonfire, could provoke the wrath of Samhain whose angels and servants could retaliate through a system of “tricks” or curses. Thus the dialogue of “trick or treat”. All of these things are a part of the modern “innocent” version of Halloween.

There is nothing new in Church discouraging Christians from taking part in Halloween celebrations. After all, they’ve been doing it since in the early Celtic Church the Holy Fathers attempted to counteract this pagan new year festival by establishing the Feast of All Saints. While in the East this feast would fall on the Sunday after Pentecost, it was the custom of the Celts for the faithful to attend a vigil service on October 31 and a morning Divine Liturgy on November 1. Interestingly enough, it was this custom which created the term “Halloween”. The Old English of “All Hallow E’en,” i.e. the eve of the commemorating all those who were hallowed became known as Halloween.

A name that sounds Christian but has nothing to do with it.

There are alternatives to celebrating Halloween. If you are on the Old Calendar we commemorate St. Luke the Evangelist on October 31. On the other hand, if you are Protestant, well I suppose you can always commemorate the Reformation.

Is it Just a Joke?

A recent episode of the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm has left a bad taste in the mouths of some viewers. Namely, members of the Catholic League have already voiced their opinion.  Hopefully the rest of the Christian population in America will follow suit.

The episode in question, which follows the producer and star of the series, Larry David, shows him taking some medication which causes him to go to the bathroom more frequently than usual.  As he is in there a drop of urine accidentally reaches a nearby portrait of Jesus, landing  just below his eye. Later, some women mistake it for a tear and think it’s a miracle. In a statement from the president of the Catholic League, Phil Donahue, stated among other things: “Was Larry David always this crude? Would he think it comedic if someone urinated on a picture of his mother?” (see article here)

Personally, I’ve never understood the need of making fun of religion. I used to enjoy watching stand up comics on Comedy Central years ago. Many of them were clever and very funny but then, making fun of everything else, they’d end up saying something inappropriate about Jesus. Something that just wasn’t that funny. Actually, it’s not only jokes about Jesus or religion but the vulgarity in general. Makes you wonder just how far one will go for a laugh. I suppose it always bothered me in particular because I always enjoyed comedy so much and found a lot of these guys very funny and entertaining that it was such a disappointment to have to listen to them take it too far. In the end I just gave up.  I’m sorry but the excuse It’s just a joke just doesn’t apply here.  Some things in life aren’t meant to be a joke.  Making fun of Hot Pockets isn’t the same as making fun of God. (BTW, long, long ago I think Bill Cosby did a pretty good job in his bit about Noah.) Things have gotten way out of hand.

At any rate, it’d be interesting to see just how much reaction this gets considering the fury of Muslims at the slightest insult to the name of Muhammad.

We are all Athonite monks!

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The website of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Dalmatia offers on its English page a translation of an interview with Abbot Ephraim of Vatopedi monastery. The translation is a little rough around the edges but interesting to read nonetheless. The abbot gives brief answers to a variety of questions. For instance, in his reply to a question about Russian chant he says: 

“Contemporary Russian chant is not ancient. Old unison Russian chant is more prayerful. Byzantine chant is more pleasant and spiritual. But, chant is of secondary importance; the most important is – a clean heart.”

Or when asked about the conflicts between the Greek and Russian monks on Mt. Athos:

“Because of man’s infirmity, some conflicts really did occur. There are some silly Greeks, and silly Russians. As Father Ephraim said, that kind of people collide, but there is love among Russian, Serbian, Greek people and all inhabitants of Mount Athos. There is real life in Christ also.”

In that same manner, he gives a simple answer to the occurrence of miracles on Mt. Athos:

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe. Some time ago a miracle has occurred in a Bulgarian monastery Zograf. Namely, an icon was miraculously taken by St. Martyr George to one of the monastery churches. But the greatest miracle is – the Church with Her Holy Mysteries.”

Regarding prayers before Holy Communion he says:

“There are some monks that confess every day. Monks receive Communion four times a week – on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. On other days, there is a strict fast – food is prepared without oil; and on Saturdays food is prepared with oil. In our monastery, sometimes even ten liturgies are served every day and every monk knows when he can receive Holy Communion. In Greece, Holy Communion has nothing to do with Confession. If a man did not commit any mortal sins which cannot be absolved, then he can receive Holy Communion. The Holy Communion comes from love of the heart; it is straining of one’s heart. A prayer before Holy Communion is a CANON before the Holy Communion. Indeed, canons do exist, but their fulfillment must not be taken as a law. As for the preparation before Holy Communion, there must be no constraint. The same can be said for fasting. A man is obliged to fast according to the fasting period prescribed by the Church; there is no special fasting rule for the receiving of Holy Communion.”

But I think my favorite was when he was asked about St. Ignatius Brianchaninov:

“In monastery Vatopedi, the works of St. Ignatius Brianchaninov are read. St. Ignatius is a man of prayer, soberness; in a word, he is a ”complete Athonite monk”. We can say that, because Mount Athos is not a place; it is a way of life. Therefore, everyone can be called an “Athonite monk”.

Full article here

Оrthodoxy and Russian Schools

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The article below is taken from The New York Times (here) and shows the shift taking place in Russian schools as of late. If I remember correctly, religious classes are offered in schools in Serbia but I think it’s optional. I’m not sure of the situation in Greece. Whatever the case, it’s an interesting perspective when considering all the email messages from the religiously minded in America, bewailing the fact that God has been taken out of schools here.:

KOLOMNA, Russia — One of the most discordant debates in Russian society is playing out in public schools like those in this city not far from Moscow, where the other day a teacher named Irina Donshina set aside her textbooks, strode before her second graders and, as if speaking from a pulpit, posed a simple question:“Whom should we learn to do good from?”

“From God!” the children said.

“Right!” Ms. Donshina said. “Because people he created crucified him. But did he accuse them or curse them or hate them? Of course not! He continued loving and feeling pity for them, though he could have eliminated all of us and the whole world in a fraction of a second.”

Nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the return of religion to public life, localities in Russia are increasingly decreeing that to receive a proper public school education, children should be steeped in the ways of the Russian Orthodox Church, including its traditions, liturgy and historic figures.

The lessons are typically introduced at the urging of church leaders, who say the enforced atheism of Communism left Russians out of touch with a faith that was once at the core of their identity.

The new curriculum reflects the nation’s continuing struggle to define what it means to be Russian in the post-Communist era and what role religion should play after being brutally suppressed under Soviet rule. Yet the drive by a revitalized church to weave its tenets into the education system has prompted a backlash, and not only from the remains of the Communist Party.

Opponents assert that the Russian Orthodox leadership is weakening the constitutional separation of church and state by proselytizing in public schools. They say Russia is a multiethnic, pluralistic nation and risks alienating its large Muslim minority if Russian Orthodoxy takes on the trappings of a state religion.

The church calls those accusations unfounded, maintaining that the courses are cultural, not religious.

In Ms. Donshina’s class at least, the children seem to have their own understanding of a primary theme of the course. “One has to love God,” said Kristina Posobilova. “We should believe in God only.”

The dispute came to a head recently when 10 prominent Russian scientists, including two Nobel laureates, sent a letter to President Vladimir V. Putin, protesting what they termed the “growing clericalization” of Russian society. In addition to criticizing religious teachings in public schools, the scientists attacked church efforts to obtain recognition of degrees in theology, and the presence of Russian Orthodox chaplains in the military.

Local officials carry out education policy under Moscow’s oversight, with some latitude. Some regions require the courses in Russian Orthodoxy, while others allow parents to remove their children from them, though they rarely, if ever, do. Other areas have not adopted them.

Mr. Putin, though usually not reluctant to overrule local authorities, has skirted the issue. He said in September that he preferred that children learn about religion in general, especially four faiths with longstanding ties to Russia — Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. But the president, who has been photographed wearing a cross and sometimes attends church services and other church events, did not say current practices should be scaled back.

“We have to find a form acceptable for the entire society,” he said. “Let’s think about it together.”

Polls show that roughly half to two-thirds of Russians consider themselves Russian Orthodox, a sharp increase since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. Clergy members frequently take part in government events, and people often wear crosses. But Russia remains deeply secular, and most Russians say they never attend church.

About 10 to 15 percent of Russians are Muslim, most of whom live in the south, though Moscow and other major cities have large Muslim populations. With emigration and assimilation, the Jewish population has dwindled to a few hundred thousand people, of 140 million. Muslim and Jewish leaders have generally opposed Russian Orthodoxy courses, though some say schools should be permitted to offer them as extracurricular activities.

“We do not want Muslim children forced to study other religions,” said Marat Khazrat Murtazin, rector of the Moscow Islamic University. “Muslims should study their own religion.”

During imperial Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church wielded enormous influence as the official religion, and virtually all children took a Russian Orthodox course known as the Law of God.

One of the scientists who signed the letter to Mr. Putin, Zhores I. Alferov, a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000, said he feared that the country was returning to those days. He recalled that his own father had to study the Law of God under the last czar, Nicholas II.

“The church would like to have more believers,” said Mr. Alferov, a member of Parliament in the Communist bloc. “But they can have their religious schools and their Sunday schools. In normal government schools, absolutely not.”

Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow, leader of the church, has repeatedly asserted that to appreciate the arts, literature, heritage and history of Russia, children need to know about Russian Orthodoxy. He described the scientists’ letter to Mr. Putin as “an echo of the atheistic propaganda of the past.”

Five years ago, Kolomna, 60 miles south of Moscow, was one of the first cities to take up the curriculum. Local church and education officials noted that before the revolution, Kolomna was a Russian Orthodox center, site of many cathedrals and monasteries that were demolished or used as warehouses and the like under Communism. Given the area’s history, they asked, is it not fitting that students learn about Russian Orthodoxy?

“The goal, I would say, is that all the powers that be, the church and the government, make sure that people, children, know their history and their roots,” said the Rev. Vladimir Pakhachev, a church leader here who helps oversee the curriculum.

For example, Father Pakhachev said, it would be absurd to study the Russian language without learning about SS. Cyril and Methodius, the two ninth-century brothers who are credited with helping to create Cyrillic, the alphabet used in Russian. The brothers were monks and significant religious figures, and that aspect of their lives cannot be ignored, he said.

At Public School No. 3 here, in the shadow of a restored cathedral, the courses are voluntary, but occur one period a week during the school day, and are taught by regular teachers. No parents have ever asked that their children be exempted, said a school official, Anna Kikhtenko.

“No rights are being violated,” she said. “Children from Muslim families, the parents often say, ‘We are living among Russian Orthodox people. We also want our children to understand what these beliefs are about.’ ”

Recently, Oksana Telnova, a sixth-grade teacher, described to her class how Grand Prince Vladimir introduced Orthodox Christianity to Russia in 988 after rejecting other religions, an event that the church calls the Baptism of Russia. Some children read aloud verses from the Bible.

“Sacred orthodoxy transformed and revived the Slavic soul after becoming its moral and spiritual foundation,” Ms. Telnova said, quoting Patriarch Alexy II. “Through the ages, Christianity helped to create a great country and a great culture.”

Nearby, Ms. Donshina, the second-grade teacher, led her students in reciting the Ten Commandments before pointing to a tiny tree at the front of the room with branches but no leaves.

“Faith in God is as important for every human as the root for a tree,” she said. “But our tree unfortunately has died just like a human soul can die without doing good. This is what happens to people who do not do good things and do not follow God’s laws.”

She asked the children to choose from a group of flowers, some with Christian virtues written on them, some with undesirable qualities, and attach those with the virtues to the tree.

She ended with a discussion of the Russian saints, saying that they “have shown us how one must live to be close to God.” With that, she dismissed the class, but not before giving a piece of chocolate to each child.

“I Want to Bless!”

sveta_petkaWe commemorate tomorrow St. Paraskeva, or St. Petka among the Serbs, and I can hardly believe that on this coming Sunday the month of November will already be upon us.

It is on the feastday of St. Petka that the prescribed gospel is the one which describes the fate of the ten virgins and, more specifically, the fate of  the foolish ones who were forced to go and buy oil only to discover upon their return that the bridegroom had already arrived and there was no way to get inside for the wedding banquet. Alas, it was too late!

The reading is quite appropriate for examining the seemingly quick passing of time. For what it’s worth I think it’s easier to contemplate on the current year – or what’s left of it, precisely now,  that is, when there’s something still left of it! What use is it asking ourselves where did 2009 go on December 31? If we are truly unsatisfied with what we did, or what we though we’d be able to do and never got around to it, maybe we can still do something about it.

The Synaxarion for Great and Holy Tuesday describes the parable of the ten virgins and states that “as the night of the present life was going by, all the virgins fell asleep, that is, they died, for death is called a sleep [….] Therefore, it is made quite clear that after death, correction of mistakes and wicked acts shall be impossible, a teaching which is also found in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar. (See Luke 16:19-31)

But, glory be to God, it is not late for us neither for this year nor our lives. Let us then look to the life of St. Petka whom we commemorate tomorrow and tomorrow’s feast and all the feasts which are before us. That we follow the holy and righteous ones in their zeal, in their prayer, in their charity and, above all, in their love for God and fellow man. As the great Ebenezer Le Page wrote at the twilight of his own life, “I wish I could live my life again. I wish I could write my story again. I have judged people. I do not want to judge people. I want to bless. I want to bless every soul who have ever lived and laughed and suffered…on this island in the sun, this island in God’s sea!”

Through the prayers of St. Petka and of all the Saints, may God bless us and may we bless!

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

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When Jesus tells tells the widow in the gospel that we hear this morning (Luke 7:11-16) to Weep not, we realize that it is the only thing one can offer to those who are in mourning.

Or so says St. Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic when, commenting on this morning’s reading from the gospel he says: “Apart from this and our sympathy, we feel ourselves incapable of offering anything else to those who are mourning. The power of death has so outstripped our strength that we crawl around like insects in its shadow; and as we heap earth over a dead body, we feel that we are heaping earth over a part of ourselves in the deathly darkness of the grave. The Lord does not say ‘Weep not!‘ to the woman in order to show that we should not weep for the dead. He Himself wept for Lazarus (John 11:35); He wept in advance for many who would later suffer in the fall of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44); and lastly, He praised and blessed those who weep, ‘for they shall be comforted’ (Matthew 5:4). Nothing so calms and cleanses a man as tears. In the Orthodox methodology of salvation, tears are among the first means of cleansing the soul, heart and mind. Not only should we weep over the dead, but also over the living, and especially over ourselves, as the Lord recommended to the women of Jerusalem: ‘Weep not for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children‘ (Luke 23:28).

In another commentary Fr. Patrick Reardon* poses the question: Once Jesus raised this young man from the dead, why did the multitude recognize Him as being a prophet? And he answers that question by saying that it was only the prophets recorded in Holy Scripture as raising anyone from the dead. For example, we have the cases of Elijah and Elisha. And the people of Nain, of this city that Jesus was in, very very familiar with these stories and as soon as Jesus raised this young man they were instantly convinced that He must be a prophet.

And he continues in his commentary to note that prophecy is, plain and simple, God’s word inserted into our human history. Because human history without prophecy is nothing but a funeral procession. And the task of prophecy is to stop that procession in the very same way Jesus stopped the procession in this morning’s gospel reading. And, of course, the most singular act of prophecy in the history of the world and man is that day when Christ rose from the dead.

This episode is taken from the seventh chapter of St. Luke’s gospel. It is there that we read how Jesus was approached by a centurion who asked Him to heal his servant. It was right after that incident that we read how Jesus went to the city of Nain and there encountered the funeral procession. What’s interesting to note, however, while Jesus was approached by the centurion – and we have other instances of Jesus being approached by different people, asking Him for help – He was not approached by anyone to raise the young man from the dead. Instead, the evangelist writes that Jesus saw the funeral procession and He saw the widow “And when the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her…” (v. 13).

It is God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son; It is God who sends His Son for the salvation of mankind and it is God who sees all of us as well and touches our lives. Yet, it is up to us to recognize Him, to confess Him and place our faith in Him as the prophet, as our Savior and the very salvation of mankind. Amen.

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*Fr. Patrick’s Daily Reflections (here), for Friday, September 12