If you listen to Ancient Faith Radio (an Eastern Orthodox internet radio station), read various Orthodox blogs, or attend our parish during the months of December and early January, you quickly realize that the nearly universal Orthodox party line is that for poor, benighted American Christianity (other than Orthodoxy), Christmas is but a single day. The month prior is filled with gluttony; the day itself is an orgy of excess, and all this is followed by emptiness, because such a focus on feeding the passions always ends badly.
Fortunately, in contrast to poor, benighted American Christianity, Eastern Orthodoxy offers the proper balance of fasting and feasting in this season straddling the dark, cold days of midwinter. Christmas in the Orthodox world is a season, not a day. Since the celebration is preceded by preparation, this celebration is fulfilling instead of empty, uplifting instead of depressing.
Thank God for the Orthodox. If it weren’t for their presence offering a wee bit of sanity in this season, poor, benighted American Christianity would probably explode with pre-Christmas gluttony or implode with post-Christmas depression.
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As I post this essay we are only hours away from Twelfth Night, a primarily English Christian tradition which stretches back into Middle and Olde English history and tradition. The festivities associated with Twelfth Night actually stretch back into pre-Christian times, but like many Christian celebrations, Christians recognized a fundamental truth in the ancient cultural celebration and adopted and adapted it as a proper Christian celebration.
On Twelfth Night, a peasant and/or fool was crowned king for the evening while the nobility and royalty became mere peasants. All sorts of shenanigans ensue and the peasantry has a great time at the expense of the nobility. The world is turned upside down for this one merry night and everyone glimpses how the world might be before everything reverts to its “proper” order the next morning. In this celebration Christians recognized a picture of God’s upside down Kingdom in which “the first shall be last and the last first.” Thus Twelfth Night became a quasi-Christian celebration of the peasant class that brought Christmas to a close by focusing on the radical hope of the Kingdom.
And so in the spirit of Twelfth Night, in this essay we will turn everything on its head and pretend, for just an evening, that Protestantism actually understands something of the activities of God, and in turn, that it is Orthodoxy that is poor and benighted in its confidence that it has a corner on the truth.
In the spirit of Twelfth Night we will imagine that Protestantism isn’t precisely the same thing as secular American consumer culture in general. We will pretend that Christmas isn’t just a day but a feast that is a dozen days long, and we will purport that Christmas doesn’t end until the evening of Jan 5 and the morning of Jan 6, twelve days after the festivities began on the evening of Christmas (Dec. 24) and the following morning (Dec. 25). (Remember, in Hebrew and Christian sensibility – something even poor, benighted Protestants are aware of, at least in our Twelfth Night fantasy – each day begins in the evening, not the morning.)
What sorts of mythical things might exist in such world? How about a whimsical song called The Twelve Days of Christmas? In this mythical world we will pretend that the “twelve days” to which the song refers are the same twelve days (Dec. 25 to Jan 6) that make up the Eastern Orthodox Christmas feast and that there really is a sensibility in the West that Christmas is a season and not a single day.
Or we could concoct some other mythical Christmas songs written by western Christians that refer to the celebrations that are part of “Christmastide” (that celebration of Christmas that stretches all the way to Epiphany): Maybe a song about Good King Wenceslas who did kindly deeds on the Feast of Stephen (Dec. 26 on the Western calendar). Of course the Feast of St. Stephen is the origins of Boxing Day in the British Commonwealth countries. Traditionally gifts were given to friends and relatives on Dec. 25 and to the less fortunate on the Feast of Stephen, Dec. 26. In the modern secular world Boxing Day is merely a bank holiday, but for Christians it’s a day specifically set aside to give alms in honor of the birth of Christ. (At least that might be the case in our mythical upside down world.)
Or how about a haunting carol to celebrate the Feast of Holy Innocents sung by a distraught mother to her beloved child who she knows will be slaughtered by evil King Herod? This Christmastide feast is dated Dec. 26 and is observed on the first Sunday after Christmas Day. We could call this mythical carol, The Coventry Carol. As the third verse says, “Herod the King, in his raging, / Charged he hath this day; / His men of might, in his own sight, / All children young to slay.”
And of course, there are also the magi. They figure prominently in the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day readings. But they are also central characters in the West’s Epiphany celebration. Christmas begins with the birth of Jesus and it ends with his revelation to the whole world as the King of Kings. And this grand revelation is embodied by the magi who come searching for the king born in Bethlehem.
And Protestants (as well as Catholics) even manage to stretch the Christmas celebration a bit past the twelve days by continuing the celebration with a post-feast Epiphany event on the first Sunday after Epiphany when they celebrate Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan. While technically not part of the Christmas celebration, it has Christmas overtones and most definitely extends the central Epiphany theme that Jesus, the Son of God, is being revealed publicly to the world. In other words, in this mythical Twelfth Night world, the twelve day Christmastide feast is so rich that it can’t be contained in twelve days and spills out into the Sunday following Epiphany.
Furthermore, in this world, it isn’t the Protestant Church that is so benighted (an idea the Orthodox folks seem to revel in), it is rather the agnostic or atheistic secular culture that treats Christmas as a consumerist one day orgy. American Christians do their best to counteract the consumerism of culture, but since most churches don’t have multi-million dollar ad budgets, the Protestant message of Christmas is heard primarily inside Protestant churches and not on American media. So it’s not surprising that if the Orthodox Church has become a bit self-absorbed in its own superiority and correctness, it didn’t notice American Christians weren’t saying precisely the same thing as secular American media.
But of course we all know that the possibility of Orthodoxy being self-absorbed and almost completely ignorant of the larger Christian world is just silly. It’s just a Twelfth Night story and tomorrow we’ll return to the real world where the Orthodox Church embodies all the answers perfectly and the Protestant church …
… well, the Protestant church clearly understands nothing because they’re a poor and benighted religion.
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Of course the story of American Christianity is not quite as easy to define as in our “Twelfth Night Myth.” Evangelical Christianity, in the name of being anti-liturgical, has largely thrown out all religious observance except Sunday service. It treats Christmas as a family day instead of a religious observance (as George observed in his response to the Sonnet for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
This lack of sensibility about “holy time” also leads to a tendency to view the church calendar in functional and programmatic terms. It my observation that the most significant evangelical holidays are Memorial Day and Labor Day, which mark the span of the program year. The Sundays after Memorial Day are “Summer Schedule” and often involve a time change in the service. While “Program Year Time” marks time with Church School, committee meeting nights, activity nights, and monthly schedules, “Summer Time” is marked by picnics and summer camp schedules.
But historic Protestantism, while deeply influenced by “program time,” does have a sense of “holy time” or sanctified time observed as a sanctified community in the sanctified space. There is an ebb and flow to liturgical time. The two major feasts (Easter and Christmas) are both observed with a season of preparation (Advent and Lent) and a season of celebration (the fifty days of Easter and the twelve days of Christmas).
It is also true that Protestantism was once quite leery of the excesses of Medieval Roman Catholicism. The Reformers who came after John Calvin (especially the Scottish Reformation) initially tried to rid the church of all such observance because they suspected it was rooted in superstition. (That was their view of Medieval Roman Catholicism, after all.) But within a generation or two they discovered that such outward forms were indeed rooted in the divine incarnation and not human superstition. The sense of holy time observed in the holy place by a holy people doing holy things was once again embraced as an integral part of the faith. In spite of their anti-liturgical history, the Scottish Kirk is now one of the most liturgical Protestant churches around.
A cursory overview of the all the Protestant service books in North America, whether Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Reformed, Church of Canada, or UCC, and certainly Episcopal, show that Protestantism inherently understands the flow of liturgical time, of fasts and feasts, and the importance of seasons rather than just single days. (As a matter of historical fact, I personally learned about the church year and church rites including the fasting/feasting cycles, vestments, candles, incense, and bodily prayer from a Baptist professor while attending a Baptist seminary.)
The well-meaning Orthodox Christian might observe that the majority of American Christians don’t belong to these denominations, but rather to independent Evangelical groups which, as noted above, mostly throw out religious observance for privatized faith buttressed by weekly trips to the lecture hall. Therefore the critique that opened this essay does, for all practical purposes, apply to the whole of American Christianity in general, because “in general,” Americans tend to be Evangelicals with a privatized faith.
But self-serving Christianity with bad theology and faulty practice has too often been the historical populist norm even in the authentically Orthodox world. Consider the time around the First Ecumenical Council and following when the majority of people who claimed to be Christian were in fact Arian and not authentically Christian at all. Fashionable religion dressed up in Christian terms and styles (in contrast to authentic Christianity) has always been more popular than the real thing. Even Jesus and the New Testament warn us of this.
But no religion should be judged by how it is practiced by the nominal adherent, it should rather be judged by its own internal criteria. And by its own internal criteria, historic Protestantism practices Christmas in much the same manner as Orthodoxy, with a twelve day celebration preceded by a season of preparation.
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Don’t misunderstand my rant against Orthodoxy. I do believe that the Orthodox Church is the historic Christian Church that can trace its life back to Jesus and the twelve apostles (and back to Old Testament Hebrew faith and practice for that matter). I also believe that only in the Orthodox Church can one find the fullness of the faith. But this is far different than saying (1) that the Orthodox Church is perfect and (2) that this implies that Orthodoxy is completely correct while everything else is completely wrong.
As to the first point, the Orthodox Church has missed the mark on so many levels it’s amazing it has survived. The apostles managed to muck everything up seemingly beyond repair before Jesus was even in the tomb. They abandoned him completely in a terrified state. Peter denied him. When Mark was nearly caught by the authorities he ran off naked rather than be associated with Christ (Mk 14:51f). As a result of this massive failure it was the women (second class people, almost non-persons in that society) who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection first and who were the first evangelists.
After Pentecost, when the church as we know it finally got under way, the Apostles themselves managed to muck it up to the extent that they had to call a council to straighten out the problems. A few years later two of the churches Paul helped found (Corinth and Galatia) had managed to screw things up so completely almost immediately that they received fiery letters from Paul trying to hold things together until an emissary could get there to straighten out the mess.
In this sense the contemporary Orthodox Church is like every Protestant church I have ever been acquainted with, and, if I read history correctly, every church, Orthodox or non-Orthodox, that has ever existed. But there is a huge difference between a church that puts everything into practice correctly and a church that has been given the gift of the fullness of the Gospel. The Orthodox Church is the latter, while one could search a lifetime and never find a perfect church of the former sort.
As to the second point about who’s right and who’s wrong, the non-Orthodox churches are inheritors of precisely the same tradition (as expressed in both living tradition and scripture) that the Orthodox Church has. But they have a very different relationship to scripture and tradition than the Orthodox Church (and on this point I will speak only to the Protestant situation and not the Roman Catholic situation, because I have never been Roman Catholic). Rather than taken at face value, scripture and living tradition are sifted through the lens of human rationality and personal conscience.
The Protestant principle is to never trust what the Apostles said (outside the canon of the New Testament), nor the disciples of the apostles, nor the people who knew Jesus, nor the church of the first century, or second century, or third century, etc. The Protestant principle is to not even trust what your teacher, or your seminary professor, or even your pastor says. Rather, an obscure reference to the believers in Berea (or Beroea in some translations) becomes the gold standard for the Protestant Christian’s relationship to any person and even scripture and the living tradition: “For [the Bereans] welcomed [the Apostle Paul’s] message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:10).
In other words, the Bereans were second guessing Paul and going to the scripture to figure it out on their own. And in the Protestant tradition, one learns Christianity and comes to know Jesus Christ by sifting what scripture and people say through one’s own conscience (hopefully led by the Holy Spirit) while reading the Bible on your own. Michael Hyatt (CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, the biggest Christian book publisher and biggest Bible publisher in the world) calls this the transformation of the “priesthood of the believer” into the “papacy of the believer.”
Because of the role of conscience and supreme importance of private study and interpretation, the “fullness of the faith” gets sifted and thinned out on the one hand, while on the other hand various strange interpretations come and go. As a result (especially after 500 years of Protestant sifting and winnowing, adding and subtracting) much of the fullness of the faith has been forgotten or rejected.
The historic practices related to the liturgical year (ie, the Twelve Days of Christmas) or the inseparable relationship between fasting and feasting become privatized and therefore optional. While they are still very much a part of normative Protestantism (as distinct from independent Evangelicalism), nearly everything becomes optional in every congregation and for every individual believer. Protestants in general and as a whole recognize this living tradition of practice as an integral part of the faith, but individual Protestant believers can accept any particular practice, or ignore it.
So it is not a surprise that the Orthodox are confused about what Protestants believe. Ask a dozen Protestants about a particular practice and you are likely to get a dozen different answers. If one of those you ask is a Presbyterian pastor, you’ll probably get thirteen or fourteen different answers.
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But there is a certain deeply offensive arrogance about the Orthodox attitude about Christmas and how the Orthodox have it right while other American Christians get it wrong. We have been part of our Orthodox parish for three Christmas seasons now, and in my limited experience the real life struggles of Orthodox Christians are no different than those of the Protestant Christians of every church I served as pastor for the prior twenty-five years. Very few Orthodox Christians I know actually keep the Nativity fast; the cultural pressures to eat, drink, and be merry in the month of December are simply overwhelming, and quite frankly, more interesting.
Similarly, there is a huge mental let down, a sort of depression that follows Christmas Day in the Orthodox Church. The Twelve Days are supposed to be one big feast, but you wouldn’t know it by the visages of the faithful those two Sundays immediately after Christmas. You certainly wouldn’t know it based on church attendance. We are beat up and worn out by the onslaught of life as we know it in the month of December (just like the Protestants and Catholics).
Not only is the Orthodox arrogance toward Protestants this time of year deeply offensive, it’s very dangerous. We Orthodox can easily lull ourselves into thinking that we have all the tools we need and all the answers that need to be given, and this self-satisfied confidence lulls us into thinking we’re okay, that we’re doing fine.
But the real enemy is not the Protestants (the Orthodox would do well to not only read but actually obey Mark 9:38-40), it is secular, consumerist culture. And consumerism is an unbelievably wily and powerful enemy. “Things” are terribly seductive, and when the power of psychologically and sociologically honed advertising aimed at getting us to want “things” is aimed directly at each and every one of us, the dangers are very real and the stakes are unbelievably high.
Granted, it’s a lot easier for us Orthodox to compare ourselves to the Protestants. In our eyes we come out of that comparison looking pretty special and superior. But when we put ourselves in the same boat as all the rest of the Christians and compare ourselves to the enemy, it ought to be terribly frightening. As the great Protestant hymn says it, “For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; His craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.”
But if we’d get off our high horse and stop preening before the Protestants and start turning to our only hope, Jesus Christ, we’d find the answer, just as Martin Luther did: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He, Lord Sabaoth His name, from age to age the same, and He must win the battle.”
But back to reality. Twelfth Night will end in a few hours and tomorrow morning we’ll return to the status quo. All I ask is that you peasants Protestants pray for us Orthodox. It just may be that during this season we’re too benighted and full of ourselves to recognize our own mortal danger.