The Co-opting of Thanksgiving

American Thanksgiving (celebrated this coming Thursday, Nov 26) is a civil holiday with vaguely religious roots. Over the decades churches have co-opted it and turned it into a major holy day (for Evangelicals, at least). Now, when Americans treat it like the civil holiday that it actually is, some Christians sputter and get offended as if they actually own the day because they co-opted it.

A similar thing happened to the ancient pagan solstice festival. Christians co-opted it and associated it with the birth of Christ (which was likely in August and almost certainly not in December). Recently Wicca and other earth religions have been trying to take back their own festival, but with very little success.

It’s what Christians do. They take the stuff of nature and culture around them and see Christ in it. (“By him all things consist” Col 1:17). Sometimes those events turn into feasts and fasts. It’s a remarkable process of seeing the “natural” world through the eyes of faith.

A Feast of Joyful Sorrow

Today (Aug 29) on the Orthodox church calendar is the Feast of the Beheading of John the Forerunner. It’s an odd feast in that it’s the only feast in the Orthodox Church that I know of that is commemorated by a strict fast rather than a feast. John the Forerunner is an important figure in Orthodoxy. He represents the end of the Old Covenant (while Mary represents the beginning of New Covenant). It’s in the contrast between John and Mary that we can appreciate this odd Feast/Fast day.

There is a wonderful oral tradition about Thomas and Mary at the time of her death. Mary was human exactly like all the rest of us, and because she is human like the rest of us, she died like the rest of us. After her death and funeral, the disciples sealed her in her tomb (the traditional means of burying people at that time and place). The story is that Thomas was several days late to the funeral (just as he was several days late to Jesus’ resurrection appearances). Against the other disciples’ advice, he insisted that the tomb be unsealed so he could offer his final farewell to her body. (Christians, because Jesus Christ both created and then recreated creation, give great honor to the physical world as the place where God works, thus Christians give great honor to dead bodies.) When they opened the tomb so Thomas could properly honor it, her body was gone. The tradition is that her body was translated to heaven in a manner similar to Enoch and Elijah.

The theological point of this tradition is that it illustrates the staggering significance of the incarnation. Because of Christ, everything is changed. Not only are our souls saved, but all creation is transformed, including our bodies. Heaven is not a spiritual place somewhere out there, it is, as John describes it in the Apocalypse, a new heaven and a new earth with all of us feasting eternally at the Banquet of the Lamb.

And just as Mary’s ending is befitting the first Christian, the first person of the New Covenant, so John the Forerunner’s end is befitting the end of the Old Covenant and the old order of the world. Sinfulness is seemingly woven into the very fabric of the created order (that is, the old order) and does not give up without a fight. Jesus compared the end of the age to the time of Noah (ie, the flood) and Sodom and Gomorrah (ie, fire falling from the sky). This idea of a watery and fiery end of the world as we have come to know it speaks to the violence involved in extricating God’s good creation (the emergence of the New Covenant) from grip of evil. This salvation that God brings to the world is, from this perspective, a terrible thing.

John the Forerunner’s death by beheading, brought about by the whims of infighting in a wicked ruling family who ultimately manipulated a young (“innocent”?) girl into requesting this gruesome death, is a perfect metaphor for the end of this age. It is terrible and savage, and yet it is necessary so that all can be made new. It is why the Feast of the Beheading of John the Forerunner is the only feast in the Orthodox Church celebrated, not with feasting, but with a strict fast. We joy at that which is to come even as we weep and wail at how it must be accomplished.

So, may you have joyful sorrow on this, the most odd of feast days, commemorating John the Forerunner’s terrible death.

 

Holy Cross, Sept. 14

Today is the feast of Holy Cross in the Orthodox Church. The readings are texts that would warm most any Protestant heart. For instance, the epistle is 1 Cor. 1:18-24 which contains these beloved words. “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but for us who are being saved it is the power of God.… For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

When I was in Kansas I was vaguely aware of Orthodoxy – it was an OCA bishop, after all, who prior to being called to my first church in Kansas, had rebuked a Roman Catholic theologian at a conference and claimed that the great divide in modern Christendom was not between Orthodox/Catholic vs Protestant but rather between Catholic/Lutheran vs Orthodox/Reformed. That got my attention because I had many issues with the Roman Catholic Church. But from what I could tell Orthodoxy was an amorphous group of in-fighting and in-bred denominations that originated in different ethnic soil than the western churches.

At this stage the closest “Orthodox” group I was aware of was a monastery in Geneva, Nebraska. I went to visit them and found a bunch of dope smoking hippies that marketed beautiful “icons.” For you Orthodox in the know, you’ve probably figured out that this was the infamous “Monastery Icons” group that were thoroughly new age and only vaguely Orthodox. Their Orthodox connection was through a very questionable bishop. Their “iconography” was market driven. Along with all the traditional subjects they had icons of Protestant saints such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and John Wesley. Based on this experience I had no great desire to become Orthodox.

Back in the 1980s a fairly large percentage of Presbyterian pastors spent their continuing education and personal retreat time and money at Roman Catholic monasteries. The most popular venue was Benedictine monasteries. Their emphasis on the Psalter and quiet contemplation allowed Protestants to avoid many of the potential theological problems that might prove difficult to overcome. For pastors in my Presbytery (Northern Kansas) and the two presbyteries to the north of us (Prospect Hill and Central Nebraska), the Crozier monastery in Hastings, NE was also a popular destination. There were many continuing education events at Hastings College (a Presbyterian institution) and we would often extend our time by going down the street to the Crozier monastery for some period of reflection and quiet. (I don’t think this monastery exists any longer as a men’s monastery in the Crozier [Vallumbrosan] order.)

The Croziers had one big advantage for Protestants. They seemed to downplay Mariology and the Sacred Heart cult (which was very big at some of the other area monasteries) while emphasizing the Cross, Jesus, and the epistles of St. Paul. (Don’t take this description too literally. It does not reflect their actual beliefs, only how we Presbyterians perceived them.) In short, the Croziers seemed far more Protestant than other Roman Catholics, so it was a relatively seamless transition into their rule of prayer and listening to the scriptures being read (lectio divina).

If you have been paying attention to my critiques of Protestantism on this web site for the last few years you will realize that this is one of the problems with Protestant sensibilities. We Protestants (and I use the inclusive plural at his point because I was a Protestant at this stage) almost always pick and choose our theology. I know of no Presbyterian pastor (either from the conservative PCA or the more liberal PCUSA) who embraces their denomination’s theology and ecclesiology without reservation. When Lutherans give up the good fight for their foundering denomination and become Roman Catholic the ones I know embrace the RC church with an asterisk. They agree to the whole of Roman Catholicism with “fine print” exceptions for issues that are particularly problematic.

We Protestants chose our Roman Catholic monastic retreats in the same way: embrace the Croziers and the Benedictines, avoid the Marianites.

When I purchased my first set of festal icons (from Monastery Icons, no less) I did this same pick and choose thing: I got the Christological icons (birth, death, resurrection, transfiguration, etc) and the icons from what are often called the “theological feasts” in Protestant circles (Holy Cross, etc.), but I didn’t purchase the icons from the Mariological feasts (Nativity and Presentation of the Theotokos, Dormition, etc.).

And there is a certain correct logic in this. The feasts all present a slightly different angle on the meaning of salvation. Certain feasts stir our cultural memories even if they have no other meaning for us (Christmas, Easter), certain feasts emphasize what might be called Protestant doctrines (Holy Cross). But while the logic is correct, this angle of vision is skewed. It would be better to say that certain feasts emphasize that salvation is God’s doing (Easter, Holy Cross), and certain feasts emphasize the cosmic extent of salvation (Transfiguration, Theophany), and certain feasts emphasize focus on what we need to do in relation to our salvation (Annunciation), while other feasts focus on what the Church (ie other humans, and specifically other human Christians) do as part of our salvation, reminding us that we don’t do this on our own (Presentation, and the Synaxis events immediately following several feasts).

And more basic than the truth that each feast presents a different angle of salvation, it is the feasts as a whole that offer us a picture of salvation. When we begin to pick and choose from among the feasts we begin to chop off facets of our salvation: It’s the gnostic problem broadly applied. The Christian heresies that grew out of classic Gnosticism declared that Jesus was not fully human and fully divine. The wholeness of creation could not be held together in Christ because creation itself was flawed and therefore had to be disgarded. Similarly, the Protestant rejection of certain of the cycle of feasts is essentially a declaration that salvation is less than what it was historically understood to be. The Marian feasts, for instance, emphasize the human side and corporate nature of salvation. Without those feasts salvation can easily be reduced to something that occurs privately within my own heart by faith alone even though James clearly says that man is not justified by faith alone (2:24 – the only place in the NT where the phrase “faith alone” is used, by the way).

This is what comes to mind every Sept 14 when the Feast of Holy Cross (or “The Elevation of the Venerable and Life-Giving Cross” as it is officially referred to within Orthodoxy) rolls around. I love the theme of this feast, but after two decades of close association with Orthodoxy, I no longer love this feast more than I love other feasts. I love this feast in the same way that I love a particular facet of a gemstone: one can’t have the facet without the gemstone; chip one facet out and it’s suddenly a pretty ugly gemstone.

One might say Holy Cross was my gateway drug into the other so-called minor Orthodox feasts. There is a lot more to say about salvation than just Christmas and Easter. Among those wonderful salvation truths is that crucifixion –the ultimate humiliation – is the path to salvation. But at the same time, this is only the beginning of the salvation story and not the end. Praise be to God.