Category Archives: Holy Days

A Little Lenten Gravity

A week has come and gone in Lent. Though I have made an effort to gear my Lenten fast more toward repurposing than restricting, I found this recent post by Fr. Stephen Freeman tremendously edifying. Fr. Freeman–whose serves the Orthodox Church (OCA) in Oak Ridge, TN–reflects on the spiritual significance of fasting using as a launching point his first Orthodox-style fast during his time as an Anglican. Since I am functionally a crypto-Orthodox Protestant myself, the story struck a special chord in my heart.

Beyond that personal affinity, this observation about the effects of zero gravity seemed to me an especially penetrating metaphor for the importance of fasting (not merely during Lent):

It is said that astronauts, after spending a prolonged time in space, have lingering effects of zero-gravity. Our bodies are made for gravity and require its constant pull for everything from muscle tone to bone density. But we now live in situations in which many forms of natural “gravity” have been reduced or removed. What effect does the long-term ability to have almost any food at any time of year have on the human body? As someone who has spent the better part of my life at a desk, I can attest to the effect of a sedentary existence….

In 2000, the average American ate 180 pounds of meat a year (and 15 pounds of fish and shellfish). That was roughly a third more than in 1959. Scarcity is not an issue in our diet. Our abundance is simply “not real,” and the environment frequently shows the marks of the artificial nature of our food supply. But we have no way of studying what is going on with our souls. What I know to be true is that – as goes the body – so goes the soul. Those who engage the world as consumer are being consumed by the world to an equal measure.

The declaration that our abundance is not real is troublingly accurate. In fact, I don’t think Fr. Freeman need have bothered with the quotation marks. What we have is not an abundance of resource but an abundance of consumptive avarice. It is what William Cronon called an “ecological contradiction”–the use of finite resources as if they were infinite–and what Christians might more simply call sin. Our choice to continue to live in creation as if our actions had no repercussions reflects the kind of moral apathy that seasons of penance and fasting are intended to force us to confront.

It is easy for us to see how to choice to abstain has moral worth, but when Lent is over let’s not forget that choices about how we consume also echo out into our moral universe and reverberate in our soul. The artificial “gravity” we’ve introduced into our lives by fasting will disappear, but it pays to remember that it is the weightlessness not the gravity that is unnatural.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Clean Monday


1 Timothy 4:4-6

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed.

Exodus 19:10-11

And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.”


Richard Clarke Cabot, The Christian Approach to Social Morality, 10-11

The problem we are concerned with is, of course, the problem of chastity, the problem of purity as a virtue. Now there is something paradoxical in this or any other virtue. There is no virtue of any kind unless one feels temptation, no virtue in bravery where there is no tendency to run away, no virtue in truth unless one has a tendency to lie. When one thinks one possesses a virtue one must realize that a virtue means a victory over temptation, and never the absence of temptation. Chastity is more than innocence or ignorance, just as courage is more than insensitiveness to fear. One cannot speak of purity or chastity without making this clear at the outset.

Neither does one mean what is sometimes called frigidity, that is, the knowledge of a given temptation without any personal sense of it, a head knowledge without a heart knowledge. Neither does one mean by chastity anything which is implied in a life led under physical restraint. The murderer who tries to murder and whose pistol misses fire is physically restrained from doing what he intended to do, but so far as virtue is concerned he has as little as the one who succeeds. So anyone physically free from evil relations has not necessarily chastity or purity ; and this is equally true, though less obvious, when one is restrained not by physical bonds but by fear of physical consequences. One who remains in the path of what is called virtue merely for fear of physical consequences has nothing to do with the special topic with which we are dealing today. Neither can we define chastity as the abstinence from certain acts, for if we did there could be no such phrase as “a chaste wife” ; yet we must retain that phrase.

But, if we cannot use purity to mean simply innocence or ignorance, or the abstinence from certain acts, or the results of physical fear or restraint, we have, it seems to me, nothing left for a definition except this: the guidance and inspiration of a consecrating affection. That, I believe, is the ultimate meaning of purity or chastity — that in the presence of temptation one is guided by the power of a consecrated affection, a higher love.


Cleansing and self-mortification are themes of recurring significance at the start of Lent, whether it’s Ash Wednesday or Clean Monday. At the start of the great period of fasting and repentance in the church, the tendency is to focus on purging the evil from our lives. It becomes a kind of spiritual spring cleaning where we sweep the cobwebs out of the untended corners our souls and resolve not to let any immoral dust-bunnies settle in again in the year to come.

And all of that is wonderful. Yet in spite of the fact that this year I feel less like I’m tidying up and more like I’m facing off against a malevolent stink demon, this Clean Monday my thoughts turn less to purging the evil than to consecrating the good. Both are an intrinsic part of preparing ourselves spiritually for the renewed experience of our salvation that comes each Easter. In a recent article, Fr. Stephen Freeman has highlighted the same need to strike a balance, advising that Lent is more than just “fasting and perhaps making a good confession.” It is a call to consecrate our lives and our property to divine purposes. So this year, I hope to fast in a way that stresses less the need to give something up and more the need to repurpose it to righteous ends. I still stand with the Israelites at the foot of the mountain in need of cleansing in anticipation of the Lord’s arrival, but I must try to remember Paul’s words to Timothy that all things are good if we set them apart for God in prayer and Thanksgiving.


I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?
    I put my hand over my mouth.
I spoke once, but I have no answer—
    twice, but I will say no more.

–Job 40:4-5

Tagged , ,

Feast of Franz

Today we take a break from our regularly scheduled wisdom from the Christian Standard in order to observe the feast day of Franz Jägerstätter.  Not on your calendar?  Perhaps it should be.  Jägerstätter was a German Catholic who refused to take up arms during World War II.  He offered himself for non-combatant service, but the Nazis cared even less for conscientious objection during the nationalistic global wars than Americans did.  Instead of allowing him to work as a military paramedic, the Nazis sentenced him to execution by guillotine. On the day of his death, he penned these words:

If I must write… with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffering.

His story would remain largely untold, until academics uncovered him and offered him to the world. In 2007, the Roman Catholic Church recognized him formally as a martyr and beatified him, making May 21st his feast day. Jägerstätter is a reminder both of the unconquerable power of the human will invigorated by the divine and of our certain ignorance of the countless stories of brave, pious fortitude that might inspire us if only we knew the half of them.

Tagged , , , , ,

Rejoicing on Pasca

Hallelujah! Christ is risen!

I love Easter. I love it more when the Christian community, East and West, by delightful coincidence happens to be celebrating it on the same day, but on years like this, when they don’t, I do my best to look at the silver lining: I get twice as many resurrected Christs. My intent had been to share another passage from John of Sinai today, but he has nothing very pleasant to say about Easter.

The gluttonous monk…counts the days to Easter, and for days in advance he gets the food ready. The slave of his belly ponders the menu with which to celebrate the feast. The servant of God, however, thinks of the graces that may enrich him.

Joy and consolation descend on the perfect when they reach the state of complete detachment. The warrior monk enjoys the heat of battle, but the slave of passion revels in the celebrations of Easter. In his heart, the glutton dreams only of food and provisions whereas all who have the gift of mourning think only of judgment and of punishment.

Well, I’m not a warrior monk, and I left my mourning on Great and Holy Saturday where it belongs. I suppose there is a reason why John of Sinai is standard Lenten reading for the Orthodox and not standard Easter reading. Though I admit the possibility that this is duplicitous of me, and I’m sure John of Sinai would accuse me of just that, but I’d like to think that I can think both of the physical feast and of the spiritual feast afforded by the resurrection. In fact, I rather like to believe that the two are related. With sacramental flavor, the feasts of holy days are intended to make tangible to our bodies and minds–more accustomed and attuned to the immediacy of physical stimuli than spiritual ones–the great joy which we have received from God. Today being the remembrance of that consummate joy of Christian existence, I intend to make that as holistic an experience as possible, letting my body partake of the joy of my heart, and vice versa. I can only hope that God consecrates that effort rather, and I don’t run headlong into gluttony and dissipation.

On that note, happy Easter everyone (even those of you who thought Easter was more than a month ago).

Tagged , , ,

Mourning on Great and Holy Saturday

Today Jesus is in the tomb and the Orthodox Christians around the world are mourning the savior. But this mourning cannot help but anticipate it relief, as the Paschal feast is within sight and the Lord is eager to spring from the tomb, resurrected, triumphant, and regnant forever. It is because of this that John of Sinai can speak of sorrow the way that he does.

Groans and sadness cry out to the Lord, trembling tears intercede for us, and the tears shed out of all-holy love show that our prayer has been accepted…Hold fast to the blessed and joyful sorrow…and do not cease laboring for it until it lefts you high above the things of the world to present you, a cleansed offering, to Christ.

Tagged , ,

Contemplating Death on Great and Holy Friday

Today Christians in the Orthodox world are recalling the crucifixion of Christ, perhaps the most famous death in human history and, if our testimony is to be believed, the most important one as well. Christ death is itself a victory over death, which has a rightful claim on all humanity except the undefiled Christ. With his death, Jesus has sapped death of all its finality, taken from death its sting. It is a truth which warrants endless rejoicing, but just as the victory over death was not complete until the resurrection and our freedom over death not complete until the eschatological future, so today is not a day for the ruminating on victory but for contemplating death. John of Sinai believes that the remembrance of death is a necessary product of our sins, but he also insists that it is a spiritual virtue if rightly practiced.

As thought comes before speech, so the remembrance of death and sin comes before weeping and mourning…To be reminded of death each day is to die each day; to remember one’s departure from life is to provoke tears by the hour…Just as bread is the most necessary of all foods, so the thought of death is the most essential of all works. The remembrance of death brings labors and meditations, or rather, the sweetness of dishonor to those living in community…Just as some declare that the abyss is infinite, for they call it the bottomless pit, so the thought of death is limitless and brings with it chastity and activity.

Someone has said that you cannot pass a day devoutly unless you think of it as your last.

Remembering that humanity must still die keeps our sins in the forefront of our mind standing in judgment of our behavior now so that they will not stand so before the Lord in the last days. Considering our own deaths also reminds us of the inadequacy of them when compared to the atoning death of Christ, for “the day is not long enough to allow you to repay in full its debts to the Lord.”

Tagged , , , ,

Learning Humility on Great and Holy Thursday

After a couple excellent years of sharing the date of Easter (Pascha) and one year of reasonably close proximity, the holiest day in Christianity is once again being celebrated at completely different times by Catholics and Protestants, on the one hand, and the Orthodox, on the other. While for most Americans, Maundy Thursday is just a distant March memory (if it’s remember at all), but today is Great and Holy Thursday in the Orthodox Church, the day when, like their Western counterparts, the Orthodox remember the washing of the disciples feet and the last supper on the night when Jesus was betrayed. Both these events–the radical servanthood of Jesus and the betrayal of the Christ for material gain–ought to inspire in us an enduring sense of humility. Humility, unfortunately, has a bitter taste to Christians, being one of those virtues which we know we ought to have but we never really aspire for because its no fun and (unsurprisingly) garners us little praise. John of Sinai, standard reading for the Orthodox during the Lenten season, views humility differently.

As soon as the cluster of holy humility begins to flower within us, we come, after hard work, to hate all earthly praise and glory. WE rid ourselves of rage and fury; and the more this queen of virtues spreads within our souls through spiritual growth, the more we begin to regard all our good deeds as of no consequence, in fact as loathsome…We have risked so far a few words of a philosophical kind regarding the blossoming and the growth of this everblooming fruit. But those of you who are close to the Lord Himself must find out from Him what the perfect reward is of this holy virtue, since there is no way of measuring the sheer abundance of such blessed wealth, nor words nor could word convey its quality.

Humility, after all, is only the rejection of false blessings in favor of real blessings, divine blessing of eternal import. To eschew earthly praise is only to suggest that we prefer the praise of God our Father to that of the devil our enemy. It is this humility which Jesus embraced in kneeling before his disciples, and this humility which Judas rejected in turning Jesus over to be crucified.

Tagged , , , , ,

The New Pope on Easter

Most people are getting a little weary of hearing about Pope Francis. (I’m not; I’m getting weary of people complaining about how much they are talking about him.) Whose feet is he washing? What did he say about gay marriage? Is he talking to Kirill? How significant is his provenance? His order? His papal name? Etc. It is easy to forget in all this interpretive tumult that the pope is still the spiritual icon for one seventh of the world’s population, one who has a message that is not hidden beneath layers of ambiguous action and mysterious origin. He offers these wonderful thoughts for the Easter Vigil:

Dear brothers and sisters, let us not be closed to the newness that God wants to bring into our lives! Are we often weary, disheartened and sad? Do we feel weighed down by our sins? Do we think that we won’t be able to cope? Let us not close our hearts, let us not lose confidence, let us never give up: there are no situations which God cannot change, there is no sin which he cannot forgive if only we open ourselves to him.

Here is the essence of Easter, distilled and repackaged to meet the world’s needs in this moment. The conquest over death is not merely a soteriological mechanism but a testimony to the efficacy of divine action. There is no recession that is more destructive than death, no sorrow which can match its permanence, no wound which can mirror its absoluteness. It is the content of our greatest tragedies and the aim and consequence of our most viscous sins. Yet God took it and transformed it, not into something marginally less terrible but into life itself. It is precisely because of this confidence display of power that we can turn to salvation, that we can expect our own deaths–the individual and the corporate deaths, the physical and the existential deaths–to be transformed ultimately into the eternal life promised for those who love him. In a world acutely aware of its own sufferings and dogged by its own perpetual inability to cure them through its chosen devices, the pope has echoed the psalmist who finds in the fidelity and potency of God the redemptive power of hope: “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.”

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Clean Monday: Straightening Out Alaska

Normally my Clean Monday thoughts tend more toward the devotional side. (I’ve already had some lagana this morning, have you?) But as I was perusing news from the Orthodox world, this little tidbit struck me as too delicious not to share.

US President Barack Obama must have known that his support of gay marriage would bring him trouble. But of all possible repercussions, a demand to roll back Alaska’s 1867 sale to the United States was one he was unlikely to have seen coming.

And yet that was the very claim that an ultraconservative religious group made in a Moscow arbitrage court, citing the need to protect fellow Christians from sin.

Obama’s alleged plans to legalize the “so-called same-sex marriage” threaten the freedom of religion of Alaska’s Orthodox Christians, who “would never accept sin for normal behavior,” the nongovernmental group Pchyolki (“Bees”) said.

“We see it as our duty to protect their right to freely practice their religion, which allows no tolerance to sin,” the group said in a statement on their website.

The groups charges that the contract for the sale of Alaska is null and void because of a technicality about the method of payment. Ironically, this lawsuit is only coming to light now because of the group’s own inability to abide by the legal technicalities of their own system.

Something tells me this isn’t the kind of cleanliness Clean Monday is supposed to be about. It’s a shame that Lent starts so much later for the Orthodox this year than for Catholics and Protestants–my preference would always be to observe them simultaneously–but, if nothing else, let those observing the Western fast season allow today serve as a reminder of the purity you committed yourself to back in February. Your Orthodox brothers and sisters around the world join you today in offering themselves as living sacrifices. If only for two weeks, Christians everywhere will be united in a period of self-reflection, purification, and anticipation of the resurrection.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Patriarch Calls for World Peace in 2013

In his recent Christmas Encyclical, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has declared 2013 to be a “Year of Global Solidarity” in which he hopes that the powers that be in the world will make strides toward global peace and the eradication of hunger. While I lack the optimism of the Ecumenical Patriarch with regard to wold governments, I cannot help but applaud his sentiments and, more importantly, his audacity. Ours is, after all, a radical hope for a true ideal, one which we must pursue even in the certainty that our efforts will fail.

Let us rejoice in gladness for the ineffable condescension of God.The angels precede us singing: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will among all people.”

Yet, on earth we behold and experience wars and threats of wars. Still, the joyful announcement is in no way annulled. Peace has truly come to earth through reconciliation between God and people in the person of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, however, we human beings have not been reconciled, despite God’s sacred will. We retain a hateful disposition for one another. We discriminate against one another by means of fanaticism with regard to religious and political convictions, by means of greed in the acquisition of material goods, and through expansionism in the exercise of political power. These are the reasons why we come into conflict with one another…

This is why, from this sacred See and Center of Orthodoxy, we proclaim the impending new year as the Year of Global Solidarity.

It is our hope that in this way we may be able to sensitize sufficient hearts among humankind regarding the immense and extensive problem of poverty and the need to assume the necessary measures to comfort the hungry and misfortunate.

As your spiritual father and church leader, we ask for the support of all persons and governments of good will in order that we may realize the Lord’s peace on earth – the peace announced by the angels and granted by the infant Jesus. If we truly desire this peace, which transcends all understanding, we are obliged to pursue it palpably instead of being indifferent to the spiritual and material vulnerability of our brothers and sisters, for whom Christ was born…

We hope earnestly and pray fervently that the dawning 2013 will be for everyone a year of global solidarity, freedom, reconciliation, good will, peace and joy. May the pre-eternal Word of the Father, who was born in a manger, who united angels and human beings into one order, establishing peace on earth, grant to all people patience, hope and strength, while blessing the world with the divine gifts of His love. Amen.

Tagged , , , , ,