Christmas and “Pagan Origins”

November 30, 2010

The article below gives another perspective on the so-called “pagan origin” of the Christmas tree. But, first a few thoughts on the concept of “pagan origins.” Some groups, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, make much of supposed “pagan origins” of various customs so that partaking in a holiday like Christmas is viewed as if it were offensive to God.

It’s important to adopt a bit of balance here. Lots of things in our daily lives have “pagan origins.” For example, our calendar honors pagan gods in the names of the months and days of the week (Janus, Mars, Juno, Woden [Wednesday], Thor [Thursday], Saturn, etc.)

The Jehovah's Witness Calendar for 1935 purified from pagan influences -- from their 1935 Yearbook

In fact, at one point the Jehovah’s Witness leadership even promoted an alternate calendar because the current calendar was considered pagan. (See the series of articles from the Witness publication Golden Age (now Awake!), entitled “The Calendar of Jehovah God.”) Witness leaders backed down on that campaign when they realized how unrealistic it would be to live under an alternate calendar.

On the back of every American dollar bill is a symbolic eye which has its origins in the pagan Egyptian god Horus.

Similarly, on the back of the American dollar bill is a blatant “pagan symbol,” the “eye of providence” which comes from the “eye of Horus.” For those readers uncomfortable with these dollars, contact me and I can arrange to dispose of them for you.

Another example: many marriage customs have “pagan origins” such as wedding rings and the wedding veil. Witness leaders gave very good counsel regarding how to view the issue of origins with the wedding ring:

Of course, our concern is greater as regards the use of wedding rings, since this relates, not to minor secular matters, but to the marriage relationship, which the Christian rightly views as sacred before God. Really, the question is not so much whether wedding rings were first used by pagans but whether they were originally used as part of false religious practices and still retain such religious significance. (January 15, 1972 Watchtower, p. 63)

Despite the possible pagan origins of wedding rings, Watchtower leaders counsel that there is nothing wrong with using them.

Actually, this is a very good principle laid out here. Does anyone think we are honoring the god Janus by using the name January on our calendar? Or, when we use money that has a symbol of an ancient Egyptian pagan god on its reverse — does that somehow honor him? Or, do couples who get married with wedding rings or a bride with a wedding veil somehow honor some long-forgotten pagan religion? Certainly not. Chasing down such “pagan origins” is a fruitless task.

Next, an excellent article exploding the so-called “pagan origins” of the Christmas tree:

In Defense of the Christmas Tree

By Fr. Daniel Daly

Several years ago during the Christmas season, a religious program on television caught my attention. The program featured a discussion on the dangers of cults, especially to young people. I found myself agreeing with the panelists as they warned young people about the hazards of involvement in occult or “new age” spirituality.

During the interview, however, one participant made a statement that shocked me.

“…and the Christmas tree is pagan too…,”

he asserted. The Christmas Tree? Pagan? Could it be that something most of us enjoy so much might be actually pagan in origin? Despite its growing commercialization, the Christmas tree is still associated with the fondest memories of our early childhood. Who does not remember approaching the tree on Christmas morning?

Today people are so captivated by it that some even put it up in November! It finds a place in the homes of believers and unbelievers alike.

Most people are aware that the Christmas tree came to America with immigrants from Germany, but just where did the Christmas tree originate? Are its origins to be found in paganism, as the speaker suggested?

The Christmas tree does not date from early Germanic times. Its origins are to be found in a tradition that has virtually disappeared from Christianity, the Liturgical Drama. In the Middle Ages liturgical plays or dramas were presented during or sometimes immediately after the services in the churches of Western Europe. The earliest of these plays were associated with the Mysteries of Holy Week and Easter. Initially they were dramatizations of the liturgical texts. The earliest recorded is the Quem quaeritis (“Whom do you seek?”) play of the Easter season. These plays later developed into the Miracle and Morality plays. Some were associated with events in the lives of well-known saints. The plays were presented on the porches of large churches. Although these liturgical dramas have now virtually disappeared, the Passion Play of Oberammergau, Germany is a recent revival of this dramatic form.

One mystery play was presented on Christmas Eve, the day which also commemorated the feast of Adam and Eve in the Western Church. The “Paradise Play” told the well-known story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise. The central “prop” in the play was the Paradise Tree, or Tree of Knowledge. During the play this tree was brought in laden with apples.

The Paradise Tree became very popular with the German people. They soon began the practice of setting up a fir tree in their homes. Originally, the trees were decorated with bread wafers commemorating the Eucharist. Later, these were replaced with various kinds of sweets. Our Christmas tree is derived, not from the pagan yule tree, but from the paradise tree adorned with apples on December 24 in honor of Adam and Eve. The Christmas tree is completely biblical in origin.

The first Christmas tree dates from 1605 in Strasbourg. By the 1700s the custom of the Christmas tree was widespread among the German people. It was brought to America by early German immigrants, and it became popular in England through the influence of Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria.

The use of evergreens at Christmas may date from St. Boniface of the eighth century, who dedicated the fir tree to the Holy Child in order to replace the sacred oak tree of Odin; but the Christmas tree as we know it today does not appear to be so ancient a custom. It appears first in the Christian Mystery play commemorating the biblical story of Adam and Eve.

How legitimate is it to use a fir tree in the celebration of Christmas? From the very earliest days of the Church, Christians brought many things of God’s material creation into their life of faith and worship, e.g., water, bread, wine, oil, candles and incense. All these things are part of God’s creation. They are part of the world that Christ came to save. Man cannot reject the material creation without rejecting his own humanity. In Genesis man was given dominion over the material world.

Christmas celebrates the great mystery of the Incarnation. In that mystery God the Word became man. In order to redeem us, God became one of us. He became part of His own creation. The Incarnation affirms the importance of both man and the whole of creation. “For God so loved the world…”

A faith which would seek to divorce itself from all elements of the material world in search for an absolutely spiritual religion overlooks this most central mystery of Christmas, the mystery of God becoming man, the Incarnation.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Enjoy your Christmas tree.

HT: Mystagogy
Originally published in “The Word” magazine, December 2002. The Very Rev. Daniel Daly is pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Grand Rapids, MI.

For further reading:

(Think the date December 25th was borrowed from paganism? Read these articles)

Calculating Christmas

How December 25 Became Christmas?

The Ancient Feast of Christmas

The Pagan Origins of Christmas?




The Cherubic Hymn: The Thrice-Holy Hymn

November 21, 2010

The Cherubic Hymn from St. Luke Orthodox Church in Erie, Colorado. This is sung in the Divine Liturgy just before and after the Great Entrance.

Priest and Deacon (with censer) at the Great Entrance

The first part:

We, who mystically represent the Cherubim, And sing to the Life-giving Trinity the thrice-holy hymn, Let us now lay aside all earthly cares. Amen.

After the Great Entrance:

That we may receive the King of all, Who comes invisibly upborne by the angelic hosts. Alleluia.

Orthodoxwiki notes:

Though the actual text is short, the hymn lasts for quite a while due to its drawn-out, ethereal style. It is our best imitation of and supplement to the singing of the Heavenly Hosts.


“Did you have a beard? Did you say the Vigil? Did you make prostrations?”

November 21, 2010

From an interview with Archpriest Pimen Simon who is pastor of Church of the Nativity Old Rite Orthodox parish in Erie, Pennsylvania, part of ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia). His parish had been part of the Old Believers, but reunited with mainline Orthodoxy in 1983.  While traditions are emphasized by the Old Rite Orthodox, Fr. Pimen expresses a very balanced view of traditions and Christian faith in this interview. (Some background: Fr. Pimen refers to “Western Christmas.” Like many other Orthodox, his parish follows the Julian Calendar which means they celebrate Christmas 13 days later.)

I was very impressed with the following remarks by Fr. Pimen:

We Orthodox Christians, probably because of our own sin of pride, often make comments that, very often, let’s say in Roman Catholic Churches now, and even Protestant Churches, they’ve become more social agencies than repositories of salvation. And we really need to understand, of course, that the first goal of the Universal Church and also of the parish church is to save souls. That’s its first goal.

But we cannot deny the fact that when our Lord comes back — and we know this from chapter twenty-five of St. Matthew– he makes very clear that his questions to us will not be ones such as: “Did you have a beard? Did you say the Vigil? Did you make prostrations?” He says “Did you feed the hungry? Did you clothe the naked? Did you give drink to the thirsty?”

And so we know that Christian love and charity really is a prime obligation of the parish. We try very hard. I don’t think we did it well years ago, and we still have far to go in this area, but we’ve tried in the past thirty years. We work certain days, for example, at the Benedictine-sponsored  soup kitchen. They have different groups come in every day and serve meals for the poor. Our parish serves at that soup kitchen one Friday every month. We serve at that soup kitchen on Western Christmas so that the  nuns can celebrate their Christmas and the poor still have a place to have dinner on December 25th. We deliver food baskets to maybe forty, fifty, sixty families at Western Christmas so they can celebrate Christmas and have food enough to eat. We run a food pantry and are now delivering food to maybe forty or fifty families every other week so that they have enough food in their community.

Even though it’s during the Nativity Fast, we have a Christmas party for about one-hundred and fifty really indigent children who are mostly from homeless families who have nothing, so we can give them something during Western Christmas. So there’s many ways that any ROCOR parish, even a small parish, can do things that don’t cost you a lot of money. In fact the food pantry I mentioned for the fifty families may sound really admirable, but   there is a food bank here in the area, with most of the food being provided by them, and so we’re not paying for the food. We’re simply picking it up, distributing and so forth. Therefore, we can’t make the argument that we can’t afford to do that. It simply comes down to the fact that we can’t afford not to do this, because, once again, as we discussed earlier, how will we answer the Lord and say to Him, “But Lord, I didn’t know it was you.” If we do that, He will say to us, “Go onto the left side and be with the goats rather than the sheep.”

The whole interview can be read here.


Holy Image — Hallowed Ground

November 20, 2010

A look at St. Catherine’s Monastery near Mount Sinai — with interviews of some of the monks there:


A Look Back

November 20, 2010

This blog celebrates its first anniversary this week. It’s been a good year with 38,750 views. I’m both surprised and humbled. The top posts are noted below. Thanks to all for visiting and for your comments! And thanks to WordPress for hosting this blog!

Home page
10,482
Life at Bethel, the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses
2,776
When Prophecy Fails — The 1975 Fiasco Viewed from Inside Bethel 1,974
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Blood Transfusions for Minors
1,744
Can East & West Coexist With Married Priests?
1,674
The Journey from Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Orthodox Church
1,440
Watchtower Leaders Trying to Salvage 1914 Teaching
1,395
Protestantism’s Eastern Blind Spot
1,354
Eastern “Blind Spot” or “Cross-Pollination”?
1,060
About
894
Jesus, Yahweh: The Name Above Every Name
798
Infants Sharing in the Lord’s Table
780
What’s Wrong with the Witnesses
616
Book Review: Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart
544
Of Prosphoras and Pre-Cut Pieces
525
Spiritual Reading for Great Lent
466
Holy Week Resources
437
Romance Blooms in a Catholic Seminary for Fr. Roman
427
Pope & Patriarchs: The 1848 Letters of Pope Pius IX and the Orthodox Patriarchs
407
Hierarchical Divine Liturgy With Metropolitan Jonah
362
Do the Old Testament Saints Receive a Heavenly Reward?
324
Hell and God’s Love: An Orthodox View
314
Were Watchtower Prophecies About 1914 Fulfilled?
304
Seeds of Doubt for Jehovah’s Witnesses: The Name Jehovah # 1
257

If I Come, Will I See?

November 19, 2010

H/T: Fr. Ted’s Blog

IF I COME, WILL I SEE?

I am a sinner Baba, an old Cossack, broken and ugly, a beggar of mercy.

Who came with wounds to see faces without a name.

– – – – – –    

Names are many;

But One is Wisdom,

His Truth makes merry,

His Love never gone.

– – – – – –    

You told me to come to your parish Baba, and so I came;

and saw a Christ that God knows not.

– – – – – -

Chants and hymns and words and noise,

a choir, to its glory many a sounds;

While His Beauty, while His Silence,

lost in a world that spins around.

– – – – – –    

I prayed and begged words of mercy,

they sneered and jeered and showed their teeth:

God, they know Him not.

– – – – – –    

I am a sinner Baba, a blind old man with two kopecks;

Who came helpless to see more stones answer his pain.

– – – – – –    

To God I pray and rejoice always;

Every speck of time is glory and praise, love to take and love to give.

– – – – – –    

You told me to come Baba to your parish and so I came;

before Hours, there I stood very few hearts with me to cry.

– – – – – –    

Later, then I came; and in a hall a crowd I saw,

armed with gossips and lust and lies;

while empty laid a nave;

ten souls or few, all to slumber.

– – – – – –    

Later still I came, and I saw a hell followed by those,

who lit candles that give no light,

who kiss a Bible, they do not read,

who say words, they do not pray,

who commune with mouths that speak no truth,

for bodies in works never broken,

their blood for love never be spilled,

bowing to a Cross their faith won’t bear,

carried by hands that bless no more.

– – – – – –    

So I came, and death I saw,

So I came and so I cried.

So I came, and stood alone.

So I came, and so I saw,

Many eyes closed,

alone I die, no one can mourn;

no one can cry.

– – – – – –    

You want me to stay in your parish Baba,

But if I stay, thorn in my side will it vanish?

Blinis and peroghies in your parish Baba,

But of hunger will I perish?

Speeches and pride and shallow dreams,

True heart and hope will I cherish?

Ladies of the night, men of the world in your parish Baba,

But if I stay, to rest in Christ where will I lay?

– – – – – –    

I am an old Cossack, Baba, an Orthodox, a child of God;

I am not a bear in a circus of tears enchained to dance,

for double-hearted clowns who worship a God they do not fear.

Vassili Borisevitch, Liège, Belgium (1968)

(Translated by Nikita J. Eike)

Translator’s Note:  The poem is the answer to a question as to what he thought was causing the various problems in the parish and why he was not more involved. Vassili Borisevitch was an imperial Cossack who came to Belgium after the Revolution. He was a staunch defender of Orthodoxy, a master word weaver, someone who could look very deep into the human soul with an eye that can see what cannot be seen with the naked eye. He has left various work, poems and short stories. So far, only two have been translated into English.


An Orthodox Thanksgiving

November 18, 2010

From the Vespers service for Thanksgiving,

Come, ye thankful people,* and let us raise a hymn of grateful praise to God,’ our Benefactor and Creator,’ the bounteous source of all our blessings,’ the riches of our earthly life,’ and the glory of the world to come,’ for in His great mercy and love for us His children,’ He has granted us salvation.

Come, ‘ye thankful people,’ and let us praise the Father,’ who in His goodness’ created heaven and earth,’ and all that is in them,’ endowing us His creatures,’ with reason to worship Him,’ who in His great mercy and love for us His children.* has granted us salvation.

Come, ye thankful people,’ and let us praise the only-begotten Son,’ who for our sakes did clothe Himself in mortal nature,’ deigning to suffer and die for us,’ trampling down death and raising us with Himself,’ who in His great mercy and love for us His children,’ has granted us salvation.

Come, ye thankful people,’ and let us praise the Holy Spirit,’ who descended upon the Apostles,’ making them fishers of men,’ through whom the earth has received,’ the knowledge of the Holy Trinity,’ who in His great’ mercy and love for us His children,’ has granted us salvation.

 

Also:


Vespers Service for Thanksgiving

Matins Service for Thanksgiving

Divine Liturgy Prayers for Thanksgiving


Some Recent Lectures from You Tube

November 18, 2010

Fr. Hans Jacobse discusses some questions with a student audience after a recent debate with an atheist spokesman:

On the Intrinsic Value of a Human Being:

On the Essence of Christianity and Philosophical Materialism:

On Old Testament Violence and Orthodox Interpretation of Scripture:

Fr. George Dragas on the Incarnation of Christ.

This was a retreat given Nov. 13, 2010 and is in 7 parts. Protopresbyter George Dion Dragas (1944 – ) is a prominent 20th and 21st century Orthodox Christian priest, theologian, and writer. He is currently professor of patristics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts.

On the Incarnation — Part One. This begins with some preliminary remarks and the lecture on the Incarnation begins about 3:20:

On the Incarnation — Part Two:

The rest of the series can be listened to here.


Orthodox Christians Who are Deaf and Blind

November 17, 2010

I remember once visiting an Eastern Orthodox parish in Phoenix, Arizona and during the Divine Liturgy I realized the woman sitting in the row ahead of me was deaf. Not hard of hearing, but stone deaf. I caught her attention and starting signing in ASL (American Sign Language) to her. It turned out she had gone to the same Deaf school as my parents and was a classmate of theirs. I asked her if she wanted me to interpret some of the Liturgy to her? She told me no. She had been going to this parish for over 30 years and never had an interpreter before–nor had anyone ever offered one.

I marveled at her simple faith for I wonder if I could have persevered with so little understanding of what was happening at the services. One could argue, perhaps successfully, that her faith was stronger than many of the hearing people and that her understanding of the mystery encountered during the Liturgy was more profound.

Still, I felt bad that she had never had an interpreter all these years. I thought of my own parents who also are deaf. They were not, at that time, at a stage where I felt they would respond to an invitation to come to Liturgy. But, if they did, how would they be received? Thus began the realization that here in North America there really is very little ministry to the deaf in Orthodox parishes — even in large metropolitan cities with larger deaf populations.

Now, this is not the case in Russia. Here for example, is a Russian news report of Tikhvin Icon of Our Lady in Moscow- a parish that serves both the deaf and the blind. The report is in Russian, but don’t let that bother you. At about 21 seconds into the video the report shows the parish and part of a liturgical service:

Services are chanted in Slavonic and simultaneously translated into Russian Sign Language. The people in the parish do the responses in sign language as well.

This parish was also featured in another news report. Besides ministering to Deaf, they also make an effort to make the blind more welcome:

A conventional Orthodox service can leave blind and deaf people feeling lost. But one church in Moscow has changed all that by catering for its congregation’s special needs.

Most of the congregation at the Tikhvin Icon of Our Lady Temple are deaf or blind, and it is only thanks to the pioneering efforts of the church that they are able to come and express their faith.

The church was founded by Archdeacon Pavel Troshenkin and over the last eighteen years the team of priests has continued his work. They have worked with the deaf community to evolve the sign language that they currently use in worship.

The services are for everyone – and the ability to go there and worship and be able to mix with people from outside the blind and deaf community is part of what makes this church so important for those who attend.

“In our family, children are hard of hearing. Taking my children to a usual church was impossible. They simply wouldn’t understand. The first time we came here, my husband and I knew instantly that this was our church,” says parishioner Elena Mifeyenkova.

The church was chosen for these special services because there are no columns, so the priest can be seen from any point during the sermon. Confession is held in sign language in a screened-off section, and whereas in most churches the icons of the religion are purely visual, in this church the blind are able to touch them.

“In a usual church, icons are only available visually. This is the first church that makes relief icons accessible to blind parishioners,” says President of the European Deaf Blind Union Sergey Sirotkin. “I asked people why this could not be done before, but got no answer. I was told icons were only intended for visual perception, and that spiritual interaction was only possible through eyesight. I think, though, that this is wrong,” he believes.

People who come to the Tikhvin Icon of Our Lady Temple to express their faith say they are happy to have such a special place of worship, but until there are other churches like this, they will remain some of the few who can. [Go to the website for the news report to see another video of this parish -- this report is in English.]

Orthodox services are interpreted into Greek Sign Language, as this example of the Trisagion (“Holy God”) from a Liturgy in Greece:

As I said earlier, very little work has been done with the Deaf in mind in Orthodox parishes here in North America. But, such is possible as the examples from Russia and Greece show. I pray the day for deaf ministry amongst Orthodox here in North America is not far away.


The Message of St. Gregory Palamas for the World Today

November 16, 2010

Noted Orthodox theologian Metropolitan Kallistos Ware lectures on St. Gregory Palamas and his relevance for today:


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