So this coming Sunday is Jan. 1, 2017, but while most American Christians will be celebrating New Year’s Day, we Orthodox will be celebrating the Feast of the Circumcision, because we celebrated the beginning of the New Year back on Sept. 1 of 2016. Which, for most of you, is going to just be further evidence that we Orthodox Christians are totally weird, but, in our current culture, weird isn’t a bad thing to be.
Allow me to explain: For the last several years, American Christians have been talking a lot about how they are rapidly losing their distinctive identity. For example, divorce rates and rates of abortion and adultery among Christians are pretty much the same as they are for the general population. Christian young people abuse drugs and alcohol and have pre-marital sex just as often as their non-Christian peers. It’s not that measuring up to those moral standards is the sum total of what it means to be a Christian, but those standards are still very important, and they are also a good way to gauge how well people put their beliefs into practice.
And, for most American Christians, there is currently a huge gap between how they behave and what they believe. So there has been lots of talk about how to close that gap: How can Christians develop and maintain an identity that is different from the rest of our culture? Some folks insist that worship is going to be the key, some people emphasize education and spiritual formation, some folks want to see separate schools and intentional communities.
All of those are good ideas, but I want to suggest something even more basic: If you want to develop and maintain an identity that is distinctly Christian, then you need to learn how to keep time as a Christian, which brings me back to the fact that we Orthodox celebrated the beginning of the New Year on Sept. 1. We’ve been doing that since the fourth century, and, sure, a lot has changed since then, but if you keep time differently from the rest of the culture, then you’re not going to be as susceptible to a lot of the other stuff that’s out there in the culture.
But there’s more to keeping time as a Christian than just switching out New Year’s. In fact, there is a Christian calendar for the entire year. There are specific seasons which run anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months, seasons such as Great Lent and The Great Fifty Days of Pascha and The Apostle’s Fast and Advent. There are feasts such as Theophany and the Annunciation and the Ascension and Pentecost. There are holy men and women who are honored on specific days: saints such as John Chrysostom and Basil the Great and Mary Magdalene and Brigid of Ireland. In Holy Orthodoxy, each day of the week is even assigned a specific commemoration: On Monday, we remember the Holy Angels, on Tuesday, we honor St John the Baptist, on Wednesday and Friday, we honor the Precious and Life-Giving Cross, on Thursday we remember the Apostles and on Saturday, we honor the Martyrs and Ascetics.
Now I know that talk of seasons and saints is going to make a lot of you Protestant folks nervous. After all, the Reformers got rid of most of that stuff back when you guys broke off from the Roman Catholics. But since you are going to be celebrating the 500th anniversary of that rupture this year, it might also be a good time to re-examine some of those decisions, because, if the whole Protestant Project was working, you wouldn’t think that there would be this huge gap between what folks believe and how they behave. So, it could very well be that what was originally discarded as superstition and empty ritual is actually an essential part of developing and maintaining an identity that is fully and distinctly Christian.
So talk to your pastor or your small group leader. Sit down and have a conversation with the folks in your children’s school or their youth director. If none of those people are open to keeping a Christian calendar, there’s no reason why you can’t do that in your own home. There are all sorts of good books on the subject, and there are all sorts of resources available to you online.
And, sure, at first it will be a little weird when Sunday, Feb. 5, rolls around, and you are calling it the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee while everyone else is calling it Super Bowl Sunday. But, trust me; a little weirdness is a small price to pay for an identity that is truly and consistently Christian.
But if you have any questions while you’re working through all that weirdness, just let me know. I will be happy to help you learn how to keep time as a Christian.
Father Aidan Wilcoxson is the pastor of St. John Orthodox parish in Cedar Park (www.theforerunner.org); he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.