Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Stump the Priest: Sporting Events and Church Services

Question: "What should parents do when their children are involved in sports that have games or practices that conflict with Saturday evening or Sunday morning services?"

The answer to this question really is applicable to any activities that interfere with Church attendance that are not matters of great necessity.

The Fourth Commandment says:
"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it" (Exodus 20:8-11).
You can listen to a sermon I gave on this subject for more details on why this is so, but suffice it to say here that the Tradition of the Church teaches us that in the New Testament this commandment applies especially to Sundays, Great Feasts, and other especially solemn days (such as Holy Friday). And as it was in the Old Testament, these holy days begin on the evenings prior -- so this includes the times of the vigils, as well as the liturgies on those days.

There is an illustrative story from the life of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco on this issue. In 1964, the Russian Church Abroad officially gloried St. John of Kronstadt on November 1st n.s. (October 19th on the Old Calendar). This happened to also be a Sunday, and so there was a Saturday Vigil that was especially important because of this holy occasion -- which marked the first glorification of a saint by the Russian Church since the Bolshevik Revolution. But that Vigil also happened to be on Halloween, and so many Russians in the parish attended a ball, rather than the vigil. Our own Archbishop Peter tells the story of what happened:
"I remember vividly being twice with Vladika at a San Francisco ball [which was a Halloween Ball]. The first time was after a vigil on the occasion of the glorification of St. John of Kronstadt. There were people in the cathedral but not as many as would he expected on such a day. After vigil Vladika usually went to some hospital. But this time, in answer to the chauffer's question, "Where?' Vladika answered, "To the ball at the Russian Center." On arriving, we made our way upstairs to the main hall. Vladika walked around the hall in silence. 'We looked on as elderly men and women and leaders of society literally hid under tables, one woman, on seeing Vladika, joyfully exclaimed, 'Vladika's here! Vladika's here! We must give him some tea? Vladika looked sternly at everyone, but at the same time I noticed that he had no anger towards anyone personally. And without having said a single word, we left as we had come. The second time Vladika went to the hall he asked for a microphone and addressed those present. I knew how upset Vladika was over all this, but his speech was calm. The next morning the clergy were informed that anyone who attended the ball was not to participate in the service, whether they were serving in the altar as acolytes or singing in the choir" (Remembering Vladika John. You can also listen to him tell this story in a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, at about the 33 minute mark).
There certainly are exceptions to the rule. For example, if you are a police officer, a doctor, or a nurse, you may have to work on some Sundays and Feasts, and that is completely understandable. As Christ said in the Gospels, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. There are other exceptional circumstances that may come up that would also prevent you from being at Church on these occasions. However, this should not be the norm -- unless physical infirmity or distance prevent you from being present in Church. And in such cases, if one is able, they should observe these days at home, to the best of their ability to do so.

I also understand that in our times, most team sports have events that conflict with Sunday or Feast day Services. But we should consider why this is so... because it has not always been the case that these conflicts were routine. These conflicts have become routine because too many Christian parents have allowed themselves to go along with this. This accelerated in the wake of Vatican II, when Catholics were told that they could fulfill their "Sunday obligation" by going to Mass on either Saturday evening or Sunday morning. However, if more parents put their foot down and simply said "No", fewer teams would try to do violate Holy days. It is of course difficult to be one of the few that take a stand on this, but your stand might inspire others, and in fact, you might want to reach out to other Christian parents, so that you are not the only ones taking this stand.

Attending the services is much like a tithe of our time, and when we refuse to place sports above the services of the Church, we show what our priorities are... to the world, to God, to our children, and to ourselves.

A good example to follow here is that of Eric Liddell, whose life was partially portrayed in the movie "Chariots of Fire" (which won best picture at the Academy Awards, in 1982). Eric Liddell was a sports legend in the UK, especially in his native Scotland, where his fame was comparable to that of a rock star, both in terms of running and rugby. But he was also a deeply committed Christian who took the Fourth Commandment very seriously. In 1924, he had his chance to go to the Olympics and win a gold medal, but the event he was planning on competing in was the 100 meters, and one of the heats for that competition was scheduled on a Sunday. He famously refused to run on a Sunday, and so had to compete instead in the 400 meters, which was not an event he was favored to win. Before that race, he was handed a piece of paper, on which someone wrote a note, which said: "In the old book it says: "He that honours me I will honour" [1 Samuel 2:30]. He not only won that race, but set a world record in it.

What is less well known is that in 1925 he walked away from all of his fame and glory, and went to China to serve as a missionary. During World War II, he was placed in a Japanese internment camp, along with all other westerners that were captured by the Japanese in the area. While there, he taught the children, and also coached them. He was asked to coach them on Sunday, and initially he refused to do so. However, in his absence, the children often got into fights, and so he changed his mind and coached them on Sunday as well -- showing that he was not a legalist. He understood that there were exceptions, but did not make them lightly, simply to suit himself, even when it cost him.

I think we would teach our children very important lessons if we would follow this example. And if you wanted help explaining this to your children, you might start by having them watch the movie Chariots of Fire.

For More Information:

Remember the Sabbath Day to Keep it Holy, by Fr. Victor Potapov

Sermon Audio: The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it Holy, by Fr. John Whiteford, 9/16/2012.

The Catechism of the Russian Orthodox Church, by St. Philaret of Moscow (see the section on the Fourth Commandment)

The Story of Eric Liddell (a documentary)

Friday, May 05, 2017

Stump the Priest: The Feast of the Entry

Question: "Is the story of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple historical?"

There are many questions that we cannot answer as fully as we may wish, simply because we are limited in terms of the information that is available to us, and I think this is one of those questions. We have all the information that we really need... just not all that we may wish we had.

One point that I think is often misunderstood about this is that this tradition is not based on the Protoevangelium of James -- that text reflects to a large extent the oral tradition of the Church which preceded it. Were this text our primary source, it would have been included in the New Testament. We should instead look to our services, and to the writings of the Fathers as our best sources of information on this question.

Looking at this question from what we know of history, it is certainly unlikely that the Virgin Mary literally entered into the Holy of Holies of the Temple -- which was the most sacred inner sanctuary of the Temple, that only the High Priest was allowed to enter. If this did literally happen, it would have been something that would have, by divine intervention, remained hidden from most people,

The fact that it was unlikely, does not mean that it did not literally happen. Miracles are by definition unlikely occurrences. However, I think it is possible that the services use the phrase "Holy of Holies" as a more general reference to the Temple as a whole, and I think they do this in part because the Holy of Holies was a foreshadowing of the Lord's incarnation in the Virgin Mary's womb. In a very real sense, she became the Holy of Holies in a way that was more of a reality than the literal earthly Holy of Holies ever was. God was given flesh in her womb, and dwelled there bodily.

What is not unlikely about this story is the idea of a female going to live in the Temple precincts. We have an example in Luke 2:36-37 of a woman who lived in exactly that way:
"And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; and she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day."
Furthermore, we know that the Prophetess Anna was not a unique example of such a woman from the Old Testament. In Exodus we have a very interesting, but brief mention of such women who served at the Tabernacle, which was  the Tent version of what became the fixed Temple in Jerusalem:
"He made the basin of bronze with its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting" (Exodus 38:8 NRSV).
Interestingly, in the Septuagint Greek, the word "served" is translated  "fasted," which was probably a paraphrase intended to describe their primary activity, which was to pray and fast (as seen in the case of the Prophetess Anna in Luke), though they no doubt had other duties related to the Temple.

And these women are mentioned again in 1st Samuel, in the context of a description of the abuses the sons of the Priest Eli engaged in:
"Now Eli was very old. He heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting" (1 Samuel 2:22).
One thing that this passage indicates is that these women were likely not all widows in their 80's, for Eli's sons to be seducing them. And it was especially egregious that they slept with these women, because they were women who were dedicated to serving the Lord.

The Hebrew word translated as "served" is very interesting. It is tsâbâ' (צבא) which has the same root as the word "Sabaoth," as in "Lord of Sabaoth" -- which means "Lord of Hosts" or more literally "Lord of the Armies". This word means "to serve," like a soldier, in troops... and is often translated as "to fight", and it is similarly used in reference to the male Levites who also served in the Tabernacle and the Temple. And so this refers to a band of women who were dedicated to the service of the Lord, and who served at the entrance of the Tabernacle, and later, the Temple.

Unfortunately, I am limited by the reference material I have available to me, and it is striking that the Protestant sources I have generally show a surprising lack of curiosity about who these women were, or what they did. However, Brevard Childs's commentary on Exodus says:
"This verse, which has no earlier correspondent, has evoked much discussion as to its meaning. Who were the 'ministering women'? Why is  their work described by the verb sb' which denotes an organized service like the professional Levites? Some commentators have suggested a cleaning and repairing service, others singing and dancing. The only parallel is I Sam. 2.22 which is of little real help. Driver suggests that the verse implies that the service of the tabernacle had already been under way. There is insufficient evidence to decide whether older historical material is involved or later midrashic exegesis. The literary form would favor the first alternative" (The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), p. 636).
The Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos is undoubtedly part of our Tradition, and we know that we are celebrating both an historical and theological truth in this feast. However, when it comes to hymnody in particular, how literally we should take what is said will vary -- that is the nature of any kind of poetry, including much of the poetic material we find in Scripture. For example, the Prophet Isaiah, in foretelling the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian captivity says:
"For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands" (Isaiah 55:12).
This prophecy foretold the joy of the return of the Israelites to their land, but we do not need to believe that they were literally greeted with singing mountains and clapping trees for this to be true.

Likewise, in the Akathist to the Theotokos, when it speaks of the Archangel Gabriel speaking to the Theotokos, I don't think anyone would argue that this is intended to be a stenographic account of was actually said at the Annunciation. But in the form of the poetry of the Akathist, we are given a truthful reflection of the meaning of that historical event.

For More Information, see:

Homily on the Entry of the Theotokos, by St. Gregory Palamas

Mary in the Protevangelium of James: A Jewish Woman in the Temple? (Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 53 (2013) 551–578), by Megan Nutzman

Did Jewish Temple Virgins Exist and was Mary a Temple Virgin?, by Dr Taylor Marshall