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)