On Scandal and Corruption in the Church

Recently I met a man from Russia who I will call Ivan. Ivan is in Arizona looking for work, but he is also looking for answers to spiritual questions. Being Russian, Ivan is a member of the Orthodox Church. I met him after pre-sanctified liturgy, when he started asking me questions about the faith, presumably due to the fact that I was wearing a cassock. He brought up many topics that will likely spawn other blog posts here, but the one I want to address today is scandal and corruption amongst the clergy. The way my friend Ivan tells it, the Russian Orthodox Church is corrupt from the Patriarch down to the parish priest. He spoke of financial scandals, sexual scandals, coziness with the government, a lack of spirituality, etc. Now I have no idea how true his version of the state of Orthodoxy in Russia is, but I suspect there is some element of truth in it, even if it is greatly exaggerated. But the bigger question is, so what?

I don’t mean to condone any sinful behavior, nor to dismiss off handedly what I could see are deep concerns weighing on this man. That’s also not to say that we should not seek to correct our church leaders in love. (The Good Lord knows that the Orthodox Church in America has had its share of scandals on these shores.) But what should our expectation really be? Should scandal among our ranks and our leadership shake our faith?

First of all we should recognize and keep in mind that we are all sinners. Our Lord and Savior Himself said with regard to the adulterous woman, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” (John 8:7) Scripture, while exhorting us to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect, reminds us repeatedly that there is none among us who is free from sin. “For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20)

Do we have a right to expect perfection from our hierarchs? And if we cannot expect perfection, how can any line be drawn but arbitrarily? Do not each of us have enough of our own sins to concern us? If you think you do not, I pray that the Lord grant you the grace to see your own sins and not to judge your brother!

We should be concerned with the sins of our brothers, and especially among them our priests and bishops, but we must not allow their failings to shake our faith. We do not worship the Patriarch of Moscow, nor the Patriarch of Constantinople, nor the Metropolitan of All-America and Canada, but rather the Holy Trinity, One God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our faith is not in our diocesan bishop, nor in our parish priest, but in our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. If our faith is anywhere else it is misplaced! And that same Lord established for us and our salvation a visible Church consisting of sinful men, yet promised that the Holy Spirit would lead it into all truth and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. So why would we be concerned with what God Himself established? Let us be concerned with our salvation. The Grace of God is not dependent on the righteousness of the priesthood. The chalice still contains the Body and Blood of Christ regardless of the sins of the bishop or priest. Besides, where else could we go? This is the Church of the Apostles and the Martyrs. This is the Church of Christ Himself. The devil may win battles here on earth, but the war was won on Calvary.

So in conclusion, we certainly should be concerned with the sins of our brothers and sisters, and chief among them our ecclesiastical leadership, because to whom much is given much will be expected. They need our prayers, and our correction, and our love. St. John Chrysostom is attributed with having said “The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts.” We know he did say, “I do not think there are many among Bishops that will be saved, but many more that perish” in his Homily III on Acts 1:12. Keep in mind that at one point, when the Church was only a few hundred years separated from the Apostles, what was probably a majority of the bishops fell into the heresy of Arianism. Yet the Church survived and orthodoxy prevailed. At the Council of Nicaea, St. Athanasius may have said that “the floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.” Rather than fleeing our own salvation because of the sins of others–which is exactly what the great deceiver and father of lies wants us to do–let us pray for and look after those in authority, that through the love of the Father and the Grace of the Holy Spirit, neither their skulls nor ours will ever touch the floor of hell.

New Page: Liturgical Music Resources

For the choir members I am leaving shortly and for anyone else out there who may find it useful, I have compiled a list of all the online Orthodox sheet music resources I’ve discovered over the last few years during which I served my parish as choir director. I’ve generally left out sites that don’t contain any works in English.

To check it out, use the link in the main menu, or click here.

If you have any resources I’ve missed, post them in the comments for this post.

The Fruits of Fasting: Desire

Last night I really wanted a cheeseburger. I almost gave in, and if not for a sizable inconvenience, I probably would have went out and bought one.

Desire. One of the main themes of the first preparatory Sunday in our tradition, the Sunday of Zacchaeus, is desire. Zacchaeus has a strong desire to see Jesus, but can’t because he’s short and the crowd is great. Since his desire is strong, he overcomes the obstacles between him and his goal by climbing a sycamore fig tree. On that Sunday we are taught to see the Great Fast as our sycamore tree, with the ascetic disciplines and struggles helping us to overcome our sin and separation from Christ, if we have the desire.

This is of course true, but I think the fast itself also teaches us to desire, and points out to us the misplacement of our desires in a very striking and human way: our stomachs.

Even in our vernacular, hunger is used to describe a strong desire. The Church, in her two millennia of accumulated wisdom, understands this facet of our humanity and teaches us to use it to our spiritual benefit.

Our Lord said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). As previously mentioned, we undergo this fasting season in order to re-orient our lives on the risen Christ. That is the goal and the reason. Abstaining from food, increasing prayer, scripture, and almsgiving/good works are the exercises. Through the Grace of the Holy Spirit and our willingness to cooperate with Him, these exercises produce the “fruit” that helps us to accomplish that goal. Learning to desire Christ, or at least becoming aware of the things we seek before the Kingdom of Heaven, is one such fruit.

When I reflected on last night this morning, I realized that if only I desired Christ even as much as I desired that cheeseburger, I would be getting somewhere.

Let us, by abstaining from earthly food, “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

May the hunger in our bellies focus our attention on Christ, that we may desire Him enough to climb our own sycamore trees; and may Christ forgive us our sins and have mercy on us.

A Tale of Two Calendars

This time every year, the Internet is abuzz with articles expounding myths regarding the origins of the Easter celebration, and other articles debunking these myths. I’m not going to address this topic (perhaps in a future article…), but I do want to address a myth or urban legend popular in Orthodoxy and much less covered (at least outside of Orthodox blogs): that Easter (or Pascha as we typically call it) must fall after Jewish Passover, and that those rascally Roman Catholics removed that requirement, which is why (most) Orthodox Christians celebrate it on a later date most years.

Now it’s certainly true that the vast majority of Orthodox Christians do typically celebrate Easter one or more weeks after the West (Catholic/Protestant)… a fact even subtly lampooned in an episode of The Simpsons, captured in the image above. But that the reason has anything to do with Passover is simply false.

Why would the Christian Church have their holiest holy day determined by another religion? What if all the Jews converted to Christianity? Would we maintain the Jewish calendar just so we can calculate the date of Pascha? Of course Passover is not necessary to determine the date of Easter.

So what is the reason for the difference? Well, to understand that we have to talk about calendars and history. We’ll also get into why some Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas in January.

As person in the 21st Century, you probably take for granted the fact that the whole world seems to use the same calendar. March is March, whether you spell it Marzo or März. Other calendar systems only ever seem to be discussed with regard to exotic ancient civilizations and potential end-of-the-world scenarios, such as the Mayan calendar silliness from a few years ago. What you may not realize is that a standard global calendar is a pretty modern thing. In ancient and even not-so-ancient times, diversity was the rule not the exception. Different countries/civilizations had their own calendars and dating systems. Even within the Roman Empire, which used a standard Roman calendar, the year would vary by region! (The BC/AD system we use today came about some 800 years after Christ.) The Jews also had their own calendar, which is based on the lunar cycle instead of the solar system we are familiar with.

The civil calendar used by virtually every government in the world today is called the Gregorian calendar, named after the Pope who promulgated it in the Catholic Church in the 16th Century— Gregory XIII. It was originally only used by Catholic countries; England, for example, had already become Protestant and didn’t adopt it for some time later.

It was created to address inaccuracies between its predecessor, the Julian calendar (named after Julius Caesar but actually created by Caesar Augustus in the form we know it) and the actual astronomical year. The year was too long under the Julian calendar, so the calendar had gotten pretty out of sync with the astronomy. Of specific concern was the vernal equinox used to calculate Easter. But let’s backtrack a little and discuss the Roman calendar and how it evolved over the centuries. (We’ll also learn why February only has 28 days, and why it gets the Leap Day.)

The legendary first king and namesake of Rome, Romulus, is accredited with creating the first Roman calendar, around 753 BC. It looked like this:

Martius — 31 days
Aprilis — 30 days
Maius — 31 days
Iunius — 30 days
Quintilis — 31 days
Sextilis — 30 days
September — 30 days
October — 31 days
November — 30 days
December — 30 days

Definitely recognizable almost 3,000 years later, even if it is only 10 months long. Well, the next king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, apparently changed things up a bit:

Martius — 31 days
Aprilis — 29 days
Maius — 31 days
Iunius — 29 days
Quintilis — 31 days
Sextilis — 29 days
September — 29 days
October — 31 days
November — 29 days
December — 29 days
Ianuarius — 29 days
Februarius — 28 days (23 or 24 days in leap year)
Intercalarius — 0 days (27 days in leap year)

Numa deleted one day from all the 30-day months, and added Ianuaris and Februarius (January and February) to the end of the year, because under the old calendar there were only 304 days… after December 29 they would wait some 60-odd days until their astronomers determined it was time to start the new year again, which obviously wasn’t a very good system. The intercalarius wasn’t exactly a month, but a set of days added after February about every other year, in order to keep the seasons from getting too out of sync (which, as we will see, is the problem that drives all calendar updates.) This is the genesis of the leap year.

Fast forward a few centuries to around 450 BC, and we find that Ianuarius and Februarius are now considered the first and second month (as they are today), which makes the names of Quintilus and Sextilis kind of silly, since they come from the words for five and six.

Another unfortunate situation was that since there was no fixed rule for leap years, they could occur whenever it was decided that they should. This was abused, and by the time of Julius Caesar, the months were completely out of whack with the seasons.

In 45 BC, Julius Caesar solved this by creating the first fixed rules for determining leap years. He set a regular pattern of alternating between 31 and 30 day months. He also removed the intercalary month, replacing it with a single leap day, which is tacked on to the end of February because the intercalary month happened after February. He also added 3 months to the year on a one-time basis, in order to allow the seasons to catch up. So the calendar looked like this:

Ianuarius — 31 days
Februarius — 29 days (30 days in leap year)
Martius — 31 days
Aprilis — 30 days
Maius — 31 days
Iunius — 30 days
Quintilis — 31 days
Sextilis — 30 days
September — 31 days
October — 30 days
November — 31 days
December — 30 days

The leap year was fixed to every 4 years, but due to a counting error, it was actually implemented as every 3 years.

Julius Caesar didn’t get to enjoy his calendar, since he was murdered infamously on the Ides of March the following year. His successor, Augustus, picked up the calendar reforming torch, making the modifications that became known as the Julian calendar, after his predecessor. He changed the leap year to the proper 4 year cycle, and renamed the now-misnamed months of Quintilis and Sextilis after himself and Julius: Quintilis became Iulius (July) and Sextilis became Augustus (August.) The only problem was that the current Caesar’s month, Augustus, only had 30 days–one fewer than the month named for his predecessor. Considering this an outrage to his honor, Augustus took one day from February and added it to August, so that they would both have 31 days. This left February with only 28 days, a situation that endures until today.

The astronomical year is 365.2422 days long. With Augustus’ 4-year leap cycle, the average year was 365.25 days long. Pretty close, right? Well, not really, over a long enough span of time. That little difference comes to one full day every 128 years, or about 3 days every 400 years. By the 1500s, that came to a drift of 10 days. Today that drift is 13 days, and will be 14 days in the year 2100. That’s enough to start noticing the problem. The holidays became noticeably misaligned with the seasons.

Enter Pope Gregory XIII. To solve this, he did two things: removed 10 days from October in the year 1582, and changed the leap year rules so that years ending in 00 are only leap years if evenly divisible by 400. That means there would be 3 fewer days every 400 years, giving the average year a length of 365.2425 days, compared to the actual 356.2422. This means it will take 3,333 years for the calendar to drift one day, effectively solving that problem.

(Interestingly, in the 1920s, the Greek Orthodox Church proposed a leap year calculation that would solve even that drift by dropping 7 leap years every 900 years, but it has never been implemented.)

Pope Gregory also standardized the New Year’s Day (the day that the year is incremented) to January 1st. Prior to this, that day would vary from nation to nation. In the Byzantine Empire, that day was September 1st, which is why to this day the Church new year is on September 1 in the Byzantine Rite (Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches.)

Because the Roman Empire had included all of Europe and beyond at one point or another, the Julian calendar was pretty ubiquitous, at least in Europe. Most of the Catholic world–Poland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain–adopted the Gregorian calendar reforms immediately. Other Catholic countries like France followed shortly thereafter. The Protestant world was much slower to adopt them, creating a situation where different dates and years were recorded. Often both would be listed on documents. In the New World, Spanish and French colonies would use the new calendar system, while the British colonies maintained the older calendar. But eventually the new calendar won the support of governments worldwide. Among the last holdouts, Russia switched in 1918 and Turkey adopted it in 1927, both less than 100 years ago. (Alaska switched when it was purchased by the United States, but had the unique experience of not only losing days, but of repeating one day twice, because the International Date Line was shifted with the purchase, from being on the east side of Alaska prior, to the west side–in both cases in order to keep Alaska on the same day as its mother country.)

Well, just because the civil governments of Orthodox countries–such as Greece, Russia, and Yugoslavia–adopted the Gregorian calendar, that didn’t mean the Church was going to. Today, only one Orthodox Church has actually adopted the Gregorian Calendar: the Orthodox Church of Finland. However, quite a few churches eventually adopted what is called the ‘Revised Julian’ Calendar for fixed feasts. (The Julian calendar is still in use civilly on Mt. Athos (as well as liturgically of course) and by the Berber people of Northern Africa. Also, Ethiopia uses the Alexandrian Calendar, which is based on the Julian calendar.)

So, because of that 13 day drift, the Orthodox churches that use the Julian or “Old Calendar” celebrate the fixed feasts 13 days after those on the Gregorian or Revised Julian Calendars—but they still celebrate them on the same calendar day, e.g. December 25th for Christmas. It’s just that December 25th on the Julian calendar currently aligns with Jan 7 on the Gregorian. This is why in Russia and other countries, Christmas is celebrated in January (from the Gregorian perspective, anyway.)

Those Orthodox Churches that are on what is often called the “New Calendar” or “New Style,” (the Churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Greece (but not Mt. Athos), Cyprus, Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, and the Orthodox Church in America, except in Alaska) celebrate the fixed feasts on the same days as the Gregorian churches (Roman Catholic and Protestant), in accordance with the civil calendar that everybody uses, however Pascha is celebrated with the rest of the Orthodox. What they did in creating the Revised Julian calendar was remove 13 days from October the year it was adopted to sync up the dates, but specified that the vernal equinox used for the Paschalion or Computus (the determination of the date of Easter) would be that of the original Julian calendar.

So back to the calculation of Easter. In the early church, again diversity was the norm, even in determining the date of Easter. Some groups believed it should always be tied to the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, regardless of the day of the week. Others thought it should always be on a Sunday, with various methods to determine which one. However, the date for Pascha has been completely divorced from Passover and the Jewish calendar since the formula was standardized at the First Council of Nicea. That Ecumenical Council set the calculation as the Sunday after the 14th day of the first lunar month of spring, which essentially boils down to the Sunday after the full moon after northern hemisphere’s vernal equinox. However, the equinox and full moon weren’t to be determined astronomically or by calculation; the equinox was fixed to March 21, and the new and full moons are called the ecclesiastical new and full moon and based on a complicated 19 year cycle of lunar months called the Metonic cycle.

(Note: The formula used clearly is derived from the date of Passover, but it doesn’t explicitly mention Passover, probably because in Orthodox Christian thought, the Jews should all become Orthodox–the New Israel being the Church–and Judaism as a separate religion should cease to exist. But using a lunar calendar, albeit a different one, and choosing the Sunday after the full moon, which is defined as the 14th day of the lunar month, in the spring month, is tantamount to saying the Sunday after 14 Nisan… the start of Passover. But it was set in such a way to be completely independent of what the Jews do, and in fact, the Jewish calendar has changed over the centuries. At times different Jews have even used different calendars. But most importantly, the change made by the Catholic Church had nothing to do with removing a requirement, but rather the difference is a result of the fact that the vernal equinox was set to a fixed day on the solar calendar.)

Despite a popular but misinformed narrative within Orthodoxy, the Catholic Church never changed the Computus of the First Ecumenical Council. They merely calculate the equinox as March 21 according to the Gregorian calendar, which is currently 13 days prior to March 21 on the Julian, which can therefore put the calculation of the ecclesiastical moons quite of sync (but not always) resulting in a different, earlier date of Pascha. It also has a side effect of making it possible that Easter is celebrated before Jewish Passover, but as previously noted, there is NO requirement that Easter follow Jewish Passover in the Computus that is used by both churches.

Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick summarizes the whole issue much more succinctly:

It’s supposed to be on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. But many centuries ago, we devised predictive mathematical cycles that predicted when the equinox and full moon would be. They were very accurate, but over time, those predictions drifted away from what was happening in the sky. We’ve never updated our tables. In the 16th century, the West did.

And there you have it. You probably now know more about calendars than you ever wanted to.

Murphy, Job, and I: Reflections on the first week of Great Lent

I don’t much like writing about myself. As Great Lent approached, I originally set out to write about the meaning and purpose of fasting, and all that we can learn from the awesome ways in which the Church prepares us for this journey in the weeks leading up to the first actual week of Lent. However, the demands of my professional life were overwhelming and I finally came to the conclusion that this was not meant to be. As so often happens with these things, it seemed God had other plans.

They say that if something is going to go wrong, it’s going to happen during Lent, especially the first week. As it happened, every day of this first week has brought more than its share of struggles–avoiding meat and cheese has been the easy part. Murphy’s Law seems to have been in full effect: nearly every difficulty and frustration I could imagine, large or small, seems to have happened; from flat tires, to someone trying to break my windshield, to being a reader and choir director with the worst case of laryngitis I’ve ever had–on a week with church services every night–and numerous things in between. As one challenge lead directly into the next, I started to feel like the long-suffering Job, covered in sores and thrown onto a dunghill.

Even so, I couldn’t help but notice that some of the problems seemed to work out in unexpected ways. This culminated in discovering through reflection the meaning of fasting and the Lenten struggle in a more personal and complete way than what I had originally planned to write. As St. Paul writes to the Romans, “all things work together for good to those who love God.”

One of the goals of fasting is to “tame the passions and cultivate the virtues.” Anyone who knows me well knows that one of my many passions is being quick to anger, anger that tends to explode in rage and then disappear as quickly as it came. And boy, did I have plenty of opportunities to fly off the handle this week.

Yet, through what can only be the grace of the Holy Spirit, I’ve actually managed to hold myself together pretty well. I certainly could have done better, but I typically would have done much worse. I’ve managed to find a small degree of peace throughout the chaos, and keeping Christ and the fast in mind has certainly helped me to avoid the temptations.

What I’ve started to discover, in a much more visceral and deep way, is how unimportant so many of our problems actually are. As the scholar and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan is quoted as saying, “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen — nothing else matters.”

Christ is risen from the dead! This is what we joyfully sing over and over once we arrive at our lenten destination and celebrate His Resurrection, which by trampling down Death He allows us to participate in. Remembering this, and refocusing our lives accordingly, that is the true meaning of the Great Fast, and the Christian life in general. It’s why we seek to tame our passions, why we pray more and give more alms. It’s the reason for our repentance and forgiveness.

And so, regardless of what challenges we face, we should be of good cheer! May Christ our True God allow us to continue our journey to Pascha in humility and repentance, and let us “lay aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of All,” both on the upcoming Feast of Feasts, and in the Kingdom to come.

This is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it!