Oh no, a modern patriarch?

kirill_512_x_361One of the mantras of modern journalism is, “Show me, don’t tell me.” In other words, when in doubt use images and information that describe people and events, not tacked-on labels that are often vague and judgmental.

At GetReligion, we keep adding another concept to that helpful advice. When in doubt, do not attach political labels to people whose primary role in life is defined by doctrine. We know that this is hard for reporters, since politics is the true religion for them and real religion is often viewed as a totally private hobby with slightly less cultural importance than, oh, reality television.

I bring this up because of the first wave of mainstream reports about the election of Metropolitan Kirill as the new patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. If you read several mainstream stories about this man, your head is going to spin. If you are Orthodox, as I am, your head may explode.

Count the labels. Let’s start with the basic Associated Press report:

The interim leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, seen as a modernizer who could seek a historic reconciliation with the Vatican and more autonomy from the state, was overwhelmingly elected patriarch Tuesday.

Metropolitan Kirill received 508 of the 700 votes cast during an all-day church congress in Moscow’s ornate Christ the Savior Cathedral, the head of the commission responsible for the election, Metropolitan Isidor, said hours after the secret ballot was over. Kirill defeated a conservative rival, Metropolitan Kliment, who received 169 votes, Isidor said.

OK, what precisely is a modernizer? (How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Change? What is this change?)

Well, we must assume that a modernizer is someone who values openness to other faiths — note the all important reference to the pope — and wants to distance the Russian church somewhat from the state. Note that this is the opposite of being a “conservative,” which means, well, what? Conservative Orthodox people want close ties to the Kremlin? Political ties? Cultural ties?

While we are at it, isn’t Pope Benedict XVI a wild-eyed fundamentalist who wants to take Europe back into the days before electricity? So you are a modernizer for wanting to discuss faith and doctrinal issues with Big Ben?

You see a few of the issues here. Note that later in the report we read that:

Kirill … has also promoted unity with the Roman Catholic Church against the secularism and immorality he says threatens humanity. The Vatican “rejoiced” over Kirill’s election, said its spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. …

In Russia, Kirill is seen as a politically savvy figure who may seek a more muscular role for the church, which has served the state for much of its 1,000-year history. Church and state are officially separate under the post-Soviet constitution, but ties have tightened again since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000.

So, he is a muscular modernizer who is opposed by conservatives. Is there some chance that the man actually wants distance from the government so that the church can focus on issues linked to doctrine, faith, religious practice and morality?

Let’s keep looking for clues over at the New York Times. Here, we start with the fact that Kirill is “outspoken,” which is the kind of thing that can be demonstrated. That’s progress:

A critic of declining moral values, Metropolitan Kirill has been involved in the ecumenical movement and has called for the Russian Orthodox Church to step up its outreach to secular society. He has also spoken in tough terms about threats to church unity, especially in Ukraine, where the Orthodox church has broken into rival groups since the collapse of the Soviet Union. …

The race for the patriarchal throne has played out almost like a contemporary political campaign, with passionate debates on Web sites and in blogs, and with tabloids and even some glossy celebrity magazines following the candidates as though they were movie stars.

There’s all kinds of information about rumors and political moves, which is understandable in the chaos that is Russia at the moment. Once again, the question is whether the reader needs to know anything about Kirill as a churchman, in terms of what he has said and done.

Thus, it is important to read:

Kirill was made archbishop of Smolensk in 1984 and metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad in 1991. In the 1990s, he and Patriarch Aleksy were accused by some critics of having served the K.G.B.

As chairman of the external relations department, he oversaw the drafting of the “social concept” of the Russian Orthodox Church, presented in 2000. It addresses church positions on social issues, including abortion, globalization and poverty. One of its most cited points allows for civil disobedience if the government violates Christian commandments.

oursaviormoscow-500x3471Thank you very, very much. That collection of facts is crisp and to the point, showing some examples of doctrine affecting public issues, with no labels in there. More?

Over at the Los Angeles Times, the basic story has some more labels for us — including that “modernizer” thing again, only this time accompanied by a vague adjective:

The longtime head of the denomination’s external relations, Kirill is expected to undertake some modest modernization within the conservative confines of the church.

“On the one hand, he’s a remarkable preacher and theologist; on the other hand, he’s a diplomat experienced in huge, bureaucratic work,” said Sergei Chapnin, editor of the patriarchy’s Church Guardian newspaper. “Today the Orthodox Church is not only a spiritual but also a tremendous social force in Russia. The state cannot ignore the position of the church when we talk about the interests of its citizens.”

What in the world is a “theologist?” And I still have no clue what “modernizer” means.

For Orthodox readers, and journalists who crave hard facts, it is interesting to note the many details in this Moscow Times report and, above all, these statistics cited by Kirill himself during the meetings surrounding the election, and quoted by Interfax:

Russia has opened 234 monasteries and 244 nunneries, the CIS-countries and Baltic States — 142 monasteries and 153 nunneries, other foreign countries — three monasteries and three nunneries. Besides, the Russian Church Outside of Russia supervises over 16 monasteries and nine nunneries. There are 203 monastery representations and 65 hermitages.

The number of parishes increased fourfold for 20 years (from 6893 to 29,263 parishes), the number of dioceses — twofold (from 76 to 157), clergy — more than fourfold (from 7397 to 30,670) and the number of bishops increased almost thrice (from 74 to 203). The number of acting churches in Moscow has increased twenty-two fold — from 40 to 872. The city had only one monastery acting before 1990, now there eight monasteries, 16 monastery representations, three seminaries, two Orthodox higher education establishments.

Again, when in doubt, show us, don’t tell us. Cite some numbers, quotes, hard facts about background. Avoid the political labels.


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“Orthodox” journalism in Russia?

oursaviormoscowLet’s reach a few weeks back into tmatt’s infamous “folder of guilt” to look at an interesting New York Times piece about the growth of “religious media” in modern Russia.

Now, what precisely, are “religious media”? That’s the question, isn’t it? I say this as the leader of a journalism program here inside the Washington Beltway that spends quite a bit of time caught between warring camps of people who have clashing definitions of a related term, which is “Christian journalism.”

So, as you would expect, I was immediately interested in that New York Times feature late last month that ran under the headline, “With Orthodoxy’s Revival in Russia, Religious Media Also Rise.” I mean, I am a journalist, I am Orthodox and there’s a chance I may be visiting greater Russian in a few months. You know I am going to read this story. Here’s the lede:

By the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, there were nearly 600 newspapers and magazines throughout Russia devoted to Orthodox subjects. They were all shut down by the Soviet regime by 1918.

Today, in a country that was officially atheist about two decades ago, there are again hundreds of newspapers, magazines and newsletters covering the world’s largest Orthodox church. There are about 3,500 Russian Orthodox Web sites, and some priests are even blogging.

The Russian Orthodox media, like the church itself, have not always fallen into step with the Kremlin line. The Moscow Patriarchate, its official newspaper and most Orthodox media have addressed the war with Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia as a tragic misunderstanding between two countries that share an Orthodox Christian heritage.

That’s interesting. But I have a question. What are “Orthodox media”? I mean, I understand that there are official newspapers and websites. That’s normal.

However, the trend covered in this article seems broader than that. For example:

When Sergei Chapnin, editor of the Moscow Patriarchate’s official newspaper, Tserkovny Vesnik, organized the first Russian Orthodox media festival in 2004, a government bureaucrat called to inquire about the event.

“I could tell he thought we would have 50 people or so attending,” Mr. Chapnin said about the first festival, which brought together 400 journalists. “I said there are about 500 publications with up to 10,000 journalists connected to them. There was silence at the end of the line.”

Once again, here is my question: Are these official “Orthodox publications,” or are they journalistic publications about Orthodoxy and religion, produced by real journalists who happen to be Orthodox? Might these publications feature the work of journalists, as opposed to church officials or public-relations professionals?

That’s what I want to know and, after reading this interesting article, I cannot figure out the answers to these basic questions.

There are clergy involved in some of these publications, but there are also professionals with mainstream backgrounds. Some of the publications focus on church affairs. Others are controversial because they focus on how faith affects the style of public life, including the lives of celebrities. What is going on here? Who are these scribes? I, for one, would like to know.

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Got news? Printed names in Turkey

towncrier3asOne of the most important resources available to mainstream reporters is a solid, printed list of names attached to clear information or opinion about a hot issue.

For a journalist, this is like a warm blanket on a cold night. You have a document. The names exist and can be verified. Often, the existence of this kind of document is news in and of itself.

Yes, the document may represent only one side of a complex story. Still, the names are there to cite — on the record. If the pope released a statement on the ordination of women, would it be news if a pack of Catholic theologians, priests, lay leaders and even a bishop or two signed a real, published, document opposing the Vatican’s stance? As they say in northern zip codes West of Fargo, “You betcha.”

Thus, we read in the Los Angeles Times:

Two hundred Turkish intellectuals last month launched an Internet signature campaign for an apology to Armenians for the 1915 massacres. “My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Armenians were subjected to in 1915,” the brief statement reads. “I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.”

Within a month, more than 26,000 people signed on, a significant number in a country where the fate of the Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire has been largely unmentionable for decades. To those long frustrated by Turkey’s intractability on the issue, this campaign may appear an inadequate gesture. But it has immense value, educating many Turks about the violence done to Armenians for the first time and enabling those who are ready to come to terms with it.

So far, so good.

Why is this a major story? Well, we need to look at the history a bit. But please note that the subject of this post IS NOT the divisive issue of what did or did not happen to Armenians in Turkey in the early 20th century. So take your hand off that mouse poised over the “comment” link. That’s an important subject, but don’t go there. I have other fish to fry, right now.

Back to the subject of the Los Angeles Times story:

The official Turkish position on 1915 has shifted over time. It was a fight between local Turkish and Armenian bands. Or it was a forced resettlement — a march on which hundreds of thousands of Armenians were sent to Syria, but most never arrived. Historians and politicians also have argued that it was actually Armenians who massacred Turks and that talk of an Armenian genocide was an international conspiracy. In contemporary Turkey, novelists, journalists, historians or other intellectuals who call the events a genocide or even mass murder can face trial under the infamous Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which outlaws insulting Turkey, its government or its people.

Organizers of the “I apologize” campaign notably shied away from the word genocide, opting instead for “the Great Catastrophe,” a phrase initially used by Armenians.

And so forth and so on. There are lots of names and on-the-record, even printed, statements in this piece.

So what’s the problem?

akdamarchurch1Here is the headline on this essay by Esra Ozyurek, associate professor of anthropology at UC San Diego:


A Turkish ‘I apologize’ campaign to Armenians

The fate of Armenians in 1915 remains taboo in Turkey, but some intellectuals are taking action.

Yes, this is an op-ed page piece. It includes some first-person material and analysis.

The question, for me, is why a major newspaper — like this one — elected to handle this subject as an opinion, op-ed page piece when it included such hard, nailed-down, factual hooks for a major news report.

I can think of several reasons. Here are two, one that troubles me and one that troubles me for a different reason.

First of all, we may be reaching the point that newsrooms no longer have the personnel to handle these kinds of big, hard subjects, both foreign and domestic (or handle as many of them). Thus, the only way to get them into the paper is to let someone write about them on the op-ed page, perhaps a person who is involved on one side of the issue or another. That troubles me, as we are poised on the edge of an era of non-profit, niche, “European” style news/commentary.

Then again, perhaps these are stories that are so hot, so controversial, that the editors decided that anything that was written about them had to be labeled “opinion,” because news coverage is impossible on this kind of topic — especially when religion is involved. That really, really troubles me.

Now this has been coming up more often in cyber-discussions among your GetReligionistas — these op-ed essays about religion that contain facts, often unreported facts, that deserve “serious” coverage in the news pages.

What’s going on? That’s what we want to know.

Anyway, we have decided to create a “category” up there on the left sidebar of the site dedicated to this syndrome. In the past, we have not written about op-ed and opinion essays unless they included hard information that we thought would be of interest to Godbeat professionals (or they are on the cover of nonNewsweek).

We are still not going to write about everyday, merely interesting op-eds. But when you see the headline slug “Got news?” you’ll know that we are dealing with a piece of reporting that one of us thinks is worthy — because of its hard, factual content — of moving over into the hard-news pages.

Yes, this piece may be one-sided. It may have been written by an activist involved in the debate that is at the heart of the story. That is often the main point. We are arguing that the editors should have mustered up their courage and assigned someone to write a balanced, accurate piece of journalism about this topic or event.

Make sense? So, if you are curious, click here and you can see some of the first examples of this syndrome that we have spotlighted. I am sure, sadly, that there will be more soon.

Now, prepare to comment on this question: What do you think is going on here?

Photos: A town crier. A 10th century Armenian church in Turkey.

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No war on Epiphany

bosch_epiphanyThe Epiphany of our Lord — Epiphany for short — is the liturgical festival observed on January 6. The oldest Christmas festival, and originally the most important, It is still the climax of the Christmas season in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, where it is celebrated as Theophany. Epiphany as a season of the Lutheran liturgical calendar lasts until the beginning of Lent and encompasses four to nine Sundays, depending on the date of Easter.

The festival has not gone unnoticed by the media, which is nice. Much of the coverage is of the local color variety — with brief articles and photos of Epiphany celebrations. The Times Herald-Record (N.Y.) looks at a Lutheran church’s Christmas pageant — held on Epiphany (observed in some churches last Sunday) as opposed to late in Advent.

For those confused about when the 12th night of Christmas falls, this Telegraph story was no help, but it was fun.

Epiphany is celebrated with particular fervor in many Spanish-speaking countries. The BBC‘s brief look at Madrid’s annual parade made me wish I was there. The Los Angeles Times reported on a 1,600-meter-long Rosca de Reyes baked by local bakers.

This Democrat and Chronicle (N.Y.) article caught my eye:

At the Church of the Assumption, part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, packets containing a piece of chalk and a prayer were handed out during the service. Families took these packets home to write “20 CMB 09″ above their front door with the chalk.

The numbers indicate the current year and “CMB” stands for the “Christus Mansionem Benedicat,” which — translated from Latin — means “May God bless this house.”

How bad does your Latin have to be to translate Christus as “God”?

The coverage of Epiphany celebrations in Tarpon Springs, Florida, is truly remarkable. Apparently the Greek Orthodox churches there have huge celebrations that bring in visitors far and wide. Rita Farlow, St. Petersburg Times reporter, has the beat covered, with several stories on the festivities. Here’s a portion of one story:

Between 8,000 and 10,000 people are expected for the city’s 103rd Epiphany celebration today, which begins with services at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral and ends with an eight-hour Glendi.

In between, 65 young men will dive to retrieve this year’s Epiphany cross. The teen who finds the cross will receive a special blessing that is supposed to bring him a year of prosperity.

The reporter profiled a young woman who will release a dove as part of the festivities. A Suncoast News story looked back on the year had by the winner of last year’s dive.

No matter how big or small the stories on Epiphany and Theophany were, they all handled the theological significance pretty well. Some media outlets used the occasion to get into deeper religious themes. The Ft. Wayne Journal Gazette ran a piece by an Orthodox priest. Beliefnet‘s Patton Dodd had an epiphany while teaching an Epiphany Sunday School lesson. The Rev. Peg Chamberlin’s regular column in the Star-Tribune dealt with the topic. And the Santa Barbara Independent had an interesting piece on the similarities between Epiphany and Theopany:

One interesting aspect of these two parallel holidays is that they’re much more similar, theologically speaking, than they would appear. To a secular observer, a visit from three Magi and a dip in the river Jordan are entirely different activities; their connection appears obscure. To a Christian scholar, however, they’re both manifestations of Christ as the son of God.

She goes on to describe particular aspects of how the holy days are celebrated. So all in all, not a bad treatment of this major festival. Please let us know if you saw any particularly good or bad coverage of the day and season.

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Old gods on rise in Greece?

greek_mtolympusRemember that strange story a few years back about all of those Brits who wanted to write “Jedi knight” or something like that in the official census form slot for “religion”?

That’s what I thought of when someone sent me this fun report from the Guardian, knowing that I would be interested in this religious twist in Greece. The headline: “By Zeus!” The reporter (I love this first name): Helena Smith. And here’s the anecdotal lede:

It was high noon when Doreta Peppa, a woman with long, dark locks and owlish eyes, entered the Sanctuary of Olympian Zeus. At first, tourists visiting the Athenian temple thought they had stumbled on to a film set. It wasn’t just that Peppa cut a dramatic figure with her flowing robes and garlanded hair. Or that she seemed to be in a state of near euphoria. Or even that the group of men and women accompanying her — dressed as warriors and nymphets in kitsch ancient garb — appeared to have stepped straight out of the city’s Golden Age.

To the astonishment of onlookers, Peppa also began babbling Orphic hymns, before thrusting her arms upwards into the Attic skies and proceeding, somewhat deliriously, to warble her love for the gods of Mount Olympus. But, then, for the motley group of modern pagans coalesced around the temple’s giant Corinthian columns, this was a special moment. Not since the late fourth century AD, when the newly Christian Roman state outlawed all forms of pagan worship, had a high priestess officiated on the sacred site.

Oh my. It isn’t hard to write a colorful report about a “trend” like this one. Peppa is, of course, a former advertising executive, and clearly knows have to play the media game.

The Guardian is more than willing to play along with this “very, very big thing.”

So big, that like a thunderbolt from the deity himself, the one-hour ceremony has achieved the near-impossible task of unnerving Greece’s powerful Orthodox church. Since Peppa’s performance 10 days ago, hierarchs have redirected the venom they usually reserve for homosexuals, Catholics, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, masons and the “barbaric” Turks at the “miserable resuscitators” of the degenerate dead religion. In fire-and-brimstone sermons priests have slammed the “satanic” New Ageists and fulminated against their idols.

For years, Orthodox clerics believed that they had defeated Greeks wishing to embrace the customs and beliefs of the ancient past. But increasingly the church, a bastion of conservatism and traditionalism, has been confronted by the spectre of polytheists making a comeback in the land of the gods.

Well, alright then. That tells us quite a bit about what the Guardian thinks of the Orthodox hierarchy. It does not tell us much about the beliefs and practices of the 2,000 hardcore believers in the old gods or their 100,000 allies. We get a few flashes of color, which is fine, but not much, uh, meat about the doctrines and beliefs. Oh, and how about some commentary from a real, live Orthodox leader? Is this a news story?

For example, check this out:

“If you are brought up with Greek mythology, the idea you are the descendants of the ancient Greeks and imbued with the importance of ancient Greek culture, you have all the pre-requisites for such an inclination,” says Nikos Dimou, the acclaimed author of a tongue-in-cheek bestseller, The Misfortune to be Greek.

Ninety-eight per cent of the population may officially be Orthodox Christian, but in many ways Greeks remain bonded to their pagan past. “OK, the ancients had hubris, but the concept of sin was totally unknown to them, as indeed it is in modern Greece,” Dimou says. “Greeks today don’t observe many of the 10 commandments. Their outlook on life and values are much nearer to pagan ideas than those of the austere Judaeo-Christian faith.”

Now I, for one, can think of some interesting questions that a reporter could have asked after someone says something like, “Greeks today don’t observe many of the 10 commandments.” If you were standing there with a pad and pencil, what would your next question have been? Go ahead, ask it.

A fun, yet important, topic. I would have been nice to have seen a bit more serious content, woven into the fun stuff and the anti-Orthodox sermonizing.

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Survey says: It’s all good!

bouguereau.jpgCharles Blow fills a niche so precise that The New York Times is one of the few daily papers that could maintain it in these lean times. He is the Times‘ “visual Op-Ed columnist,” which means that Blow, drawing on his long experience as graphics editor and then graphics director for the Times, supplements his concise remarks with graphics.

In his visual op-ed about a survey from the Pew Forum, Blow’s graphic and his insights leave much to be desired. Regarding the graphic: Shouldn’t a survey about people’s beliefs regarding the afterlife look like something other than a digital audio board? What would Nigel Holmes do?

Regarding the insights: Blow clearly is pleased that the Americans in this survey express beliefs that are, for all practical purposes, universalist. That’s his prerogative, of course, both as a visual op-ed columnist and as an American.

What’s frustrating is Blow’s glib tone in describing the historic teaching of the Christian church, which the church, in turn, draws straight from the Gospel of John:

In June, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a controversial survey in which 70 percent of Americans said that they believed religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life.

This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. After all, the Bible makes it clear that heaven is a velvet-roped V.I.P. area reserved for Christians. Jesus said so: “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But the survey suggested that Americans just weren’t buying that.

Exactly what was it, though, that Americans just weren’t buying — what Jesus said of himself? How Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches have understood those words for centuries? The Studio 54-style elitism that Blow imposes on those words?

To his credit, Blow consults with Alan Segal of Barnard College and John Green of the Pew Forum to help interpret the data. But then he closes with another casual dismissal of foundational Christian doctrine:

But I don’t think that they are ignorant about this most basic tenet of their faith. I think that they are choosing to ignore it … for goodness sake.

I know that Blow’s work involves taking dull statistics and making them more interesting with drawings and charts. Still, doesn’t such a weighty matter as eternity deserve something more than the written equivalent of a stickman?

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Merry Christmas! (This is not a joke)

12daysof-christmasWhile my recent thread about rites on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day rolls on and on, please allow me to raise another seasonal issue that is dear to my heart.

As I mentioned the other day, it is hard for journalists to write fresh, newsy stories and columns about the major religious seasons to roll around year after year after year. It’s hard not to write about the same topics over and over.

Well folks, several years ago I decided to quit trying to do something new this time of year.

Why? Because there is a topic that I think is so important that I have decided not to dodge it. I refer, of course, to the whole upside down nature of how most modern Christians celebrate Christmas. This is to say, they do not celebrate Christmas. Instead, they join in the cultural train wreck called “The Holidays,” which turns a quiet, reflective season, penitential season called Advent — Nativity Lent in the Eastern Churches — into a free for all. Then, when the real 12-day festival of Christmas arrives, starting on Dec. 25th, almost everyone ignores it and moves on to the NFL playoffs.

So I write about this almost every year for the Scripps Howard News Service, either focusing on Advent, St. Nicholas, the Christmas calendar wars or the forgotten 12 days. Go ahead! Sue me. I think that it’s an important topic, involving thousands of churches, millions of people and billions of dollars.

This year’s offering opens like this, hooked into an online effort by one of the nation’s most powerful Christian groups:

Merry Christmas.

No, honest, as in “the 12 days of” you know what between Dec. 25 and Jan. 5.

If you doubt the accuracy of this statement, you can head over to the Web site of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. There you will find an interactive calendar that bravely documents the fact that, according to centuries of Christian tradition, the quiet season called Advent has just ended and the 12-day Christmas season has just begun.

So cease stripping the decorations off your tree and postpone its premature trip to the curb. There is still time to prepare for a Twelfth Night party and then the grand finale on Jan. 6, when the feast of the Epiphany marks the arrival in Bethlehem of the magi.

Click here to see that website, which wasn’t all that easy to put together, according to Joe Larson, the USCCB’s director of digital media. He was stunned how few resources there were online to, as he put it, “help tell Catholics what we believe about these seasons and why we do what we do — or what we are supposed to do — during Advent and Christmas.” They ended up with a rough draft that they hope to expand in future years.

I was stuck by the fact that many liturgical and mainline Protestant churches are trying to place more of an emphasis on Advent — only without the penitential themes that were at the heart of the ancient traditions. Why? Well, stop and think about it. It’s all about the cultural calendar, not the Christian calendar.

Here’s the end of the column:

While many Christians still observe Advent — especially Anglicans, Lutherans and other mainline Protestants — some older Roman Catholics may remember when the guidelines for the season were stricter. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the season is still observed by many as “Nativity Lent.”

“In a pre-Vatican II context, Advent looked a lot like Lent,” noted Father Rick Hilgartner, associate director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Divine Worship. “It was the season you used to prepare for Christmas, the way Lent helps you prepare for Easter.”

Today, it’s even hard for priests to follow the rhythms of the church’s prayers, hymns and rites, he said. Hilgartner said he tries to stay away from Christmas tree lots and shopping malls until at least halfway through Advent. He accepts invitations to some Christmas parties, even though they are held in Advent.

Now that it’s finally Christmas, he feels a pang of frustration when he turns on a radio or television and finds that — after being bombarded with “holiday” stuff for weeks — the true season is missing in action.

“It would be different, of course, if we all lived in a monastic community and the liturgical calendar totally dominated our lives,” said Hilgartner. “Then we could get away with celebrating the true seasons and we wouldn’t even whisper the word ‘Christmas’ until the start of the Christmas Mass. But the church doesn’t exist in a vacuum and we can’t live in a cultural bubble. …

“But it’s good to try to be reasonable. It’s good to slow down and it’s good to celebrate Christmas, at least a little, during Christmas. It’s good to try.”

It’s good to try.

So here is the next question: Did your church try?

Did your parish celebrate Advent or Nativity Lent as a penitential season? Did anyone try to avoid a few parties? Did anyone fast or take part in extra services of prayer and meditation? And, now that Christmas is here, the real Christmas, are any of your churches doing anything to keep celebrating? Is anyone planning, for example, 12th Night parties? Three Kings processionals?

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Putting the Mass in Christmas

table-of-oblation3During the past 25 years or so, I have written more than my share of mainstream news stories and columns about religious seasons.

It’s hard work, to tell you the truth, unless you want to write the same story over and over. I only write the same story over and over unless I am really convinced that the topic is valid and newsworthy. But more on that tomorrow.

I’ve always been interested in why some churches make a big deal out of worship on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and others do not. I once attended a Baptist “service of lessons and carols” on Christmas Eve — early in the evening — that ended with the Lord’s Supper. It was clear that the clergy were trying to offer their people something that felt like a Midnight Mass.

Meanwhile, the Catholic traditions of Christmas Eve are strong and vital. But what if people find it hard to honor the ways of the past? A Denver priest once told me that he knew times were changing when people started calling the parish office and asking this question: “What time is your Midnight Mass?”

Evangelical Protestants have tended to focus on spectacular musical offerings, in concerts, dramas and pageants. The problem, of course, is that these events require the efforts of many, many people and these people have to be in the same place at the same time. How do you do that these days during the craziness of “The Holidays”? Thus, these events began to creep further and further into the early days of December, further from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

All of this leads us to a very sad and mysterious essay in Time by Amy Sullivan, the professional progressive evangelical who is a popular commentator and political consultant. The blunt headline: “Going to Church on Christmas: A Vanishing Tradition.”

Sullivan’s angle? What about Christmas Day itself? She begins:

Millions of Americans go to church on Christmas Eve. They crowd shoulder-to-shoulder in pews to sing “Silent Night” and light candles and listen to soloists belt out “O Holy Night.” More than a few watch nativity plays that recreate the birth of Jesus with a cast of 10-year-olds in bathrobes. When the service is over, they exchange hearty “Merry Christmas!” wishes before getting in their cars and heading home.

And they stay home the next day. Or they drive to Grandma’s, or go to the movies. But however they spend Christmas Day — “the feast of Christmas” on the Christian liturgical calendar — one way most Americans don’t celebrate it is by going to church. While demand for Christmas Eve celebrations is so high that some churches hold as many as five or six different services on the 24th of December, most Protestant churches are closed on the actual religious holiday. For most Christians, Christmas is a day for family, not faith.

The key to all of this, of course, is that the Midnight Catholic Mass and the similar traditions in Anglicanism, Orthodox Christianity and some other churches offers worship on Christmas Eve and in the early hours of Christmas Day.

Sullivan mentions this:

Some traditions, including Catholics and Anglicans, hold midnight masses on the Saturday before Easter to usher in that holiday. But everyone still shows up the next morning for the traditional Easter celebration, just as Christmas Day remains a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics, who are likely to be found in church the day after attending a Midnight Mass. By contrast, the Christmas service everyone thinks of as “traditional” is the Service of Lessons and Carols that many Protestant congregations use on Christmas Eve.

This gets complicated and, yes, schedules and marketing figure into all of this.

However, it seems to me that what we are watching is two different trends, one among liturgical churches and one among Protestants, especially evangelicals. But this is a very important story, if you care about ancient traditions, the liturgical calendar, trends in worship and other matters of doctrine.

So let me ask our readers who are Christians: When did you go to church? When was the real Christmas service, for you?

At my own Orthodox parish, Holy Cross in Linthicum, Md., the Matins service started about 10 p.m. and the Divine Liturgy began just before midnight. Throw in a happy mini-feast to break the Nativity Lent fast and we arrived back home around 2:30 a.m. That’s Christmas Day, isn’t it?

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