Orthodox Christianity

Yes, gunman in Russia killed five after Forgiveness Vespers (which isn't a Mardi Gras thing)

Yes, gunman in Russia killed five after Forgiveness Vespers (which isn't a Mardi Gras thing)

This past Sunday, I received an interesting email just after I got home from one of the most symbolic rites of the Eastern Orthodox year -- Forgiveness Vespers.

For Orthodox Christians, this service is the door into the long and challenging season of Great Lent, which leads to the most important day in the Christian year -- Pascha (Easter in the West).

During these vespers, each member of the congregation -- one at a time -- faces each and every other person who is present. One at a time, we bow and ask the person to forgive us of anything we have done to hurt them in the previous year. The response: "I forgive, as God forgives," or similar words. Then the second person does the same thing. Many people do a full prostration to the floor, as they seek forgiveness.

Then we move to the left to face the next person in line. Doing this 100 times or so is quite an exercise, both spiritual and physical. Tears are common. So is sweat.

The email I received pointed me to stories coming out of the Dagestan region of Russia, near the border of Chechnya. As worshipers came out of an Orthodox church in Kizlyar, a gunman -- shouting "Allahu Akbar" -- attacked with a hunting rifle and knife, killing five.

An Associated Press report merely said the victims were leaving a church service and even stated that the "motive for the attack was not immediately known."

I was struck by the timing, coming in the wake of the Ash Wednesday school shootings in Parkland, Fla. I had the same question as the GetReligion reader who emailed me: Were these worshipers shot after the Forgiveness Vespers? 

It certainly appeared that this was the case, so I immediately wrote a post: "Massacre on Ash Wednesday? Now, Orthodox believers shot leaving Forgiveness Vespers." Needless to say, this was a topic of interest to Orthodox believers, and others.

Now, a reader who speaks Russia has found a link to a Russian website -- "Orthodoxy and the World" -- that confirms the poignant and painful timing of this attack. Here is his translation of that information, if you are into factual journalistic details of this kind:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

USA Today Network explains 'What it takes to become a saint' (for Catholics only)

USA Today Network explains 'What it takes to become a saint' (for Catholics only)

Dear editors at USA Today:

I thought that I would drop you a note, after reading a recent feature on your USA Today Network wire that ran with this headline: "What it takes to become a saint."

That's interesting, I thought. That's a pretty complex subject, especially if you take into account the different meanings of the word "saint" among Christians around the world, including Protestants. And then there is the unique use of this term among believers in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

At the very least, I assumed that this "news you can use" style feature would mention that, while the canonization process in the Roman Catholic Church receives the most press attention, the churches in the world's second-largest Christian flock -- Eastern Orthodoxy -- have always recognized men and women as saints and continue to name new saints in modern times. Also, high-church Anglicans pay quite a bit of attention to the saints, through the ages.

The Catholic process is very specific and organized, while the Orthodox process is more grassroots and organic. There is much to learn through the study of the modern saints in both of these Communions. This is a complex topic and one worthy of coverage.

Then I read your feature, which originated in The Detroit Free Press. It opens like this:

What does it take to become a saint?
Anyone can make it to sainthood, but the road isn’t easy. The journey involves an exhaustive process that can take decades or even centuries.  
The Catholic Church has thousands of saints, from the Apostles to St. Teresa of Calcutta, often known as Mother Teresa.
Here are the steps needed to become a saint, according to Catholic officials. ...

What is the journalism problem here?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Weekend think piece: Guess what? Church and state in Russia have their differences

Weekend think piece: Guess what? Church and state in Russia have their differences

The priest at our parish in East Tennessee returned the other day from a pilgrimage to Mount Athos, the Greek peninsula that for centuries has been the beating heart of Eastern Orthodox spirituality. 

As far as I know, Father J. Stephen Freeman did not have any secret meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin while he was trekking from monastery to monastery on the holy mountain. However, you never know. After all, Father Stephen has many online readers in Russia and, well, he is the priest of Oak Ridge (and you know what that means).

Journalists in the West have said some rather wild things, as of late, about Orthodox Christianity and its role in Russia. This then connects with the whole "The Russians Did It, the Russians Did It" atmosphere in American politics.

But are we ready to politicize the holy mountain? Check out this passage from The Spectator, drawn from a feature with this headline: "What is behind Vladimir Putin’s curious interest in Mount Athos?" Orthodox readers may want to sit down to read this.

A secretive body of Elders governs here and all citizens are bound to total obedience. They wear identical floor-length black gowns and are not permitted to shave -- the style of dress favoured by zealots everywhere. And guess what? This state is in western Europe.
Few people have heard of Mount Athos and fewer still have visited it, and that is the way they like it. A notable exception is Vladimir Putin. He has been at least twice, once in 2006 and again in May of this year. ...
Putin has formed an unholy alliance with the Orthodox church in order to ensure he receives its blessing. This fits with his self-image as a modern Tsar embodying church and state. For believers, the Holy Mountain is the centre of their faith, their Rome, the place where the flame of their faith connects to heaven.

I wasn't expecting the Z-word.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

New York Times pays timely visit to ancient, threatened home of the real St. Nicholas

New York Times pays timely visit to ancient, threatened home of the real St. Nicholas

Let us now pause to offer a word of thanksgiving and modest praise for a New York Times story about religion.

Of course, this particular news report has nothing to do with sexuality or religious liberty, so the editorial bar was set a bit lower. However, this story does have a few kind words to say about Russian Orthodox believers, which is a kind a miracle in and of itself right now.

The dateline for this report is the city of Demre, in southern Turkey, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Taurus Mountains. In other words, this comes from a region that is absolutely crucial to the history of the early church and the people of the New Testament, although most readers (the story takes this into account) would not know that. 

The headline focuses on an all-to-often overlooked hero of the Christian faith: "In Turkey’s Home of St. Nick, Far From North Pole, All Is Not Jolly."

Now, why is this story appearing in the Times on Dec. 19th? I would assume that this is because a Times correspondent noted an increase in the number of Christians coming to Demre for events celebrating the life and faith of St. Nicholas of Myra.

But why Dec. 19th? The story never tells us why.

This raises an interesting question: Does the reporter, or the Times copy desk, even realize that Dec. 19th is the Feast of St. Nicholas, according to the ancient Julian calendar used by the Orthodox Church in Russia and in many other Eastern lands? In the West, the feast of St. Nicholas -- with its emphasis on almsgiving for the poor and small gifts (think chocolates wrapped to look like gold coins) -- is celebrated on Dec. 6th, on the newer Gregorian calendar.

But let's look at a key summary of facts early in this story:

Yes, Virginia, you heard that right, Santa Claus is from Turkey. But this year, Christmastime in Demre is far from cheery.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

A classic Paul Simon song for scribes to hum when covering religious freedom issues

A classic Paul Simon song for scribes to hum when covering religious freedom issues

"Still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest."  

Paul Simon included that line in his emotionally moving song, "The Boxer." The words have long rung true for me.

These days, I find them particularly relevant when thinking about religious freedom issues -- both domestic and international -- and much of what journalists write about them.

Which is to say that too often, respect for religious freedom comes down to whose ox is being gored.

On the domestic front, Simon's words spring to mind when reading many of the stories written about the successful -- for the moment, at least -- Standing Rock Sioux protest against the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

His words also seem blindingly appropriate when considering these two international stories, one from Indonesia and one from China's ethnic Tibetan region, both published by The New York Times.

Please read both stories to better understand this post and to keep me from having to stuff this column with critical but wordy explanatory background -- as might have been necessary in the long-ago world of pre-links journalism. It's a new world. Make use of the links. The photos accompanying both stories alone are worth your time.

Click here for the Indonesia story. And click here for the China story.

Notice how sympathetic both stories are toward the religious and social views of the indigenous tribe, in the Indonesian case, and toward Tibetan Buddhism, in the China story.

Please respect our Commenting Policy