Last month I was in Washington D.C., and I met up with a friend of mine from the Antiochian Village. We spent the day walking around the National Mall just enjoying the city and each other’s company. Afterwards, she said that it was, “a nice break from the secular world.”
Did we not just spend the whole day at the center of the United States’ government; the very heart of the secular world? How could we have escaped the secular world by immersing ourselves in its very core?
Before I offer my answer to that question, let’s take a step back and define what we mean when we say the “secular world.” Secular refers to something that has no religious or spiritual basis; so the secular world, then, is the world where religion and spirituality do not exist. From this definition, our minds often draw a dichotomy between our church worlds and everything else. And it seems natural to do this, for in one world we very clearly see Christ in the center of the dome or in the chalice, but in the other world, all we see is endless work, frequent annoyances, and countless obligations. But is this dichotomy even real? Does there exist a world without religion and spirituality? A world where Christ doesn’t exist?
The world often appears dark, for there are many evils and troubles in it, but that does not mean Christ is not present. In fact, “It is only when in the darkness of this world we discern that Christ has already ‘filled all things with Himself’ that these things, whatever they may be, are revealed and given to us full of meaning and beauty” (Schmemann). As Father Alexander Schmemann reminds us in his book For the Life of the World, Christ is everywhere and in all things. ALL things! It may be difficult to see at times, but “A Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, finds Christ and rejoices in Him. And this joy transforms all his human plans and programs, decisions and actions, making all his mission the sacrament of the world’s return to Him who is the life of the world” (Schmemann).
There is only one world and Christ is The Life of it. There is no distinction, then, between the secular world and the religious world. We see the one world we are in and can choose to either secularize it by taking God out of it, or sanctify it by recognizing the world for what it truly is–God’s creation, and everyone in it for who they truly are–an image of Christ.
Now, this should be great news! If there is no distinction between worlds, and all is one in Christ, then that means we can escape the secular world everywhere and every time! If we train ourselves through the tools the Church gives us of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, then we can clean the lens of our souls and be with Christ no matter where we are. Even though we know it, we often forget that Christ is everywhere. This beautiful prayer of St. Patrick (yes, THE St. Patrick) reminds us of that simple reality:
“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.” – St Patrick, the Enlightener of Ireland
When we attend summer camps, retreats, and other Orthodox events there is no doubt that we feel closer to Christ and truly feel refreshed and away from the troubles of the secular world. My point today is that those feelings you have at those kinds of events can be felt anytime of year, even when you’re by yourself. How? By reminding yourself constantly that Christ is always with us, for “lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” (Matthew 28:20). Through this reminder, the Transfiguration of the secular world occurs and places like Washington D.C can become places of great warmth and love in Christ.
College Conference Midwest Student Leader
Elias is a Junior at Valparaiso University studying music and mechanical engineering. He loves leading his OCF chapter and coming up with ideas for College Conference Midwest. When he’s not working on schoolwork, he enjoys playing his trumpet or guitar, beating his friends in ping pong, and laughing unnecessarily hard at marginally funny things. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Well, here we are! Less than one week away from the Nativity of our Lord.
Hopefully, you’ve all finished finals–if you’re still in school right now, keep fighting strong–I promise it’ll be over soon. You should check out our post on finals to get an added boost.
But most of us are at home, and the full brunt of the season has dawned upon us. Last-minute gifts are being acquired and wrapped at a breakneck pace; wild Santas roam every red-and-green shopping center; another artist has come out with another Christmas album.
This, I hope, will not become a typical post bemoaning the secularization of Christmas–that is not to say that the secularization of Christmas isn’t happening in a very tangible way, because it is. But I would not like to succumb to the temptation, to derail everything the world has thrown at us. That is, quite simply, not fair. There is great merit to Mariah Carey and well-dressed carolers, to finely-decorated houses, and, most especially, the proliferation of candy canes. It is tricky ground, to comprehensively condemn secular Christmas. All things with balance.
So, instead of a condemnation, I’d like to simply mention today, as I did in the aforementioned finals post, where our focus should lie.
I cannot, for the life of me, remember who precisely gave the sermon which I’m currently recalling–I’ve been preached to by three different priests/bishops in the past three weeks. I hope you can forgive me. If I had to say, I think it was Fr. John Baker of Christ the Savior in Chicago who reminded me of this (edit: upon further review, the call on the field is reversed. It was Fr. Michael Butler of Holy Transfiguration in Livonia):
When the wise men went to Herod and said: “Hey, that newborn king? Yeah, the Messiah, that one…uh, where is he?” Herod immediately turned to his scribes and the Pharisees and said, “What are these guys talking about?” The scribes and the learned men responded, “Oh yeah, there’s supposed to be a Messiah born in Bethlehem right now.” So the wise men went on their way, and Herod began plotting to kill this newborn king.
That inaccurate recollection likely tells you nothing new. It’s part of the Christmas story that you’ve heard many times before. However, something so crucial is missed in there, and that’s what Fr. John (probably? maybe? edit: Fr. Michael) pointed out in this sermon:
The scribes knew.
The scribes knew. The wise men from the east asked, and the wise men that Herod had–for that’s for whom Herod called, he called for his wise men, the men he expected to understand the prophets–the wise men that Herod had, answered. And they knew! They were aware that this was going down, that the Messiah may have just come into the world. They figured it out! They knew!
And they stayed with Herod. They did nothing. They aren’t really even heard from again.
This crucial point reminds me of the days leading up to the crucifixion of Christ, when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Jesus washes his disciples’ feet in John 13–it’s an extraordinary read, and I suggest you give it time today. However, there is one verse–verse 17–that is of paramount importance. Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet, reminded them that they view him as the Teacher, reminded them of all of the examples he has given them, and then he says:
If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. – John 13:17
It’s not enough to know things. And that simple, obvious little phrase changes the whole game.
Because it’s not enough–it simply isn’t enough–to know that Christmas is so easily made secular, is so easily stripped of its spiritual meaning. It’s not even enough to know that the Messiah has come–like Herod’s scribes did. They knew! But if you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. Blessed are you if you act off of your knowledge. The enlightened aren’t blessed; the enlightened and active are.
This is wildly important. It isn’t enough to go to church on Sunday, when you know there is church during the week–the pre-feast and post-feast celebrations. It isn’t enough to know the Christmas story, when you don’t spend time taking in and supplying for the travelling, poor, and cold Marys and Josephs of the world. It simply isn’t enough to know, and it isn’t even enough to know and talk, to know and bemoan the secularization of this world, as this post endeavored to avoid doing.
The enlightened aren’t blessed; the enlightened and active are.
My encouragement to you, my friends, is to go to your church website, to text your priest, to ask your parents–something–and figure out what’s going on this Christmas season. Do a thing–any thing–that is indicative of this wonderful knowledge you’ve been blessed to receive, the knowledge of salvation and rejoicing and victory that doesn’t make it to many in this world. Be active this Christmas season.
The OCF Blog will take Christmas break with the rest of you, as an opportunity to recuperate, evaluate, and grow. We will return after the New Year–and of course, all of the College Conferences–on Monday, January 9th.