The Myth of the Pagan Origins of Christmas
It’s generally accepted that early Christians adopted December 25th as the day of Christ’s birth to co-opt the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. Some believe this fact undermines Christianity.
But according to Professor William Tighe, this “fact” may actually be a myth.
Based on his extensive research, Tighe argues that the December 25th date “arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death.” He also goes so far as to claim that the December 25th pagan feast of the “’Birth of the Unconquered Sun’… was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance of Roman Christians.”
In the Jewish tradition at the time of Christ, there was a belief in what they called the “integral age”—that the prophets had died on the same days of their conception or birth. Early Christians spent much energy on determining the exact date of Christ’s death. Using historical sources, Christians in the first or second century settled on March 25th as the date of his crucifixion. Soon after, March 25th became the accepted date of Christ’s conception, as well.
Add nine months—the standard term of a pregnancy—to March 25th, and Christians came up with December 25th as the date of Christ’s birth.
It is unknown exactly when Christians began formally celebrating December 25th as a feast. What is known, however, is that the date of December 25th “had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time (Roman emperor from 270-275), nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.” According to Tighe, Aurelian intended the new feast “to be a symbol of the hoped-for ‘rebirth,’ or perpetual rejuvenation, of the Roman Empire…. [and] if it co-opted the Christian celebration, so much the better.”
As Tighe points out, the now-popular idea that Christians co-opted the pagan feast originates with Paul Ernst Jablonski (1693-1757), who opposed various supposed “paganizations” of Christianity.
Of course, to Christians, it really doesn’t matter that much whether or not they co-opted December 25th from the pagans, or vice versa. The Christian faith doesn’t stand or fall on that detail. But it’s nevertheless valuable for all of us to give closer scrutiny to shibboleths—such as that of the pagan origins of Christmas—which are continually repeated without being examined.
Question: If God knew satan would fall and man would fall, why did He create to begin with?
Answer: God does not know things ahead of time, since God is timeless. But God knows the truth regarding all propositions. Which means that God can see the outcome of every course of action or inaction that is possible, and God being Love chose the best course of action He could. That that choice to create as He did resulted in the fall of satan and the fall of man, does not negate that it was the best possible choice he could make.
St. Methodius of Olympus died ca. 311 [I]t is not satisfactory to say that the universe will be utterly destroyed, and sea and air and sky will be no longer. For the whole world will be deluged with fire from heaven, and burnt for the purpose of purification and renewal; it will not, however, come to complete ruin and corruption. For if it were better for the world not to be than to be, why did God, in making the world, take the worse course?
But God did not work in vain, or do that which was worst. God therefore ordered the creation with a view to its existence and continuance, as also the Book of Wisdom confirms, saying, For God created all things that they might have their being; and the generations of the world were healthful, and there is no poison of destruction in them. Wisdom 1:14 And Paul clearly testifies this, saying, For the earnest expectation of the creature waits for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him that subjected the same in hope: because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
Rom.8:19-21 For the creation was made subject to vanity, he says, and he expects that it will be set free from such servitude, as he intends to call this world by the name of creation. For it is not what is unseen but what is seen that is subject to corruption. The creation, then, after being restored to a better and more seemly state, remains, rejoicing and exulting over the children of God at the resurrection; for whose sake it now groans and travails, waiting itself also for our redemption from the corruption of the body, that, when we have risen and shaken off the mortality of the flesh, according to that which is written, Shake off the dust, and arise, and sit down, O Jerusalem, Isa. 52:2 and have been set free from sin, it also shall be freed from corruption and be subject no longer to vanity, but to righteousness. Isaiah says, too, For as the new heaven and the new earth which I make, remains before me, says the Lord, so shall your seed and your name be; Isa. 66:22 and again, Thus says the Lord that created the heaven, it is He who prepared the earth and created it, He determined it; He created it not in vain, but formed it to be inhabited. Isa. 45:18 For in reality God did not establish the universe in vain, or to no purpose but destruction, as those weak-minded men say, but to exist, and be inhabited, and continue. Wherefore the earth and the heaven must exist again after the conflagration and shaking of all things. But if our opponents say, How then is it, if the universe be not destroyed, that the Lord says that heaven and earth shall pass away; Mat. 24:35 and the prophet, that the heaven shall perish as smoke, and the earth shall grow old as a garment; Isa. 51:6 we answer, because it is usual for the Scriptures to call the change of the world from its present condition to a better and more glorious one, destruction; as its earlier form is lost in the change of all things to a state of greater splendour; for there is no contradiction nor absurdity in the Holy Scriptures. For not the world but the fashion of this world passes away,1 Cor. 7:31 it is said; so it is usual for the Scriptures to call the change from an earlier form to a better and more comely state, destruction; just as when one calls by the name of destruction the change from a childish form into a perfect man, as the stature of the child is turned into manly size and beauty. We may expect that the creation will pass away, as if it were to perish in the burning, in order that it may be renewed, not however that it will be destroyed, that we who are renewed may dwell in a renewed world without taste of sorrow; according as it is said, When You let Your breath go forth, they shall be made, and You shall renew the face of the earth; God henceforth providing for the due temperature of that which surrounds it. For as the earth is to exist after the present age, there must be by all means inhabitants for it, who shall no longer be liable to death, nor shall marry, nor beget children, but live in all happiness, like the angels, without change or decay. Wherefore it is silly to discuss in what way of life our bodies will then exist, if there is no longer air, nor earth, nor anything else. (Discourse on the Resurrection 8-9)
By Fr Timothy EvangelinidisWhen I was much younger and attending university in my home-town of Sydney (in those days a much smaller and less busy place), I was allocated a particular lecturer who prided himself on being an atheist. “Religion is something for weak people, those who cannot think or live for themselves”. Arriving at his first lecture this man proudly announced that with a few premises, sub-conclusions and a watertight conclusion, he would prove beyond any doubt that God did not exist. It went something like this:
- God is assumed to exist.
- This God is said to be all-powerful and all loving
- However, Evil also would seem to exist
- Either God cannot or will not remove evil from this world
- If he cannot, he is not the all-powerful one
- If he will not, he is not the all loving one
- Evil exists in this world
- Therefore God does not exist!
This argument is in fact nonsense. However, the fact that it was used at all does reflect something of the confusion of this world and of the people who live in it.
Well, what does this have to do with our topic “Satan the Great Deceiver”? It is at the very heart of this statement. As Christian people, we know that God and evil are far more complex than this little argument can express. We know by faith and experience that God is not only real, but that he is the reason that the universe continues to exist. Sadly we cannot forget the other reality that is so ridiculously dealt with by this argument – Evil does exist, it is not imaginary or simply the result of an ‘argument’.
The Macquarie Dictionary defines the word ‘deceit’ as:
- “The act of practice of deceiving; concealment or perversion of the truth for the purpose of misleading; fraud; cheating.”
- “An act or device intended to deceive; a trick; stratagem.”
The word ‘deceive’ as:
- “To mislead by a false appearance or statement; delude”.
This is exactly the starting point for our topic. Satan is the great deceiver because he is the greatest concealer, the mightiest perverter of truth, the ultimate misleader, and the most convincing fraud and liar. Satan’s goal is two pronged. He wishes to convince us that God is neither all-powerful nor all loving, and that he, Satan, seems to be something he really is not.
I am not seeking to answer the age-old problem of evil in this world, nor will I even explain (or should I say try and explain) the existence of evil. What I wish to share with you is my feeble attempt at highlighting the work of Satan at work around and within us. This will not really be a lecture. It is an attempt to uncover Satan like we might uncover a serpent hiding beneath a rock or expose a camouflaged insect hiding in the foliage of a tree.
I cannot possibly add to the already vast writings about evil and Satan that we have from so many writers of the Church. I can however take you all through a journey of Scripture and Church texts which show how much a trickster Satan is. Satan is real and he is at work, it is this we need to keep in mind. We must remember to keep our eyes on God, and yet never to leave Satan free to cast deceit in our lives. His ultimate purpose is to keep all of us from the Kingdom of Heaven. To do this, he will use everything in his power. Be warned he is the master of disguise and the master of surprise!
I want all of you to use your imagination. I want you to imagine that you can see the spiritual world with your physical eyes. If you could look around with those now spiritual eyes you would angels and demons walking about us seeking their influence upon us. The old cartoon image of a man in the midst of making an important moral decision with a small angel on his right shoulder and a small demon on his left is not that far from spiritual reality at all.
In the Orthodox Church we are encouraged to pray a prayer to our guardian angel to guide and protect us through our daily life; see, for example, the order for ‘Evening Prayers’ in the book “Book of Prayers: A Selection for Orthodox Christians” from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia. Likewise we are told of the influence of demons whose purpose is to deceive us – to take our attention away from God who can save us. “And this is the promise that He has promised us – eternal life” (1 John 2:25, RSV).
What of Satan in the Scriptures, what do we know of him – this Satan, the great deceiver? God created spiritual beings called angels. These beings, although having no physical aspect to their being, are nevertheless real and effectual in their work in both the spiritual realm of Heaven and this physical environment of our universe. These angels have different responsibilities and actions. In many places of the Scriptures we read of Cherubim, Seraphim, angels, archangels, Principalities, Powers, Thrones, Dominions etc. Some of the archangels are named – Uriel, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. In the Scriptures, these beings are not some impersonal force simply being the expression of God at work in this world. Angels form a very real part of the history of God’s work of salvation in this world. The Archangel Gabriel figures prominently in the account of the Annunciation. The acceptance of her who is to become the Theotokos is to the action of God is to be means through which God brings salvation to the fallen world.
Just as the angels are real and significant in Holy Scripture and the story of God’s salvation, so too are the fallen angels, the demons and Satan himself. Evil, it would seem, has appears and takes its place in this world. We need to be careful here concerning the origin of evil. That topic is one beyond the scope of this talk this evening and certainly beyond my capacity as a member of this sinful and fallen race. Lucifer or Satan is not a story invented to explain why this world is not perfect. He is not some figure invented so that we may have a focus for discussion. Satan is a distinct spiritual being with a distinct and evil personality who works in opposition to God. The very real and personal being who is Satan is at the very heart of some important passages of Holy Scripture, and also in the writings of the Fathers of our Holy Church.
It is important for us to look at what the Holy Scriptures tell us about this figure called Satan. I will not tried to give an exhaustive ‘concordance’ of Biblical references to the words ‘Satan’ ‘Devil’ and ‘demon’. There are, however some references that are important to understanding the nature of the Devil, and relevant to us this evening. Scripture shows us this deception that Satan tries to use upon those who claim allegiance to God.
In Jude verse 6 and 7 we read of his entry into our world:
“And the angels that did not keep their own position but left their proper dwelling have been kept by him (that is the Lord) in eternal chains in the nether gloom until the judgment of the great day; just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire”.
There is a hint here of a truth we have learned from the teaching of our Church (see Revelation 12:7ff). Satan was once an Archangel – The bearer of the light before the throne of God (that can be a translation for the name Lucifer). This archangel was not content with his position in the order of the spiritual world. He desired the worship that was due only to God himself. Satan and all the angels that followed him were cast down from heaven to “deceive the whole world”.
From this extract from Jude’s epistle we can learn:
- God has chained Satan and his demons. They are restricted by the power of God.
- God will judge The Prince of evil on the last day – The Day of Judgment.
These are important truths that need to be impressed upon us. Satan and his demons are ultimately to be judged by God. The righteous of God can be deceived, but deception involves the will of he who is being deceived. If the righteous man stands firm in faith, then Satan has no hold over him!
From the Old Testament Book of Job, we read that there was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-asses, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each on his day; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” Thus Job did continually. Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. The LORD said to Satan, “Whence have you come?” Satan answered the LORD, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then Satan answered the LORD, “Does Job fear God for nought? Hast thou not put a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.” So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD.
There are many truths we can glean even from a casual reading of this poetic and beautiful passage of Holy Scripture:
- Job was an upright man who turned away from evil.
- Without doubt God is the master here.
- Though Job is a righteous man, he can still be tempted by the deceits of Satan.
- Satan, through the evil world can inflict pain and suffering upon Job, but Job is ultimately in the hands of God.
Now we cannot make doctrine from just a couple of passages of Scripture, but these verses do illustrate clearly what God has revealed to us in his Church.
Satan has no control except the power of deceit. He seeks to lead us away from God; he tempts us to lose our focus. Like the experience of Peter, walking on the water in front of our Lord, Satan seeks to have us sink into our own raging sea of doubt and fear (see Matthew 14:25f). We sink, not because Satan defeats God who is with us, nor because of the pain and suffering of this evil world, but because we are led to believe that either God is not with us at all or that God is not what he says he is. This is deception, deception of the greatest of tricksters.
St Peter the Apostle warns, “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
Satan is truly prowling around us with his demons. He seeks to influence and deceive us even here within this Holy Church. Remember, he is not a ‘roaring lion’ he is ‘like a roaring lion’ he is only pretending to be something he is not. “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).
I would like to share with you an illustration that we have all seen. It is a visual rendering of the passage of Scripture that speaks of the ‘two gates’ from Matthew’s Gospel:
“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matthew 7:13-14).
There is an illustration you can buy as a small religious picture; it is a famous illustration. It is a comparison of two scenes. In one, we find a demon playing a musical instrument to accompany countless people entering into a wide gate by an equally wide and easy road. The se people walk past all sorts of buildings housing all sorts of pleasures. Sadly, even though the gate is wide and the way easy, the eventual destination is hell itself.
In the other scene there is a high wall broken only by a very narrow and low gate, and into this gate squeeze only a few people carrying their cross on their journey. The road three this gate is very difficult, with rocks and obstacles along the way. The path leads up a steep mountain. The eventual destination here is heaven and a crown of glory being presented by Christ. The relevant Scriptural passage here is “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
This picture illustrates exactly the words spoken in the Scriptural passage. Life is a journey, it tells us. We must decide which road to take. Each road is entered through a gate. One gate is wide and easy, the other is difficult and requires great effort. Each gate leads to a road, one easy and comfortable, the other hard and steep. One leads to heaven to the very person of God and reward – salvation, the other to hell and the very teeth of the person of the devil.
Look carefully at this illustration it can teach us much. The many that enter into the wide gate do so because the way is easy (requiring no real effort of life). There is music and there is song, laughter, entertainment, comfort and no lacking of physical things. The demon playing the musical instrument does so openly. He does not seek to disguise his presence or his identity.
These people belong to the world and therefore to Satan, because they have allowed themselves to be deceived. Yet this deception is no great miracle or magic. Satan does not have to play a great ruse. He merely has to offer the temptation of comfort and pleasure without God and the world will come and take it from his very hands.
I was rather troubled while doing some research for tonight’s presentation. I decided to type the words ‘Satan’, ‘Devil’ and ‘demon’ into the search area of my Internet search engine. Match after match came up. Some of these were useful articles or commentaries on passages from Holy Scripture. Others were lectures and essays about various theories concerning the existence of evil. However, many were the web pages of Satanic Churches (so called) and organizations that sought to spread the influence of Satan. You may be surprised that these organizations practice their evil work so openly. As I said previously, Satan does not have to hide from the world, it is already given over to him. The world has rejected God and embraced Satan as the great redeemer.
The most cunning deception of Satan lies not through the wide and easy gate, but through the narrow gate. Look closely at the man (one of only a few) who is carrying his cross in fulfilment of the command of our Lord (c/f Matthew 16:24). If this man would use his physical eyes, he would see that it is impossible for him to enter this gate even without the cross he is carrying. Common sense, worldly sense would convince him that his intended lifestyle is not achievable.
Satan is at work in our minds and hearts as we contemplate this spiritual scene. He is saying to us that not only is the Christian commitment difficult it is unattainable! Satan’s attack upon us as Christians is to try and deceive us into giving up the Christian struggle. As Christians we are encouraged to believe that the improbable walk up the steep path of our Christian journey is not by our own power, but by the presence and power of God (see Matthew 19:26). Satan deceives by telling us that we must rely upon ourselves, and therefore Christianity is futile.
All of us, I am sure, would claim allegiance to the resurrected and ascended Son of God. The closer one is to God and the Kingdom of heaven, the stronger and more deceitful Satan must become. In many of the spiritual writings of the Church we find accounts of Holy men and women who have been confronted with the most horrifying visions of evil.
Satan plays out his deception according to the faith and life of those that he is tempting. To some who are far from God or who do not know him at all, there are no wondrous tricks, miracles or great signs and wonders; there is no need for such things. For others who are close to God, Satan must work hard to deceive – for these he will even attempt to copy the very power and glory of God himself.
Many atheists within this world (like the university lecturer whose silly games we started with tonight) arrogantly proclaim that they are more than happy to believe in God if only someone would prove that God exists. Yet it is often these very same people who are so willing to place their lives into the practice of open evilness, of destruction or hatred.
Have you ever thought about that image of Satan that we see in advertising and in the movies, the one where he is depicted as a troublesome comical figure in a goatee beard, a red suit with horns and a pointing long tail. In his hand he holds a trident with which he pokes people in an almost amusing way. This image is ridiculous, and even we, the Christians, might see it as a harmless parody. However, the truth is that it is a depiction of Satan. He is not shown in a disguise as someone he is not. He might seem humorous and even comical, but he is still openly Satan! Satan does not have to hide from the world; he is already master of it. His deceit is an easy one.
The greatest deceit, the great victory of Satan is not that he is leading a willing world to destruction, it is that he is, sadly, often able to deceive and lead astray the Christian person who is struggling to be transformed more and more into the image of Christ (see in particular Rom 12:2). Satan deceives the Christian by convincing him to take his attention off Christ. To become doubting of the power and promises of God.
How do we resist this deceit? What is the response of the Christian person to the wiles of the Devil? Again the Holy Scriptures are clear. The two Epistles of St Peter the Apostle that are contained in the New Testament are wondrous builders of faith. In the introductory notes that we find at the beginning of the Second Epistle of Peter in the Orthodox Study Bible (New Testament and Psalms’ New King James Version; Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee 1993), there is a marvelous summary of the theme of Peter’s Epistles:
“Though the world disbelieves, deceives and mocks, Christians are to grow continually in holiness and virtue and pursue an entrance into ‘the everlasting kingdom’ which is to come”.
The answer for the Christian is to continually seek God and His Kingdom; to fight the deceits of the Devil, despite the pain and suffering he can cause, with a faith founded upon the All-powerful and All-loving God.
Be reliant upon God and His holiness; be close to His Church, receive often the Sacraments that he freely offers to us. Resist evil and cling only to God.
From the Epistle of St James:
“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:7-8a).
Satan can only deceive he cannot pluck us out of the hand of God, he cannot send us unwillingly from the kingdom of God. If God no longer becomes the focus of our vision and life, it is not He who has moved, it is that we have taken our gaze from him!
There are three short Homilies by St John Chrysostom (the Golden-mouthed). These addresses are not well known. They are entitled collectively as ‘Three Homilies Concerning the Power of Demons’ (as found in an English translation ‘A select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church’; T & T Clarke Edinburgh 1889). The first is referred to as being “Against Those Who Say That Demons Govern Human Affairs” and the second and third “On the Power of Man to Resist the Devil”. We find no graphic depiction of the battle of Armageddon (as described in the book of Revelations), no portrayal of the Devil as a figure who has the ability to secretly steal Christians away from God. No, these sermons were written to:
“… deal with errors against which Chrysostom throughout his life most strenuously contended. In an age of great depravity there seem to have been many who tried to excuse the weak resistance which they made to evil, both in themselves, and in others, by maintaining that the world (and by implication the Church) was abandoned to the dominion of devils, or to the irresistible course of fate” (emphasis is added).
St Chrysostom warns his listeners against despairing because of the power of the devil.
“For he (ie Satan) is an enemy and a foe, and it is a great security to know clearly the tactics of your enemies … when he overcomes by deceitfulness, he does not get the better of all men … he does not overcome … by force, yet by deceitfulness” (Homily II-1).
Thankfully, Satan does not deceive all in the Church. The saints, many of whose icons are surrounding us, can be our examples of faith and Christian life because they can be our guides encouraging us to continue with our eyes fixed upon God – the one who brings salvation and life.
“The Devil is wicked; I grant this indeed, but he is wicked for himself not towards us if we are wary” (Homily III-1 of St John Chrysostom).
When we sin, we cannot blame Satan or another for our failing. Our sin is our own because we have committed it by the exercise of our own power and free will, or by our own lack of faith. Likewise, when one in the Church falls away from God, we cannot say that Satan’s power has taken him by force away from the presence of God. God forbid that we should allocate to Satan the power that he so desperately seeks. Our sin is our own and, likewise, our falling away is our own. We fall away because Satan has convinced us, through deceit, that our place is not in the Kingdom of God.
St John Chrysostom is careful to show that Satan’s deceits are many, but his intention is one. He seeks only to make us leave the presence of our loving God and to prevent us from allowing God to guide us. Satan seeks this by either convincing us that God cannot do what he has promised, by tempting us with the pleasures of this world, or by deceiving us to think that he, Satan, has power which he does not have. The power of Satan can only lead us from God if we allow him the opportunity to do so.
Some of the other great writers of the Church can be cited to give us strength against this deceit of the Devil. In these (St Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 12 15) we are exhorted to see that ‘in the sacrifice of Christ, the devil has been defeated’. Satan is vanquished already and, only by deceit, can he lead astray those who are in Christ; tempting them through promise of treasure, power or letting them fall into utter despair.
We are instructed elsewhere (St Ignatius’ Epistle to the Smyraeans III & IV) to be firm, guarding ourselves from those who seek to influence evil upon us. Not just to turn away but even to flee from them. We must understand that Satan has enticed men and women from the beginning. It is only then that he has him in his power. However Satan is ultimately bound by the power of God. His power over man is only through delusion (see St Irenaus’ Adversus Haereses). We are to keep our lives fully in God and not to fall into the temptation that the Devil puts in front of us.
In the Gospels, Christ uses the common things of life to teach the truths of God. These well-known things are weaved by him into a story that conveys God to the hearers. The spiritual writers of our Church followed the example of our Lord. In teaching their hearers many of these writers spoke of everyday things, things like grain, fields, birds, and everyday events from life. Some even used widely known stories to describe the action of Satan, for example the Fables of Aesop (also see Catechetical Sermons 21 – 24 by St Gregory of Nyssa).
Our second picture is an illustration is from one of the fables of Aesop. The fable is called THE DOG AND HIS REFLECTION. It goes something like this:
” A dog was crossing a plank bridge over a stream with a piece of meat in his mouth, when he happened to see his own reflection in the water. He thought it was another dog with a piece of meat, so he let go of his own and flew at the other dog to get his piece, too. But, of course, all that happened was that he got neither, for one was only a reflection and the other was carried away by the stream”.
The moral of the story is:
“Envy not your neighbours lot; and
be content with what you’ve got.”
We can apply this fable to the Church and to ourselves who see ourselves as part of it. The deceit here is the reflection that the dog saw. What he thought was real was in fact only imaginary. When applying this story to that of the human person we can ask, why do we ‘bring ourselves, by own accord, into subjection to the enemy of this life?’ (see Catechetical Sermons 21 – 24 by St Gregory of Nyssa). What is it that encourages us to push away eternal life to fall into sin? It is Satan the great deceiver who tempts us with the imaginary security of a life of wealth, comfort, pleasure and power – a life without God.
Satan can be seen in this story of our greedy dog, he is in the stream trying to convince the dog that even though he has all he needs, there is still more. Alas, this desire is based not on what God has given us, but on what we image we can and should have. Satan cannot offer the dog a real piece of meat; he can only reflect the image of the meat that already exists. Satan’s promises of peace without God are false. He tries to convince us to take his offer by copying the things of God. However, these copies are not real, there will disappear as easily as ripples do to a reflection in a stream. Satan does not take the meat from the mouth of the dog; he does not have to. He only need convince the dog to grab at more and by doing so lose what he has already been given. He plays on the greed and pride of the dog. Greed and the constant desire to be better than those around us is a common way of the world, it is not the way of a life in Christ. The temptations of the Devil often involve what we think we should have. The grace that God has given us is enough for our needs, we should use what we have been given with thankfulness and not worry about what we do not have.
A third illustration is relevant here. It is another fable from Aesop concerning a reflection in a stream (in The Stag and the Hounds):
“A stag one autumn day came to a pond and stood admiring his reflection in the water.
‘Ah’ said he, ‘what glorious antlers! But my slender legs make me ashamed. How ugly they are! I’d rather have none at all’.The stag was soon distracted from his vain musings by the noise of huntsmen and their hounds. Away he flew, leaving his pursuers a vast distance behind him. But coming upon a thicket, he became entangled by his antlers. He struggled to free himself as the baying of the hounds sounded nearer and nearer.
‘At last’ he thought, ‘If I am meant to die at the fangs of these beasts, let me face them calmly’.
But when he ceased to tremble, he found his antlers had come free.
Immediately he bounded away, delighting in his legs, which carried him far away from danger. As he ran, he thought to himself,
‘Happy creature that I am! I now realise that that on which I prided myself was nearly the cause of my undoing, and that which I disliked was what saved me’.
Satan again lies within the flowing stream in this fable. Previously, we saw how Satan often deceives us into desiring what does not really exist. Here the deceit differs. Here the stag is convinced that what he has is inadequate. Previously it was pride and greed that was the downfall of the dog. Now we are reminded that vanity and extreme self-resourcefulness can be fatal. The stag knew what he wanted. However, his assessment of what was necessary or adequate for him was not right.
It is rather amazing to hear many in the Church say “I would really like to contribute more to the ministry and life of my Church, but I don’t have the necessary talents to do anything”. It’s not a matter of my antlers being just right or my legs being too thin and scrawny, but it is often a matter of “it would be too embarrassing for me to contribute anything in my Church youth group”. Perhaps it is “I would really like to say something at my youth group, but everyone would think I am stupid, or pushy”.
All of us have spiritual gifts from God; they were given to us by God at our Baptism. The Church cannot function properly, especially in times of need and challenge unless all of its members use the gifts God has given them. How can we expect the Church to stand fast against a world that rejects the Kingdom of God when the very members of that Church are not completely relying upon God?
Thankfully, it is not the combined self-reliance of all the members of our Church (or our youth group for that matter) that makes us the ‘Body of Christ’ (I Cor 12:27). It is the power and grace of God that transforms the individual members of the Church into the functioning ‘Body of Christ’ in this world.
The stag allowed his own vanity and his self-judgment to cloud his opinion of himself. Satan often deceives the members of the Church into believing that even God’s promises will not be fulfilled in them because they in themselves do not ‘have what it takes’. It is not up to us, it is up to God!
“But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?” As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ (c/f Rom 10:14-17).
Satan cannot defeat the Church that is filled with the purpose and Spirit of God. He will, however attempt to deceive those who are part of it. The Church cannot be the vehicle of God’s salvation in this world if those who see themselves as belonging to that Church are not going to use what God has given them because of fear of ridicule, vanity, embarrassment or pride.
Perhaps our stag should read the verse above that mentions “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news”! In the end it is the scrawny feet that saved the stag from the fangs of the hounds. So too, it is the feet that carry the preaching and the teaching and those who are living out their faith in this world that will save us from the deception of the snapping Devil – however scrawny and ugly those feet might appear to be!
Enough for the introduction, now for the real heart of this presentation! One of the greatest dangers for those within the Church is what is called ‘The New Age Movement’. Well, there is a nice red herring you might say. What has the ‘New Age Movement’ got to do with the deception of Satan? It certainly has nothing to do with us who are members of the Church! Or does it?
Sadly, the ‘New Age Movement’ in its variety of forms, has influenced all aspects of life, and even many who see themselves as members of the Church of God are so easily influenced by this great deception of Satan.
Many see the “New Age Movement” as just a way of life; living in respect of all creatures, practising non violence, being sensitive, respecting others right to believe in their particular religion. Nothing could be further from the truth. The “New Age Movement” is in fact one of the greatest attempts at deception by Satan upon Christians today!
The “New Age Movement” is not simply some broad descriptive title for a range of unrelated philosophies or teachings. It is a highly organised and motivated movement that, in its least organised form, seeks to distract Christians from concentrating upon the things of God. At its most dangerous, it seeks to destroy Christian faith and replace the historical and theological Christ with a ‘new’ and ‘more relevant’ Messiah figure.
In her book “The Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow – The New Age Movement and Our Coming Age of Barbarism”, Constance Cumbey seeks to expose ‘New Age’ for what it is, a well organised movement. It seeks to replace established religion, particularly in the West, with a new belief system that incorporates all beliefs and religions. Although this book is not a Christian Orthodox writing, it is useful because of its well-researched material.
“According to New Age sources, the New Age Movement is a worldwide network. It consists of tens of thousands of cooperating organisations. Their primary goal or the secret behind their ‘unity-in-diversity’ is the formation of a ‘New World Order”. The Movement usually operates on the basis of a well-formulated body of underlying esoteric or occult teachings” (Constance Cumbey, 1983, ‘The Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow’ Huntington House Inc, p 54).
The “New Age Movement” can be said to be a conglomeration of various forms and expressions of the above common ideal. On the very basic level is the sort of universalism that has never been far behind the preaching of the Christian Gospel. This is the notion that all religions are really the same and if we can cross-fertilise one to another, then we will have the perfect world of peace and harmony. It is this strand of the Movement that expresses the ‘common basis’ for all religions and cultures. Each one is seen as being no better or ‘no more right’ than the other.
The openly more organised level is a collection of very powerful organisations that work to a common ideal of preparing for a ‘Messiah’ who will come to redeem the world from war, pollution, hunger and every other problem besetting humankind. It is rather telling that the name this particular person is often given is “The Bearer of Light”. As we saw much earlier tonight, this can be a translation of the name ‘Lucifer’.
Now, I am sure many of us find such information on organised evil groups as fuel for the development of conspiracy theories, the true identity of the Anti-Christ etc. However, for Christians to use all their energy in pinpointing a particular evil work or evil person in this world can be a distraction from one’s own salvation journey. That in itself can be a deception of Satan; to take our focus away from the person of God.
A far more subtle and potentially more dangerous Satanic deception lies behind the more basic unorganised expression of the “New Age Movement”. It is not the expression of ‘New Age’ in the world that should concern us, as much as its influence within the Church of God.
Sadly we can find particular ‘New Age’ practices and beliefs even with many members of the Orthodox Churches. Seemingly simple activities such as reading one’s stars, experimenting with the occult, using ‘healing crystals’, practising eastern forms of meditation and certain ‘holistic medicine’ practices etc are expressions of what the “New Age Movement” is encouraging. These things are destructive to one’s Orthodox Christian faith precisely because they seek to take away from the uniqueness and central importance of Christ and the ‘Kingdom of heaven’. Anything that can do this will also slowly but surely chip away at the prime place of importance that Christ and the Gospel has in our lives as Orthodox Christians.
I would like to quote from a recent article from the religious column of a major Australian newspaper:
“There is a recognition that we will all only ever have the chance to know the truth completely when we come together with those who are approaching the truth from completely different and even a contradictory perspective from ourselves.“Mahatma Gandhi the great Hindu, suggested that Christ could become the Way for non-Christians, as well as Christians, if he could be unchained from the shackles of Christianity.”
Now, coming from a non-Christian religion this would be bad enough, but coming from a writer who claims allegiance to the Christian Gospel, this can only be seen as part of a great Satanic deception. Sadly I have found this deluded attitude even among some Orthodox people as well!
Saints of the Holy Church have died for the uniqueness of the message of the Christian Gospel. Men and women have been tortured and led to horrible deaths because they refused to compromise what has been the unchangeable foundation of the Christian faith. The Holy Tradition of our Church is not something that we can mold, like play-do, according to what the world wishes it to be.
Constance Cumbey, in her book, uncovers a vast interconnected movement that seeks a ‘New World Order’; this should not surprise us. After all the world has rejected God. What is troubling about this book, is how many Christian people pick up seemingly innocent lifestyles and activities that darken further and further the likeness of Christ within them.
Like so much of the deceptive actions of Satan, individual things or practices in themselves are not necessarily great evils. However, their effect taken together in any one particular person can compound into a serious danger to that person’s spiritual life and ultimately to that person’s salvation.
Many of us would remember Fr Tychon, a one time Confessor Priest-Monk from Mount Athos. We would remember a warm and wise man who is now the Abbot of Stavronikita Monastery. Fr Tychon wrote a short article entitled “The Antichrist and the Second Coming of Our Lord”. This article has been translated into English, and is well worth all of us studying.
I would like to quote some of Fr Tychon’s conclusions:
“The activity of the Antichrist and the beast, regardless of how much power they are allowed to have from God, will never acquire any authority over the souls of God’s servants. As it was with Job ‘… but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it’ (I Cor 10:13b).“Only the conscious denial of Christ deprives man of salvation. No hidden action or symbol of the evil one can harm or have an influence on the believer.
Truly, Satan is the great deceiver because he portrays himself as having power and influence that he does not really have. He is the greatest trickster because he casts an image that strikes fear and despair even into the hearts of those touched by the power of God.
Satan deceives because he seems to appear where he really cannot be and he tries to tempt all people (even the saved), in venturing where they should not go.
To my university lecturer of so long ago I say, yes Satan exists and is at work. However, does that mean that God does not exist? On the contrary, the all-powerful and the all-loving God has given us all we need to resist and fight against the deceits of Satan.
“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. Be sober, be watchful; because your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. To him be the dominion for ever and ever” (1 Peter 5:6-11).
Presented to the Youth of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia
at St Eustathios’ Church, South Melbourne Victoria
(Second Archdiocesan District of Victoria and Tasmania)
on Tuesday 23rd November 1999
In a Facebook discussion from two years ago, the question was asked,
“So…if Eastern Orthodoxy is THE church founded by Jesus and the Apostles, and Catholicism and Protestantism are merely heretical groups which branched off of the original church…how is it you guys, exclusively, have managed to maintain true doctrine all of these years?”
I promised to answer the question when I was on a computer rather than a phone, but life happened and I completely forgot about it. Now, two years later, Lucas has reminded me of the question and I will attempt to answer it as best I can. This will be at best and introduction to the topic.
Tradition – This word carries a lot of baggage in today’s Protestant Christian world. Fond of quoting Jesus’ remarks about nullifying the commandments of God in order to keep the “traditions of men”, it is then thought that all tradition is bad and evil. But St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, said otherwise.
“Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” – I Corinthians 11:2
You will find in many modern translations (and even the KJV) that “traditions” has been variously translated as “ordinances”, “commandments”, “directions”, and “practices”. While all these words are acceptable translations, why would they NOT use “traditions”? The Greek work is “paradosis” which means:
“a giving over which is done by word of mouth or in writing, i.e. tradition by instruction, narrative, precept, etc.
objectively, that which is delivered, the substance of a teaching
of the body of precepts, esp. ritual, which in the opinion of the later Jews were orally delivered by Moses and orally transmitted in unbroken succession to subsequent generations, which precepts, both illustrating and expanding the written law, as they did were to be obeyed with equal reverence”
This is the sense in which the Orthodox Church uses the word, a handing down or transmitting, without change, a practice, doctrine, teaching, or ritual.
When the Apostles established churches during their travels, they ordained reliable men to continue teaching after they had departed the area, and ultimately, departed this life. We see St. Paul instructing Titus to do this very thing.
“[Tit 1:5 KJV] 5 For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:”
The “elders” here are “presbyters” from which we get the English word “priests”.
Go ahead and read through Timothy and Titus and you will find the kind of men that St. Paul sought to put in charge of the Churches he established. The other Apostles did the same thing. These men then continued to pass on to their congregations and succeeding generations, the “faith once delivered to the saints.”
Of course, during the first few decades of the Church, they had no New Testament. Christians relied solely on the Apostles teachings and interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures, written in Greek (called the Septuagint). This was the most common version of the OT that was in use in the time of Christ in Israel. The majority of the OT quotations In the NT come from the Septuagint version. This is why when you go to look up Old Testament quotes in your modern Bible, they often don’t match. (See here for more information on that fascinating topic.)
Once the Gospels were written down, they began to be copied and spread over the known world along with the Epistles of Paul, Peter, James, and Jude. Many spurious writings appeared, claiming to be Apostolic in origin, but were rejected by the Church because they either contradicted the Gospels and Epistles and the known Tradition or just outright taught things that were known to be untrue about Jesus the Christ. The gnostic cults generated much of these writings. It wasn’t until sometime much later that a New Testament canon was actually codified by the Church to what we have today.
The Tradition as received and the Scriptures form the basis for all Orthodox life and practice.
Apostolic Succession is the tracing of a direct line of apostolic ordination, Orthodox doctrine, and full communion from the Apostles to the current episcopacy of the Orthodox Church. All three elements are constitutive of apostolic succession. (Orthodox Wiki).
Notice that for Apostolic Succession to be valid, the three elements of apostolic ordination, Orthodox doctrine, and full communion must exist. If one element is missing, there is no succession. The Roman Catholics, the Anglicans, and some Lutheran bodies can claim the first, but not the second or the third. Each Orthodox Bishop or presbyter (priest) can trace his ordination directly back to an Apostle. An Orthodox bishop must be ordained by at least three Bishops in good standing with the Church (meeting the three criteria set forth above.)
Scripture – The Orthodox Church codified the New Testament. These books, originally written in Greek for the most part, are cherished by the Church. Through them, we maintain the basic dogmas of the faith. So why does the Orthodox Church have so many practices that are rejected by Protestants, such as prostrations, veneration of icons, written prayers, and the rejection of reformation doctrines? Consider that Sts Paul and Peter did not write down everything they passed on to their disciples. St. Paul himself said that he passed things either by word or by letter. In other words, he spoke some thing and wrote some things down. He preached all day and all night, so long that Eutychus fell asleep and fell out of the window! Those sermons were not written down. What was he telling them? The Tradition. How to act in church, how to live a godly life, what the Old Testament scriptures actually meant. How to worship God in a pleasing manner.
God gave Moses specific directions on how worship was to be conducted. Do you think He just threw all of that out the window after Pentecost? Not hardly. The first Christians were Jews and they worshipped God in Christ in the same manner as they had always worshipped Him, except there was no need for a temple or animal sacrifices. The liturgy was maintained, priests wore vestments, reverence for God was the watchword in all the assemblies. The Gospels and Old Testament and Epistles were read at every Divine Liturgy. The gifts of bread and wine were consecrated by the bishop or the priest and consumed by the people as the very body and blood of Christ. Have you received Christ? Why yes, yes I have!
Christians are made through baptism by triple emersion and are then chrismated (anointed with oil) to receive the Holy Spirit of God. These were the practices of the first Christians and continue to be the practices of the Orthodox Church today. In contrast to the Roman Catholics and the Protestant groups, Orthodoxy has held fast to the “faith once delivered”, unchanged through the centuries. Through martyrdom, Muslim conquest, communism, the Church has survived.