Tag Archives: Bishop David Mahaffey

Bishop David’s Reflections upon the Nativity

During Advent, many Christians who do not observe Advent practices, go immediately to consumer spending binges, and begin singing Christmas carols as if the nativity was already being observed.  The Rt. Rev. Bishop David (Mahaffey, Orthodox Bishop of Sitka and Alaska has kindly consented to share his thoughts on these practices and what we’re losing in the process.

The Nativity of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ
Rt. Rev. Bishop David (Mahaffey), Bishop of Sitka and Alaska

It seems every year, as we approach the Christmas Holiday, we find it less and less a celebration of the coming of our Savior and more a commercial enterprise. This is not to say that I have a “bah, humbug!” attitude, not at all, but I seek a Spiritual meaning for this time of year.

Aye, there’s the rub! I want to be “Spiritual”, but not religious. But what do I mean by being Spiritual and not being religious? How can I say such a thing, when I am the leader of the largest body of (Orthodox) Christians in Alaska? Aren’t we supposed to be “religious”? Again, it depends on what you mean by religious. Merriam Webster defines it basically as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural (1).” If that is all I was seeking, that is easily completed by attending services, and at Christmas time, there are many. There are Christmas Cantatas, Live Nativity Scenes, Candlelight Vigils, roaming carolers and singers; there’s Midnight Mass for some Faiths, Christmas Eve Vigils and Divine Liturgy for others (I still can’t get over the fact that some churches don’t even have services on Christmas Day unless it falls on a Sunday, but I digress). So, if I want to “satisfy” my religious experience, lots of things will fill the bill. Once done, I can go on with my other “needs” at shopping malls, and all.

There are many people today who say they are “Spiritual” but not “religious”. I want to say here that while I agree with what they are thinking, I disagree that it is something I can fulfill on my own. For me, there is always the need for “the Other” in a spiritual equation. So, whether I am talking about Christmas, or any other major celebration of an event related to Christ, I am always seeking my involvement with the Other.

So being spiritual means that I am meditating or contemplating on what it means to have God become a human being, to be incarnated in the flesh and blood that I am also clothed with, along with every other human being who was, is and ever will exist. I am not just interested in feeding my own soul but with joining in a nourishing “meal” with as many other persons as I can. I want to feed my Spirit and join with others who have the same or a similar understanding of the same motive.

Let me offer a few reasons why this is so important to me. First, very few religions have ever even allowed that God could become a human being, he is simply God qua God, above and beyond everything and anything else that is involved with matter, with “stuff” that exists in our world. It is incomprehensible to those who hold to such an idea (ancient Greek philosophers, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, even some Jewish sects, etc.) that we could associate God with our world because it is a perishing world, finite, and surely God could not be a part of that. But in Christianity, not only to we believe this, we celebrate it and say our Salvation depends on it!

Second, related to the first Christian notion, we Orthodox Christians have no less than
four Major (and three minor Feasts spread throughout the calendar year related to the
Incarnation of Christ (2), not to mention Christmas, itself. In other words, we are preparing
for the coming of Christ throughout the year, not just on December 25. We gather
together in prayer and Liturgy at each event, knowing we are making ready our hearts
for the coming Incarnation.

Third, while many others celebrate the fasting season before Christmas as a “Four-
Sunday Advent” event, this fast for we Orthodox is a full forty days. Beginning on
November 15 (Nov. 28, Julian calendar with Jan. 7 being Christmas) until December 25,
we practice fasting from certain foods, pleasures and entertainment, and increase our
prayer life accordingly. This also helps us direct our attention to the contemplation of the
coming of Christ and of His Theophany as well.

All this is not to find any inadequacy with anyone else’s enjoyment of Christmas, but it is
to say that I need all of these things to enter into my own “Spiritual” celebration of
Christmas. A Spiritual Joy only possible when I join into this celebration with others who
share similar love for the Incarnation of our Lord, and are thankful for His love for us.
I wish all those who are celebrating this Holy Season the Peace of Christ and the Joy of
the Lord!

1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/religion#other-words
2. Major: Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, March 25; Nativity of the Virgin Mary, September 8; Entry of theTheotokos into the Temple, November 21; and Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, February 2 (Nativity ofour Lord – Christmas – is a given). Minor: Conception of St. Anne, December 9; Conception of St John the Baptist by Elizabeth, September 24; Nativity of St John the Baptist, September 23.

Orthodox Advent is almost here

Advent in the various Orthodox traditions is observed somewhat differently and at different times than Western Christianity. One significant difference is that Advent for Antiochian and Greek Orthodox begins Nov. 15, two weeks earlier than non-Orthodox faiths. Orthodox practice is to begin Advent 40 days before Christmas; this period is called the “Nativity Fast,” and comes before the “Nativity Feast” of Christmas.

Another significant difference is that the focus of Orthodox Advent is the incarnation of Jesus, while Western Christianity focuses on the first and second coming of Christ. Also, Orthodox ecclesiastical years begin Sept. 1, while in the West, the religious year for Christians begins at Advent, four Sundays before Christmas.

The Nativity Fast is not as strict as the fast of Great Lent and follows the Orthodox principle of fasting to prepare the body physically and spiritually for the coming feast. The practices of fasting include simplifying life, curbing appetite, controlling desires, and intensifying prayer.

Thanksgiving comes during this period and I wondered how Orthodox Christians handle it.

“Because we are American, and Thanksgiving is a national holiday, and a special time of gathering friends and family for thanking God for all our blessings, we have a pastoral allowance to stop our fast and celebrate Thanksgiving Day with the usual turkey and all the sides,” said Lesa Morrison, a member of St. John Orthodox Cathedral. “We do try to still remember that we are in Advent, and to not stuff ourselves completely.”

“During Advent, even though we live and move in a world that has highly commercialized Christmas, we can partake to some degree in the fun activities surrounding the Birth of Christ, while staying Christ-centered through it all,” says Rev. Vasili Hillhouse of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. “We are able to do this,” he continues, “because we willingly adopt certain dietary restrictions as a way of keeping us vigilant and aware of God’s presence at every moment.

“This is the point of prayer and fasting, and it is why Advent for the Orthodox Christians is a time of increased spiritual discipline — it helps keeps us centered in the midst of the craziness of the season.”

Echoing those thoughts, the Rev. Mark Dunaway of St. John Orthodox Cathedral says, “The usefulness of Advent depends on your perspective of Christmas. If the aim of a ‘holiday season’ is simply to seek cheer in winter through gift exchanges, office parties, and family gatherings, then Advent really has little place. The holiday celebrations can begin as soon as Thanksgiving is over and end in a party on New Year’s Eve.

“However, if Christmas Day itself is first of all a ‘holy day’ to remember the birth of Jesus Christ as God becoming one of us, then the grandeur and wonder of that singular event summons those who believe to prepare themselves through prayer, fasting, and acts of kindness, so that they might properly esteem and celebrate this day and let it change their lives. This preparation is the ancient purpose of Advent. Granted, it is difficult to go against the current tide in this regard, but perhaps even a modest effort to renew Advent among Christians could make the difference between a holiday that for many rings hollow and sad, and a celebration that brings true joy in the revelation of God’s great love for the world. If that is the case, it should be an effort worth making.”

Nearly all congregations in the Alaska diocese of the Orthodox Church of America (formerly Russian Orthodox) will commence the Nativity Fast on Nov. 28, and end it on Jan. 6, celebrating the Nativity of Christ on Jan. 7 according to Bishop David Mahaffey.

“The reason is the Julian Calendar’s timing being 13 days behind the Western/Gregorian Calendar,” he says.

This presents some difficulties for Alaska Orthodox, Mahaffey states. “In general, in our country, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is one of family and company gatherings in celebration of the coming (what the word Advent actually means) of Christ. In Orthodoxy, periods prior to such a feast as Christmas are meant to be contemplative and inner-focusing on the significance of what is going to be observed. It is hard to do that when one is feasting and going to parties at the office or neighbors, or with family. This is why it is very difficult for the Orthodox Christian to keep true to his conviction of faith and still maintain good relations with those around him who are not observing the Advent season as he/she desires. This has led to a false dichotomy in which those on the Julian Calendar call Dec. 25 a secular holiday and Jan. 7 a religious one.”

Many Christians can learn much from Orthodox practices and observances. For me, it is pleasing to look at this early entry to Advent as an important antidote to the crass commercialism of Christmas.

Thanksgiving Blessing time is here for Anchorage and Mat-su

The local community really rallies to provide Thanksgiving meals for those without the ability or financial resources to obtain them.

“Food Bank of Alaska and the volunteer Thanksgiving Blessing leadership teams in Anchorage and the Valley are preparing to provide groceries for a complete Thanksgiving meal to 10,000 families this year,” says Karla Jutzi of the Food Bank. “A small army of volunteers will be handing out food at six locations in the Valley and six in Anchorage. Last year we served over 9,200 families.”

More than 1,000 Alaskans will prepare and distribute turkey and all the fixings  to the 10,000 families Karla mentioned at two Thanksgiving Blessing events in Anchorage and the Mat-su region: from 10 a.m. to  4 p.m. Nov. 19, at six locations in the Valley, and at six locations in Anchorage and Eagle River from 3 to 8 p.m. (at most locations) on Nov. 21. The locations for pickup of the turkey and fixins’ are zip code dependent, so recipients should know that first.

For the past month, local food distribution programs such as Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, New Hope, St. Francis House, Salvation Army and others, have placed fliers with this information in food boxes they distribute. Call 211 with questions about hours and locations. You can also find detailed information available at the Food Bank of Alaska’s website or my site, Church Visits.

Monday marks start of Orthodox Lent

It’s been more than a month since Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent at many local churches. Easter will be celebrated March 27, yet Orthodox churches won’t start observing Great Lent until March 14. Orthodox Easter, Pascha (Pah-ska), is celebrated May 1, more than a month later than other Christian faiths. Why so late?

Blame it on Julius Caesar and the astronomically based Julian calendar. Some Orthodox follow the Gregorian calendar for certain portions of the church year such as Christmas. Others follow the Julian calendar for the entire year. A detailed discussion of the calendar and connected issues would consume this and subsequent columns. The three strains of Orthodox in Alaska: Antiochian, Greek and OCA (formerly Russian Orthodox), all use the Julian calendar for Lent and Pascha (Easter).

Part of Orthodox tradition is the use of fasts and feasts to mark their passage through the church year and their lives. This is not something most other Christian groups normally do.

In many other faith traditions, Lent starts Ash Wednesday; but not Orthodox. Preceding Lent, all three Orthodox groups practice a beautiful tradition you’ll rarely see elsewhere: Forgiveness Sunday. All Orthodox churches in Alaska precede Great Lent tomorrow with Forgiveness Sunday services. These services are usually conducted at the close of vespers recalling humankind’s original sin.

Describing this concluding portion of the service, Orthodox writer Wesley J. Smith, writing in “First Things,” says, “At the service’s end, our first Lenten act is to ask from and offer forgiveness to everyone present — not collectively, but individually from person, to person, to person. This is one of the most powerful moments of the Church year. One by one, each parishioner bows or prostrates, first before the priest, and then each other, asking, ‘Forgive me, a sinner.’ Each responds with a bow or prostration, asking also for forgiveness and assuring, ‘God forgives.’ Each then exchanges the kiss of peace. The service is a healing balm. It is hard to bear grudges when all have shared such an intimate mutual humbling. Indeed, Forgiveness Vespers is emotionally intense, tears often flow and hugs of true reconciliation are common.”

The Rev. Vasili Hillhouse, pastor of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox, shared that members approach each other on Forgiveness Sunday with formal greetings like “please forgive me.” A typical response is “God forgive us both” with prostration or bowing.

The week before Forgiveness Sunday is known as Cheesefare Week. Fasting, a Great Lent tradition, is already under way. Dairy and eggs are permitted, but not meat. This modified diet helps believers transition into Lenten fasting. Until the Easter resurrection celebration, Pascha, they fast. Fasting is a means to facilitate focus on spiritual things, and not celebrating one’s body. For most, no meat is allowed during Lent. Monday, Lent starts with no animal products. For Greek Orthodox, it’s vegan with just a couple of days declared as fish days. No wine or oil is allowed on weekdays, just weekends.

“When a Roman Catholic fasts (as well as many Protestants), he is making a ‘sacrifice’ for the cause of Lent,” says OCA Bishop David Mahaffey, explaining how Orthodox conceptions of fasting differ from those in other Christian churches “So you find people who stop eating chocolate, or stop drinking pop or wine; they are ‘giving it up for Lent’ in honor of our Lord’s sacrifice for us. In Orthodoxy, we understand that the human will and its related passions are a hard thing to control. Therefore, for us, it is not ‘giving up’ anything, it is redirecting our will to respond to our guided control and a ‘resisting’ of pleasures our passions want to enjoy. So the real prohibition is not only foods, it is entertainment, movies, dances, television, and other forms of enjoyment that typically allow our passions to rise and seek pleasure.”

Most Orthodox Christians are used to fasts, and regularly practice what are known as Eucharistic fasts.

“The Eucharistic fast refers to the brief time (usually Sunday mornings) that an Orthodox Christian observes a total fast from all food and drink in preparation to receive Holy Communion,” says the Rev. Marc Dunaway, pastor of St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River. “The idea behind this is that on the day that I will receive Holy Communion, the Bread of Eternal Life, or the ‘medicine of immortality,’ as St. Ignatius called it — on this day I will not eat anything simply for the sustenance of this earthly body until I have first received the Body and Blood of Christ. We fast in reverence and preparation for this Communion.” Both the Eucharist fast and the Lent fast can be modified, if necessary, as needed for children, the elderly, and those suffering illness, Dunaway says.

Great Lent is observed with various services throughout the 40-plus days until Pascha. Local Orthodox churches holding Forgiveness Sunday services include: St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral (after Divine Liturgy at about noon); St. Tikhon Orthodox Church (Lenten vespers, 6 p.m.); Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church (after 10 a.m. Divine Liturgy) and St. John Orthodox Cathedral (after 6:15 p.m. vespers)

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

The old Alaska traditions surrounding Orthodox Christmas

Last week I attended Orthodox services at St. Alexis Mission in celebration of Christmas. The Orthodox Church in America counts nearly 90 churches across Alaska, and congregations here, and in Canada and 14 other countries, celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, a practice harkening back to the church’s beginnings. The church in these regions follows a modified Julian calendar. (Locally, Greek and Antiochian Orthodox celebrate the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25 using the Gregorian calendar for dating Christmas.)

In Alaska, Orthodox churches conduct Divine Liturgy services at 9 a.m. When a place of worship becomes too small, they do not add services but form a new body, i.e. mission, for the purpose of raising a new church. St. Alexis Mission meets at the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association headquarters building on East International Airport Road. This temporary meeting space requires them to pack and store everything after services, no simple feat. Orthodox services involve the use of many icons and Eucharistic items which, in the temporary space, cannot be left in place.

The Very Rev. Jonah Andrew is assigned to the the mission, where he is sometimes assisted by the Very Rev. Michael Oleksa. Although Oleksa is retired, he is active in many other activities outside of St. Alexis. Andrew was in Tyonek celebrating Christmas at St. Nicholas Church, so Oleksa was the celebrant at both services I attended.

The 9 a.m. Christmas service at St. Alexis, a simple service including Eucharist, was led by Oleksa and a small choir. Orthodox services, except for the homily, are celebrated with the congregants standing. The service was very musical with the choir and the priest intertwining voices during the liturgy. Often, Oleksa raised his voice in support of the choir, even harmonizing with them.

In the Orthodox tradition, Christmas is preceded by 40 days of fasting — no easy feat, considering the fast period starts before Thanksgiving, and runs through the New Year. The Christmas service was a standard liturgy with special introductory psalms. The Gospel was Matthew, the story of the Magi, and in his homily, Oleksa talked about the Magi, and the birth of Jesus, pointing to the Magi in the primary icon, which are depicted as if seen from afar to emphasize the length of their journey. After the Eucharist, St. Alexis’ star was twirled to the sound of liturgical hymns for this feast day. Several times Oleksa joyfully announced, “Christ is born!” To which all responded, “Glorify him!” After the service, all were invited to Oleksa’s house for more hymns, folk carols and breakfast.

Oleksa was the celebrant again when vespers was celebrated that evening at St. Alexis — this time with fewer worshippers, and a much smaller choir. It was a beautiful service with another brief homily in which Oleksa depicted the Christian ending to one’s life; painless and blameless. Another “starring” was held. Not even the Protestant churches mark this time and event with such gusto.

After the service, Oleksa invited all present to meet up and join for “starring” and hymns at Lois and Tomislav Vasiljevic’s home in Russian Jack. Separately, Oleksa told me Tomislav, who is Serbian, was also celebrating his family Slava. “Serbian Orthodox are unique in that they do not celebrate their patron saint or Name Day, but instead celebrate the feast day on which their family became Christian,” Oleksa said. “In Tomislav’s case it was over 1,000 years ago that their whole village became Christian. St. Alexis always takes its star there, and sings for Tom and his family, who also treat us to a meal.”

Worshippers sang traditional Serbian religious music, while Oleksa’s son twirled the star. After the meal, Vasiljevic asked Oleksa to pray a healing prayer for him, which Oleksa did while placing a cross on him.

As I started writing this column, I had the impression most Orthodox worshippers avoid the temptation to succumb to the commercial trappings surrounding Christmas. However, the Rt. Rev. David Mahaffey, bishop of Sitka and Alaska, shared a strong statement of support for those who hold true to church recommendations saying, “I admire all those who wait until January 7 to celebrate the Nativity of Christ, because all the commercialism and busyness that has become the trappings of Christmas, has nothing to do with the birth of Christ, but more to do with the merchant’s pocketbook.”

“Alaska Missionary Spirituality,” a collection of 18th- and 19th-century letters, diaries and sermons of Orthodox missionaries in Alaska edited by Oleksa, explains starring as a “Native Alaskan term for traditional Julian calendar Christmas, combining elements of Ukrainian/Russian Orthodox hymns and folk customs and traditional indigenous practices. A pinwheel-shaped star, representing the Star of Bethlehem, with an icon of the Nativity of Christ in the center, leads the procession of carolers from house to house, where:

(1) In Aleut regions, they sing Orthodox and the traditional ‘“Many Years,’ often greeted with a rifle salute.

(2) In some Yup’ik Eskimo regions, all are treated to a lavish three-course meal (with the elders and church functionaries dining first). And in some households adults are presented with small gifts.

(3) In other Yup’ik areas, each household presents ‘to the Star’ their major annual contribution to the parish that the singers represent.”

I enjoyed my warm, in-depth introduction to Orthodox Christmas.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.