Orthodoxy and Secularism
“There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?” (John 6:8-9).
After the first autumn harvest, the people across England gathered to celebrate Loaf Mass. It was a time of great jolly for the children and townspeople, but most of all for the wheat farmers. They tilled the soil, planted the seeds, and labored in the fields of grains. Now it was time. Each wheat farmer baked a loaf of bread from their first flour and presented it at church to be blessed. This may seem a silly custom today, but it says something profound. In fact, this and all the blessings in the Church sum up the spirit of Christianity. God wants us to offer up all that we have and he sanctifies us through it.
Our gospel this morning brings us to a crowd in the wilderness. Some four thousand and more had followed Christ and were now hungry. Christ called his disciples and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way – and some of come from a great distance.” His disciples shrugged their shoulders. What could they do? The rest continues:
“’How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?’ He asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full” (Mark 8:1-9).
The great illness in our times is that we have removed God from the ordinary. We have become secularists, Christians and non-Christians alike. Secularism is not the denial of God. It is not strictly opposed to religion, so long as religion is kept in its place. Secularism is the relegation of God to a compartment in our lives. It means keeping boundaries between spiritual matters and worldly matters. This is precisely what Jesus Christ came to destroy.
What happened on that mountain where Christ multiplied loaves and fish? This was a powerful miracle. It was a sign that God is not limited to physical laws. He can reach in and intervene. Against all odds, God heals the sick and feeds the hungry. Yet, there is a further message in this miracle that gets overlooked too often. God works in the ordinary. Why should God care about bread and fish? Yet, he does. He took those dry loaves and through them revealed his brilliant majesty. He took dirt and spit to heal the sick. He used wine to save souls.
Through the Old and New Testaments, God’s power is constantly poured out through matter. When the Israelites lay dying of a plague, the Lord commanded Moses to erect a statue of a serpent. The people looked up at that image and were healed. At the touch of Prophet Elisha’s bones, the dead man was restored to life. In the Book of Acts we read how “God did extraordinary miracles through the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and the diseases and evil spirits left them” (Acts. 19:11-12). When St. Peter passed through a town, people laid out the sick on cots and mats, “so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by” (Acts 5:15). Matter matters.
In the Orthodox Church, we have prayers to bless everything. While in Greece, it was always a joy to see the people coming to the monastery for a blessing. Families gathered around their new car, with the hood up and the windows down, as the priest in robes and stole sung his prayers and flung the holy water. Engagement rings were carried up to the altar, before ever touching the hands of loved ones. Homes smoked with incense throughout Epiphanytide. The old ladies poured their oil into the simmering skillet while making the sign of the cross. In our priestly books you can find a blessing for nearly everything, beeswax, meat, rifles and rally cars. Is this superstition, or is it reality? Is this worldliness, or is it the incarnation? Is this sentimentality, or is it Christianity?
“Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
We cannot think like the world and call ourselves Christians. To become Christian means to see God in everything, to invite God in everything, to become intimate with God in everything. One’s car, computer, food, and drink are all gifts given to us for this single aim. In fact, the whole world is a banquet table laid out for us to enjoy and give praise.
The enlightened Europeans once ridiculed the Irish for being superstitious. No education could breed it out of them. The Irish saw the world as enchanted. Perhaps, the Europeans were the ignorant ones, and the Irish had their eyes open. The philosophy, G. K. Chesterton once explained that to be Christian one must be able to see the magic in the flight of a bumblebee. He explains his own journey to discovering God:
“I felt in my bones; first, that this world does not explain itself. It may be a miracle with a supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural explanation. But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanations I have heard. The thing is magic, true or false…In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought it perhaps involved a magician” (Orthodoxy).
Is this so far out? Are we too grown up to relate? Do you know why I believe Orthodoxy must grow and flourish in modern America? Our culture has stripped God out of so many spheres of life that life is sterile. We have isolated God to a little building or to our private, hidden beliefs, and no longer feel God’s presence. Secularism is a game of pretend. We imagined a world with God upstairs and we down here, with a safe and cozy distance between us. We have played that game for so long, that we have forgotten we ever isolated God at all. We are alone. Religion has been stripped of the divine and transcendent and reduced to moralism and entertainment. Why do so many turn to Buddhism or the occult? Why have crowds left their churches and turned to drugs or sensuality. Society is starved.
We cannot keep our Orthodoxy hidden. We cannot continue to be embarrassed about our faith, for it is the faith that has preserved the gospel through these 2,000 years. It is the only faith that has an answer to the emptiness of secularism. The Church is God in our midst, the Body of Christ. It is the witness of God’s presence in every breath and action.
We can only witness Orthodoxy by living Orthodoxy. Why are the house blessings so important? Why is the calendar so sacred? Why do we cling to our candles, icons, chants, and little traditions like the Loaf Mass and the Blessing of Throats? It is for the same reason that the boy gave his seven loafs and two fish to our Lord. All of creation, all the earth, all the heavens, and the most mundane parts of your life exist as a means for communion with God. This is the life Christ offered the world, and it is ours to cherish.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.