By Vincent Gabriel
It’s always a good thing to be interested in learning more about the Orthodox faith.
There are many ways to do this. For some people, it means buying and reading lots of books. For others, it simply means attending services or asking their priests lots of questions. Still others will make friends in their local parish, finding those at a similar place in their own spiritual journeys, sharing common discoveries.
And many more in our world today—no doubt more and more as time goes on—will turn, perhaps even first, to the Internet.
People are looking to the Internet for information about practically everything in their lives. For many of us, this happens without us even realizing it.
The “Internet of things” has made the Internet ubiquitous, a rather nonchalant or casual part of our day-to-day activities. When we search for directions to a coffee shop, research the best way to get a stain out of our clothes, or read the daily news, we are accessing the Internet. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktops, televisions, even refrigerators and washing machines—more and more, everything around us is getting “connected.”
So with all of those connections, how do we stay rooted in our timeless, changeless, and transcendent faith? How do we not get caught up in all the noise, losing ourselves in a dizzying array of opinions, myths, and half-truths? How do we avoid getting sucked into arguments, debates, and other time-wasting endeavors?
The Internet is wonderful, and the pooling of human knowledge has great potential. But as with anything where human beings are involved, it can also be a source of pain, frustration, and even spiritual danger if we aren’t careful.
So let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of Orthodoxy online.
The GoodThere’s a lot of good things about Orthodoxy on the Internet.
For example, all of the Orthodox churches represented both in America and around the world have websites. These sites share a wide variety of information—everything from the daily commemorations of Saints and scripture readings to question and answer pages or basic introductions to Orthodox Christian belief and doctrine.
The website for the Greek Archdiocese has perhaps the most comprehensive online calendar and chapel resource. This includes a page where you can search for Saints by name, discovering their backstory, hymns, and dates of commemoration. You can read the daily Gospel and Epistle readings (in both Greek and English), discover each day’s fasting rules, and look ahead to see when a particular feast day or commemoration takes place. There are helpful overviews of major seasons, such as Great Lent and Holy Week.
And besides official church websites, there are several offering a great way to learn more about Orthodox Christianity.
First and foremost, there is Ancient Faith Radio. Ancient Faith Radio is part of a larger ministry that includes an online web store for purchasing books, music, icons, and gifts, as well as a new endeavor called Ancient Faith Blogs. John Maddex (the CEO of Ancient Faith Ministries) reached out to me last year to help build this new network of blogs. With a growing number of contributors, there are blogs authored by laypeople, clergy, and even university professors—each with a unique focus on different aspects of Orthodox Christianity. Many of the bloggers have books or podcasts as well, providing an easy way to find more related content.
Another website with multiple contributors is OCN—the Orthodox Christian Network. There is always a lot to offer here, as well, and from a wide variety of perspectives.
And while these are great resources in their own regard, one should consult the scriptures, the fathers, their parish priest or bishop, and the services of the Church first. All of the Internet or online resources should be seen as supplemental.
Beyond learning about Orthodoxy, the Internet also provides several great websites for purchasing Orthodox goods. Whether you’re searching for an iconographer, a gift for an inquirer or catechumen, or a book to read on your next long flight, pretty much everything is out there.
Finally, you can find and participate in a lot of discussions related to Orthodox Christianity on Facebook. There are Facebook Groups for a million different topics, including many Orthodox ones. Do what you can to discern between the quality and lower quality groups, and try to find those moderated or controlled by clergy or reputable laypeople.
As with anything good, however, Facebook discussions and interactions should be something that’s enjoyed in moderation. It’s too easy to have your whole afternoon eliminated by following every rabbit trail in every discussion that takes place, so pace yourself, and always prefer a face-to-face interaction to those online.
The BadSo now that we’ve taken a brief look at what’s good about Orthodoxy on the Internet, it’s only prudent that we consider what’s bad (and even downright ugly).
Anytime you want trouble, just take a beautiful thing and involve people. While connecting with one another is at the heart of what the Internet is all about—and truly, community is a big part of what the Church is about, too—it can also be a point of contention. For people seeking to learn what Orthodox Christians believe, the Internet provides a lot of answers—and many times, those answers don’t exactly agree.
Many of us appreciate that healthy disagreement—and a wide umbrella for nuance or cultural expression—is one of the most beautiful and unique aspects of the Orthodox Church. Unfortunately, not everyone that joins (or is interested in joining) the Church feels the same way. Their baggage from a previous confession or church might lead them to believe the way their first parish does things—or the way a particular book or article describes things—is theOrthodox way, with everything else reduced to aberration or compromise.
This sort of rigidness and misunderstanding can lead to headache and even spiritual danger, as someone poorly catechized online—or apart from the life of a parish family—can lead them down a path of self-destruction, and sometimes away from the faith altogether.
One of the ways we can caution against this is to learn how to discern between a local practice, custom, or tradition, and that which is actually Holy Tradition or an official belief of the Church. Rather than getting caught up in the little things or “majoring in the minors,” we should seek understanding and unity in spite of these regional, cultural, or jurisdictional differences. At the end of the day, we are all a part of the same Church.
As noted already, it can also be tempting to get caught up in online discussions, especially in a venue like Facebook or an Internet message board, to the point that we are neglectful of the real, flesh-and-blood people all around us—and perhaps especially the people in our own local parish.
When isolating ourselves online, we have a tendency to surround ourselves with only those we agree with. The Internet becomes our own personal echo chamber, and no dissent is allowed. Rather than learning to get along with the people in our pews, we create a fantasy world of friends that could only exist online.
This makes it difficult to get to know people in the real world, while also sometimes causing us to be less tolerant of those who aren’t exactly like us in every thought or opinion.
The UglyThis identification with only those we agree with can lead to the ugly of Orthodoxy online: extremism.
Extremism comes in various shades. There are extremists on the more rigid, hyper-traditionalist end of the spectrum, and there are extremists on the libertarian, practically-anything-goes end, as well.
Many Facebook Groups and websites are dedicated to these two ends of the spectrum, and the unsuspecting catechumen or even long-time Orthodox Christian can be led astray if not on guard. Groups or organizations that claim to have the truth—claiming to know better than practically all of the canonical Orthodox churches and clergy—or seeking to undermine long-held beliefs and practices of the Church are to be avoided at all costs.
When in doubt, ask your local priest or bishop.
ConclusionThe combination of our Orthodox faith with the amazing connectivity and technology of the modern world has the potential to be amazing, and to do amazing things. Equal-to-apostolic things.
We now have the ability to share information about our Church with the entire world, and in every language. The average person now has access to a whole wealth of knowledge people of a previous generation or two could only dream of. We need not purchase priceless libraries full of printed books, spending hours reading and doing research to find simple, reliable answers to our most common questions. This is all now available in a matter of seconds online or with apps and software.
But with that access and “power” comes a need for responsibility.
We need to be responsible with our time, ensuring that we don’t waste away online. We need to be responsible with our personal interactions, ensuring that we spend as much—if not much more—time with our own parish family and friends as we do those on Facebook. And we need to be responsible with our study, ensuring we don’t find ourselves entrenched in some niche form of extremism or forming opinions contrary to the Orthodox faith.
By using the Internet with both wisdom and discernment, there are many ways it can enhance our understanding of the faith or personal spiritual development. But we need to go into it fully aware of the potential traps and pitfalls.
By Vincent Gabriel
The first day of September is celebrated as the Ecclesiastical or Church New Year by Orthodox Christians. It is also a day marked by prayers for the environment, reminding us to be good stewards of the world around us.
So This is the New Year?The old Roman term for this day is Indictio, meaning “definition” or “order.” This was a day established as the beginning of a fifteen year cycle, marking the redefinition of tax obligations for Roman citizens (especially since Roman soldiers served fifteen-year terms), likely from the time of Caesar Augustus.
One of the Emperor St. Justinian’s novellas (AD 537) decreed that all official documents of the Empire should include the indiction reference. When attempting to date manuscripts from this era, it can be helpful to know the year of the indiction (1–15), as exact dates or years are less commonly found. And when a date is found, it usually corresponds to Anno Mundi(Hebrew: לבריאת העולם) or “the year of the world” since the date of Creation.
Anno Mundi (AM) served as the beginning point for calendars until the modern era in many parts of the world, and is still a liturgical point of reference for both modern Judaism and Christians. (Jews also mark the New Year in September, but on a floating date.)
The date of the creation of the world—as discerned by a literal reading of the Patriarchal histories of the Greek Septuagint—was determined to be around 5500 BC on our modern calendar, with variations here and there. On the Julian calendar, the date of creation was said to be September 1, 5509 (BC), with the birth of Jesus Christ taking place in 5509 AM–that is, 5,509 years from the foundation of the world.
In 1597, Patriarch Theophanes I Karykes of Constantinople first utilized a date based on the Christian Era. Instead of marking dates based on the foundation of the world, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ became the crux of human history—and thus the distinction between BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini or “in the year of our Lord”).
This became official in Constantinople in 1728 and in Russia (by Peter the Great) in 1700, with the Julian calendar still serving as the underlying reckoning of days and months.
While the Anno Mundi calendar is no longer mainstream (or part of the civil calendars of predominately Orthodox nations), it still serves as the basis of our liturgical calendar.
Harvest, Thanksgiving, and SowingBy marking the start of a new year in September, the Empire—and later, the Orthodox Church—was associating the new year with harvesting crops. As preparations for winter were being made, so too were preparations for the upcoming year.
For Christians, it was a time of thanksgiving, remembering the good weather and abundant rain the Lord provided for that year’s harvest—something we pray for at every Divine Liturgy.
This draws close parallels with the Feast of Trumpets for the pre-Incarnation people of God (Lev. 23:23–25)
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying, ‘The seventh month, on the first of the month, rest will be yours, a memorial of trumpets; it will be a holy assembly to you. You will not perform any servile work, and you will bring a whole burnt offering to the Lord.’”
As the Synaxarion notes, this was also the day Christ entered a synagogue and read from the scroll of Isaiah (cf. Luke 4:16–30).
By marking the new year at harvest time, we remind ourselves annually of our dependence on both hard work and the blessings of God. Going beyond material blessings and healthy crops, this applied (as do many of our hymns) to Imperial concerns, including prayers for protection from our enemies
Creator of the universe, setting times and seasons by Your sole authority, bless the cycle of the year of Your grace, O Lord, guarding our rulers and Your nation in peace, at the intercession of the Theotokos, and save us.
--Apolytikion (Second Tone)
You who created all things in Your infinite wisdom, and set the times by Your own authority, grant Your Christian people victories. Blessing our comings and goings throughout this year, guide our works according to Your divine will.
--Kontakion (Fourth Tone)
And if one considers the increasing natural disasters, droughts, floods, wildfires (especially here in the Pacific Northwest), hurricanes, and famines, we should be all the more mindful in this modern era of technology and abundance to pray for such things—not less so.
We have not engineered our way out of dependence on God. If anything, the more our abilities increase, the more we have shown need for God’s favor and mercy.
Ecological StewardshipAnd that leads to my final point: the Ecclesiastical New Year is now a day marked by prayers for the care of the environment.
Patriarch Demetrios of Constantinople issued an encyclical on the environment in 1989, calling all Orthodox Christians to both pray for and protect the world around us. His encyclical also established September 1—the beginning of the new Church year—as “a day of prayer for the protection of the environment” for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, something adopted soon after by the rest of the canonical Orthodox churches. (The Vatican has recently followed suit.)
Since his elevation to Ecumenical Patriarch, an encyclical has been issued each year on September 1 by Patriarch Bartholomew on the environment. Bartholomew is affectionately known as “the Green Patriarch,” and he often speaks on an international stage regarding the protection of Creation.
And this all makes perfect sense.
The beginning of the New Year was for centuries a commemoration of the foundation of the world (Anno Mundi). It is a day for giving thanks to God for plentiful harvest. It is a day that recognizes God’s protection over and providence for the world, along with our responsibility and stewardship towards the same.
This all goes back naturally to the story of Creation itself, and a story where mankind—represented by Adam and Eve—is given the awesome responsibility of caring for every living creature. A restoration of peace between mankind and the created order lies at the heart of redemption and deification, and that is ultimately what the Ecclesiastical New Year is all about.
ConclusionAs I’ve mentioned in other articles, our Church Year begins and ends with the life of Mary. The Nativity of Mary is the first Great Feast of the year, while her Dormition or “falling asleep” is the last.
In this cycle we see the Incarnation of the God-Man Jesus Christ at the heart of our story as God’s people. And in between those two reference points we have this feast that could, at first glance, seem a peculiar or even irrelevant holdover from the Roman Empire.
Rather, the Ecclesiastical New Year serves as the crux for our entire liturgical life each and every year.
We say goodbye to the old and welcome the new. We give thanks for what the Lord has done, and petition his lovingkindness and protection for the days yet to come. We take a moment to consider our impact on the world around us, and whether our actions proceed from hearts of selfishness or hearts of compassion.
This is a feast day that points to the very core of Christ’s message of true, Christian spirituality: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Prayers for blessings seen and unseen, fasting for the sake of the world and our own mortification, and almsgiving for the care of others. Self-sacrifice and promise, beauty and self-restraint.
So pop open a bottle of champagne and bring your petitions to the Lord. It’s the start of a new year.