Why do Orthodox Christians Participate in “Pagan” Activities?

We have some Jehovah’s Witnesses that come by the rectory pretty regularly (you have to admire their persistent optimism!). Theologically, Jehovah’s Witnesses are latter-day followers of the heretic Arius: they do not believe that Jesus Christ is the uncreated, only-begotten Son of God, One of the Holy Trinity. But that is not the point for today’s lesson: one of the many things they condemn about Orthodox theology and worship has to with Christmas. They can’t stand it. It’s not just the pagan yule trees and the like, they refuse to participate in holidays (or anything else) that have pagan roots.

Christmas (Nativity) was originally celebrated as part of the Theophany celebration. Separating it and moving it to the Winter Solstice made a lot of sense: the Nativity of Christ was the beginning of the growth of light in this world. Moreover, the solstace was already marked by the celebration for a minor prefiguration of Christ: Sol Invictus. The prophetic naming of Christ as the “Sun of Righteousness” in Malachi 4:2 made this connection even more natural. The Jehovah’s Witnesses lack an Incarnational theology so they cannot see how Christ and His Church transform our hearts and our cultures into bearers of the Good News.

This weakness would make them shudder at much of what we rightly consider to be good and righteous. Imagine explaining to them the “pagan” Trident (trezub) in the stained glass above the choir and on our patronal icon stand! Imagine getting them to participate in a “pagan” pysanki egg decorating session! Imagine their shock when they saw your clerics dressed in vestments that are patterned on pagan Roman imperial garb! Imagine their embarrassment when they realized that they themselves worship on a day that, like the prefuguration of the Nativity, was originally named after the “Sol Invictus” (Sun-day)!

Christianity does not replace a culture – it sanctifies it. The trident is moved from its association with Perun to representing the Trinity; pysanki become a part of our religious folk art; Roman-style garb hides the cleric’s sin and marks him as an instrument of God; Sun-day and the Winter Solstice no longer commemorate a Roman “deity”, but the Incarnation of God Himself. Everything is given new meaning in Christ!

Some pagan practices can never be blessed, e.g. divination, prostitution, human sacrifice, idolatry, the use of magic spells; but symbols are easily reinterpreted and rituals re-imagined. Through this, Christians and the culture they inhabit become the jars of clay that hold the Living Water.