St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Inching Earnestly Toward the Resurrection

Time was when droves of people showed up for Good Friday and Easter Services. Some regular church folks would be upset at this and would sneer at those who were “Christmas and Easter Christians.” I never quite saw it that way; I thought that folks wanted to see that we remained in place preaching the same message and holding the same faith and hope.

Over the decades, however, I’ve noticed a shift. We saw it coming in the middle of the nineties and the trend has continued. It is this: fewer extra people show up at the major holidays than used to. I do not know the sociological surveys that are testing the trend. I offer my interpretation of the facts. See what you think.

First, fewer people accept the Christian message – or for that matter any message of any faith. We have not reached the point of open hostility against Christianity, but the days may be coming. We already know that it is acceptable to be without religious commitment, and many people do it with pride. Public atheism is in.

Second, for many people religious faith has ceased to have meaning. Many folks are not atheists or agnostics; they simply have no background in a tradition. They are, in the words of mission thinker George Hunter, “ignostics;” that is, they have no idea what the language or materials of faith are about. Such folks may even profess belief in God, but this profession has no concrete application in membership or action. God is, in the whimsical phrase of Sr. Corita Kent, “like a great big aspirin tablet in the sky.”

Third, sociological data has shown that religious attendance peaked in the Fifties, and we have been slowly but steadily diminishing since then. There are many factors: lots of people are upset at liberal trends or sex scandals or financial mismanagement. They have voted with their feet and left institutions to which they once pledged support and love. Overall, we see a lack of joining. Service and fraternal organizations have taken a nosedive in membership since the Fifties; it’s not just the churches and synagogues.

Fourth, the number of people in churches and other faith communities has dwindled, but in the direction of seriousness. Most of the people who remain are serious about enacting their faith in life, and part of that enactment is regular attendance at worship and activities like adult education. So clearly there will be a closer correlation between the people who are there throughout the year on a regular basis and those who attend special holidays that, in the past, have drawn extra crowds.

Lastly, remember that the message of sacrifice and self-giving, self-emptying love is the heart of Christian faith. It is especially underscored in the days of Holy Week and highlighted on Good Friday. This message runs counter to the common thinking of recent decades. After all, weren’t the Eighties tagged “the Me Decade”? We have seen greed elevated as a virtue when, for centuries, we knew it was a vice. Recall the bumper sticker, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” The loss of community goes with this self-centering. The New York Times called it ”cocooning.” It’s impossible to hold both positions. You cannot be self-centered and self-giving at the same time.

So the faithful will still proclaim self-giving sacrifice as the heart of the message and the only power of the community. On Easter they will celebrate the vindication of this proclamation when they sing, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life.” Amen.

published 02 April 2010