May 26, 2014 Length: 4:50
Fr. Lawrence Farley reminds us that when the fourth-century Christians prayed in their liturgy that God would "pacify the ragings of the pagans," they were taking a public stand against the majority of the world around them. The same is true of us today, only in our case the pagans are better known as secularists.
You have probably noticed that we are no longer in the fourth century. In that century the great rival of Christianity was paganism, the worship of the old gods still worshiped by much of the population then, a few of whom were powerful and well-heeled — the population that is, not the gods.
Some scholars estimate that when Constantine declared himself on the side of the Christians earlier in that century, only ten per-cent of the population were actually Christian. The rest, apart from a small slice of Jewish population, were pagan. Some of these pagans were wealthy, well-connected and not planning to go anywhere. Obviously, Constantine was taking a risk in coming out as a Christian, but the risk paid off.
It is often said that as soon as the Emperor Constantine declared himself on the side of the Christians, Christianity became the state religion. Real historians tell us that this was not the case, and that most people in Constantine’s day, Christians included, expected Constantine’s Christian ‘thing’ would end up being a flash-in-the-pan, and that subsequent emperors would return to paganism, that is, to the status quo, as they had done for years.
The pagan declarations of Emperor Julian later in that century seemed to confirm this expectation, “Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.” As it turned out Julian, known to later Christian history as Julian the Apostate, he was the flash-in-the-pan, and the future of the empire belonged to the Christians.
But in the fourth century paganism was the real rival to Christianity and it’s obvious alternative. The temples to its gods were everywhere. All education was based on pagan literature, its stories of the gods’ exploits, and the gods celebrated in that literature were not merely figures of mythology, but real gods able to save or destroy, and their temples and their altar could be found in pretty much every house in every street.
The Christians’ neighbors worshiped those gods, and considered that the Christians were impious and dangerous fools for not doing so. It is important to recognize that for Christians in the fourth century the worship of the old gods was the faith of the majority. Most people on the block acknowledged those gods, and thought that public safety was secured when one worshiped and acknowledged them. We must remember this when we look at what we call the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, and find there such petitions in the Anaphora as “Pacify the ragings of the pagans.”
We also find phrases in that Anaphora praising God for delivering us, through Christ, from the delusions of idolatry. The idea reappears in the prayer for the setting apart of catechumens in our baptismal service when the Priest prays, “Remove far from him (the catechumen) his former delusion.” What is this delusion? The delusion was idolatry, the pagan religion which the catechumen formerly embraced, the religion of everybody else in the fourth century. What most of society considered as religion and piety, the Christians considered to be delusion, and those entering the Church were required liturgically to solemnly renounce the faith of the society’s majority. No wonder pagans accused Christians of being “haters of humanity” and as being atheists. When the fourth century Christians prayed in their Liturgy that God would pacify the ragings of the pagans, they were taking a public stand against the majority of the world around them.
So, who are the pagans today? When we pray this Liturgy during Great Lent, and on other occasions during the year, and ask that God pacify and save us from the raging opposition of the pagans, who are we talking about? Clearly, not the worshipers of Zeus, Aphrodite and Apollo, for no-one now worships these gods. Today, the majority of society worships other deities, those of money (mammon, in biblical terms), success, fame and health. The majority around us now no longer worship the old gods of Roman Greece, they are secularists not pagans.
The number of true pagans living today is infinitesimal. The so-called “Wiccans” who claim to worship the goddess of the old deities scarcely count as true pagans. If one could resurrect an old pagan from the fourth century and ask his opinion of the Wiccans, I’ve no doubt he would renounce them as having no real pagan piety at all, and would (say) that Wiccans worship not the old gods but, rather, themselves. No, the real alternative, the modern pagans, are not the Wiccans but the secularists.
Secularism, not paganism, is the true rival to contemporary Christianity. It is well that our Liturgy of Saint Basil should offer a petition against them. They are certainly raging against us. Those entering the Church through Holy Baptism need to recognize this, and know which delusions they are renouncing.