This picture appeared in the newspaper this morning. At a monastery in Valdai, some 250 miles to the northeast of Moscow, Russian Orthodox believers were celebrating Epiphany by leaping into a cross-shaped hole in the ice on a nearby lake. The temperature, as noted in the caption, was 18 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). What the caption did not explain is that Epiphany, at least in this context, translates as Russian for “severely clenched scrotum.” Hypothermia, the Lord is frozen! Blessed is he who comes to freeze. The ice-man cometh in the name of the Lord.
Many years ago, well into the decades mark, I was talking to a friend about the liturgical churches, as opposed to the strictly Protestant ones. She had grown up staunchly Protestant and was put off by the ceremony of the sacramentally-identified churches. In our discussion she paused and mentioned a televangelist (I can’t recall which one; they all look alike after a while) who had agreed to ride down a water-slide at an amusement park, in a full three-piece suit, if his audience would raise a certain payload of cash. Although the details escape me, it seems entirely plausible ⎯ there is little a televangelist won’t do for money! Then she said, “I can’t see the Pope doing that. I guess there is some dignity to that.” I was pleased; I had made the point that some Christian groups do not need to be in the spotlight of artificial flamboyance in order to proclaim the seriousness of their message. Shortly after that I began to work at Nashotah House.
To speculate from the photo above, there was not a large gathering of the faithful on the Siberian ice. Just a few believers in an extreme masculine Christianity dressed in liturgical underwear. Nevertheless, such displays of faith have been part of religions from the very beginning. Ancient believers used to carry their statues of gods around Babylon for a day out to remind the secular that the eyes in the sky are still watching you. When a sartorially perfect prefect steps out in all his finery, what other option is there but to drop one’s hands and stare? A favored photograph at Nashotah House when I was there featured the “Fond du Lac circus,” a gathering of such high rollers in the Anglo-Catholic corner of the Episcopal Church that even a future Russian saint deigned to show up. The event was the consecration of Bishop Weller, coadjutor of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, in 1900. As I look at the Orthodox man poised over his cross-shaped hole, I wonder if my friend had it right after all. The Fond du Lac circus haunts me to this day. What is religion without the show?