Food and the basic faith groups

It's Yom Kippur. Will your Jewish grandmother serve shrimp-and-bacon hordeurves when the family breaks the fast?

It's Ramadan. Will your devout Muslim parents smile if you serve dinner several hours before sundown?

It's Good Friday. Will the Catholic college cafeteria serve hamburgers?

It's Thanksgiving. Can you predict the foods that will be on your mother's table? Will the German grandmothers bake Christmas cookies at the Lutheran church? Is the tuna casserole served at potluck dinners at rural Minnesota churches truly a sacrament?

When it comes to the rhythms and symbols of faith, it's easy to see the role that food plays, especially in the intense and emotional final months of the religious calendar.

"Food is all about the stories that define our lives," said Daniel Sack of the University of Chicago Divinity School, author of the book "Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture."

"I'm not just talking about religious rituals that involve food. ? For many church people, what happens in the social hall week after week is more important than what happens in the sanctuary. They come for Communion, but also for community."

Sack said food traditions -- with a big "T," as well as with a small "t" -- demonstrate why it's almost impossible to draw a line showing where religion ends and culture begins. Food is one of the basic building blocks of life and, thus, is one of the "passions" that religious believers have always struggled to keep under control.

Change what people eat and you change their lives. However, there are times when the religious significance of food is obvious and there are times when it is not. While studying this subject, Sack said he began sorting the different kinds of food traditions into four groups.

* Sometimes, the food becomes a holy object in and of itself. One example is when a Buddhist takes a food offering to a temple. In other cases, ordinary food becomes sacred as part of an intricate ritual that is defined by prayers and scripture -- such as the bread and wine in a Catholic Mass.

"What is crucial is that this sacramental understanding of food seeps into other parts of life," said Sack. "And we're not just talking about Christianity. If you start talking about bread and wine, it's hard to take that symbolism out of there."

* Most religious traditions, to varying degrees, claim some right to control the role that food plays in daily life. This is most obvious in faiths such as Judaism, with its "kosher" traditions, and in Islamic laws to establish what is and what is not "halal." In other faiths, believers fast from eating certain foods at different times of the week or year.

* In many cases, these sacred laws and traditions then begin to shape the festivals and the cuisine of a particular culture or ethnic group. At this point the line between Greek cooking and Greek Orthodox cooking starts to blur. What role does faith play in the menus of Ethiopian, Italian, Lebanese, Indian or Swedish restaurants?

* Food also reflects what people believe about family and community life. It would be strange to see conservative Evangelical leaders serve the same food at a men's dinner that they serve a luncheon for the women's group. Foods reflect social roles, too.

Sack said that every community, every family, cannot help but develop informal rituals linked to meals, because meals are such symbolic times of fellowship. And when the times change, so do the meals.

Consider the food served at youth-group meetings. Once, parents organized these meetings and prepared the food, helping to maintain a sense of watch-care and protection from the outside world. Today, most churches hire professional youth pastors who plan multi-media programs and -- naturally -- send out for pizza.

"When we assimilate at the level of the table, we have truly assimilated to the world around us," said Sack. "When you take this view of life, those parents are not just sending out for pizza -- they are sending a symbolic signal of acceptance of the surrounding youth culture. ?

"You see the same thing happening when people start lining up those fast-food boxes at church potluck dinners. Some megachurches even have food courts, these days. Who has the time to prepare those special dishes that people used to take to church?"

Truth, tolerance and faith

ISTANBUL -- When it comes to religion and politics, many skeptics are convinced that strong faith leads to judgmentalism, which leads to intolerance, which leads to oppression and, ultimately, theocracy.

Many people disagree, saying that it's impossible to defend basic human rights without a religious or at philosophical commitment to moral absolutes.

It's easy to tell who is who when they speak out.

Consider this voice: "Freedom on the one hand is for the sake of truth and on the other hand it cannot be perfected except by means of truth. ... There is no freedom without truth."

That was the young Polish bishop who would become Pope John Paul II, arguing for a tight connection between truth and freedom at Vatican II.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins disagrees, to put it mildly: "To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Don't be surprised if they are used."

While it's easy to find examples of religion being used to justify great evils, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson finds it hard to grasp how Dawkins and company can study history and say things like that. It's no surprise that Gerson feels this way, since he is best known as the White House scribe who wove faith-based images into so many speeches for President George W. Bush.

"This anti-religious viewpoint claims too much. Do its advocates really intend to lump the Grand Inquisitor with the Amish? To say there is no difference between radical Salafists and Sufis?", asked Gerson, speaking at a global conference entitled "Fact vs. Rumor: Journalism in the 21st Century." This gathering in Istanbul was organized by my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.

"Surely the content of religion makes some difference," added Gerson. "But the central problem with this anti-religious attitude is this: It would remove the main source of reform -- the main source of passion for justice and change -- in American history."

If it's hard to maintain a demilitarized zone between religion and politics in America, it's even harder to do so in a land like Turkey, where many politicians insist that they have created a "secular Muslim state."

Many other Turks have severe doubts about the success of that project, especially those in the nation's shrinking Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish minorities. Ask the Armenians if trying to separate "truth" from "rumor" raises tolerance issues in modern Turkey.

While Gerson discussed a wide range of issues in an off-the-record dialogue session, including the Iraq war, his keynote address focused on the big picture -- his conviction that in "every culture, standing for truth against lies and conspiracy theories is essential to tolerance."

At the very least, he stressed, tolerance requires a belief in at least one absolute truth, a belief in human dignity. And without some kind of doctrine of human equality -- that, for example, all men are created equal and in God's image -- it is hard to defend universal standards of human rights and social justice.

In American history, said Gerson, the source of that moral truth has often been found in the prophetic voices of religious believers.

Thus, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote these words in his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." A truly "just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law."

Moral relativism, on the other hand, forces leaders to root their decisions in power and power alone, said Gerson. The result is "the rule of the strong -- the rule of those who can seek their wants and impose their will most effectively."

Thus, as a contrast to King, consider this voice from the bloody 20th Century.

"Everything I have said and done in these last years is relativism by intuition -- if relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and men who claim to be bearers of an objective, immortal truth. ... From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable."

The speaker? That would be Italian fascist Benito Mussolini.

The exaltation of Mitt Romney

It takes lots of praying, preaching and singing to mourn a president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a man called Prophet, Seer and Revelator by his global flock.

That was certainly true at President Spencer W. Kimball's funeral in 1985. So when one of the church's most powerful women rose to speak, the leader of its vast Relief Society projects, she simply shared a cherished private memory that pointed far beyond the grave.

While visiting Colorado, recalled the late Barbara B. Smith, "I asked President Kimball a searching question. 'When you create a world of your own, what will you have in it?' He looked around those mountains. ... Then he said, 'I'll have everything just like this world because I love this world and everything in it.' "

She also recalled this Kimball quote urging Latter-day Saints to help those in need: "What is our greatest potential? Is it not to achieve godhood ourselves? Perhaps the most essential godlike quality is compassion."

It was already rare, at that time, to hear such an explicit public reference to the faith's doctrine of "exaltation," the belief that through piety and good works truly devout Mormons can rise to godhood and even create new worlds.

While this doctrine has caused tensions with other faiths, it has been a key source for the Mormon emphasis on marriage and family. As a mid-1980s text for converts stated: "Parenthood is ... an apprenticeship for godhood."

Now, church leaders have published an online essay -- "Becoming Like God" -- in which they have attempted to reframe this doctrine, in part by mixing the unique revelations of Mormon founder Joseph Smith with New Testament references and selected quotes from the writings of early-church saints such as Irenaeus, Justin Martyr and Basil the Great.

The essay repeatedly refers to Mormons becoming "like" God, rather than becoming gods and uses the term "godliness" many times, and "godhood" only once.

It also notes that Latter-day saints have endured mass-media efforts to turn this doctrine into a "cartoonish image of people receiving their own planets." After all, the showstopper "I Believe" in the rowdy Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon" proclaims: "I believe; that God has a plan for all of us. I believe; that plan involves me getting my own planet. ... I believe; that God lives on a planet called Kolob. I believe; that Jesus has his own planet as well. ... Oh, I believe!"

Nevertheless, the online essay does note that Smith did tell his followers: "You have to learn how to be a god yourself." It also bluntly asks a question frequently posed by critics of the church: "Does belief in exaltation make Latter-day Saints polytheists?"

The essay responds: "For some observers, the doctrine that humans should strive for godliness may evoke images of ancient pantheons with competing deities. Such images are incompatible with Latter-day Saint doctrine. Latter-day Saints believe that God's children will always worship Him. Our progression will never change His identity as our Father and our God. Indeed, our exalted, eternal relationship with Him will be part of the 'fullness of joy' He desires for us."

The problem, according to poet and blogger Holly Welker, is that this downplays images Mormons have for generations used to describe their faith. She noted, for example, that the essay edited a key passage from Mormon scripture to avoid powerful words linked to these beliefs.

Doctrine and Covenants proclaims: "Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them."

That doesn't sound like a metaphor, argued the former Mormon, writing at the University of Southern California's "Religion Dispatches" website.

"Having our own planets," she said, is "absolutely a matter-of-fact way Latter-day Saints have discussed this doctrine amongst ourselves, probably because of statements like this one from Brigham Young: 'All those who are counted worthy to be exalted and to become Gods, even the sons of Gods, will go forth and have earths and worlds like those who framed this and millions on millions of others.' ...

"The essay actually deflects rather than answers this question: So, can we get our own planets, or not?"

Voice for Orthodox unity -- from Brooklyn

The rites were quiet, yet elaborate, and drew small clusters of dedicated worshippers out of their homes on a Saturday morning and into Byzantine sanctuaries across the nation.

Somewhere in each church stood an icon of a dignified Arab wearing the rich liturgical vestments of an Eastern Orthodox bishop. The worshippers took turns kissing the icon and chanters gave thanks to God for the work of the new saint whose name still causes smiles -- St. Raphael of Brooklyn.

"It isn't every day that you hear the word 'Brooklyn' used in a Divine Liturgy," said Father Gregory Mathewes-Green, the priest in my own parish near Baltimore. "St. Raphael is important not only because he lived a remarkable life, but because of where he came from and who he was. He is a wonderful symbol for Orthodox unity in America. ...

"Our church was unified in his day and we pray it can be unified again."

Father Raphael Hawaweeny came to the United States in 1895 and became the first Eastern Orthodox bishop consecrated in this land. He was known as the "Good Shepherd of the Lost Sheep in America."

St. Raphael was canonized in 2000 by the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), which has Russian roots, in cooperation with the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, with its ancient ties to the Middle East. The OCA celebrates St. Raphael's feast day on Feb. 27, the date of his death.

This monk, priest, diplomat, scholar, missionary and bishop traveled a risky and complicated road on the way to Brooklyn, a fact noted by chanters during the rites last weekend. One of the prayers said: "Arab by birth, Greek by education, American by residence, Russian at heart and Slav in soul, thou didst minister to all, teaching the Orthodox in the New World to proclaim with one voice: Alleluia."

In other words, each Orthodox flock can lay some claim to this particular saint. There are about 5 million Eastern Orthodox Christians in the United States and 250 million worldwide. While the church has grown in America, primarily through converts from evangelical and mainline Protestant pews, the Orthodox map here remains a crazy quilt of overlapping ethnic jurisdictions.

But there are signs of unity in combined programs for foreign missions, relief efforts and education. And last month, Father Thomas Hopko, one of America's most respected Orthodox scholars, dared to produce a rough-draft of a plan for unity. While Hopko is an OCA priest, his essay was published by the Antiochian archdiocese.

Both of these churches now worship in English and include large numbers of converts at their altars and in their sanctuaries. Their most vital parishes are becoming more and more alike, he noted.

"The seven Antiochian bishops include three born in America, one of whom is a convert to Orthodoxy," wrote Hopko, dean emeritus of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y. The OCA offers "nine bishops born in the USA, one born in Canada, one in Mexico, one in Bulgaria and one in Romania. Eight of the 13 OCA bishops are converts to Orthodoxy. ...

"What an impressive synod these bishops could form to govern a unified Orthodox Church in North America!"

Any attempt to accomplish this would lead to an outbreak of Byzantine politics, especially in Greece, Turkey and Syria. Hopko admitted that it would take years to handle issues of assets, property, diocesan borders and lines of authority.

What would the Greeks do? Who would make the first move? How would a united synod select a patriarch? On this question, Hopko suggested that each church select one candidate and the primate would be "chosen by lot," with a senior priest picking "his name from a chalice after an All-night Vigil, Divine Liturgy and Service of Prayer."

The key is to regain the vision briefly seen in the work of the first Orthodox missionaries to North America -- like St. Raphael.

"All Orthodox churches in the United States, Canada and Mexico would be invited to join in the common work of the new church," wrote Hopko. "No Orthodox would be excluded. All Orthodox would be welcome.

This could take place by 2008, according to Hopko.

It would take sacrifice and cooperation and a shepherd who can command the trust of the Arabs, Greeks, Russians, Slavs and the Americans.

Antioch exits National Council of Churches

Summer is the season for church conventions that talk about hot issues.

Last week's 47th convention of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America passed a resolution that addressed both sexuality and the Iraqi war. But this time the lofty words led to an historic change.

The assembly voted to oppose "divisive and dangerous" positions taken by "left-wing" and "right-wing" groups. To be specific, it rejected "support for same-sex marriage, support for abortion, support for ordination of women to Holy Orders, support for the concept of war that is 'pre-emptive' or 'justifiable' and the labeling of other faiths and their leaders with hateful terminology."

The archdiocese -- a blend of Arab-Americans and many converts -- vowed to avoid groups that "promulgate these extreme positions" and renewed its commitment to seek Orthodox unity in North America.

Then the delegates cheered as Metropolitan Philip Saliba announced his decision to withdraw from the National Council of Churches USA.

The archdiocese joined the old Federated Council of Churches in the 1940s and had been active in the ecumenical movement ever since, said Father Olof Scott, of the church's interfaith relations office. But recent decades have been tough.

The Orthodox believe "we're getting further and further away from the primary goal of looking to bring Christianity back into a unified fold," he told AncientFaithRadio.com. Now, the "churches of the mainline Protestant world really don't want to hear our message. It is with that frustration that we felt that we can put our efforts to better use elsewhere."

The national council has not responded to the departure of one of its 36 churches, said the Rev. Leslie Thune, its spokesperson in Washington. General Secretary Bob Edgar -- a former Democratic congressman -- is currently out of the office, but has promised to meet with Metropolitan Philip as soon as possible to discuss his concerns.

"We did not even know that this was in the works," said Thune.

However, she noted the council's oft-repeated stance that it does not take stands on divisive doctrinal issues, since many of its member churches have clashing beliefs on such matters.

Nevertheless, Scott said the Antiochian archdiocese quit the council, in large part, because of what he called an "almost a politicized agenda" under Edgar -- with a strong emphasis on sexual liberation and opposition to conservative Christianity.

A turning point came in 2000 when Edgar removed his signature from "A Christian Declaration on Marriage," a statement signed by representatives of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals. The text defined marriage as between man and a woman.

After speaking at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Breakfast during an NCC general assembly, Edgar issued an apology and affirmed his support for same-sex unions. He told Presbyterian News Service: "I support marriage, and I support more than marriage the love between two people, and I don't differentiate whether it is between a man and a woman or a woman and a woman or a man and a man or whatever. We need fidelity and care in relationships."

There have been many signs of tension. Two years ago, the Russian Orthodox Church cut all ties with the U.S. Episcopal Church following the consecration of the openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Russian Patriarch Alexy II recently said he was worried about the leadership role that churches offering a "free interpretation" of sexual morality hold in the World Council of Churches.

Last month, the Orthodox Church in America -- which has Russian roots -- studied a document that said the "most advisable course" for its ecumenical work "would be eventually to withdraw from the NCC and the WCC." After all, said this "Orthodox Relations" text, there are more Protestant and Pentecostal Christians outside of these councils than there are inside and neither includes the Roman Catholic Church.

The Antiochian archdiocese agrees. Decades ago, said Scott, Orthodoxy needed a seat in the National Council of Churches in order to "put a face" on its often mysterious rites and parishes. But now the momentum is toward work with more conservative believers.

"We don't need the NCC," he said, "for the identity of Orthodoxy in the new world. People know who we are. We are strong. We are vibrant. We are growing."

Orthodox prayer in public square

When Father John Parker was asked to say the benediction at the graduation rite for the Medical School of South Carolina he did what any Eastern Orthodox priest would do.

He went straight to "The Great Book of Needs," a four-volume set of prayers collected over two millennia for use during every imaginable kind of ritual.

It was easy to find prayers about Jesus and healing, including: "Do now, O Lord, give your grace to all those here gathered who have labored and studied hour upon hour, to go into all the world, and also to heal by the talent You have given to each of them. Strengthen them, by your strength, to fear no evil or disease, enlighten them to do no evil by the works of their hands and preserve them and those they serve in peace, for You are our God, and we know no other."

Then he received a letter from the president's office offering guidelines for prayers at this public school in Charleston, S.C. It required inclusive language such as "Holy God, Holy One, Creator, Sustainer" rather than prayers mentioning Jesus, Allah, the Trinity or other specific divine references.

"Steer clear of parochial, exclusively defining religious names, concepts, practices, and metaphors," it said. "A good rule of thumb to remember is that you come representing the entire faith community, not just your own group. The prayer should therefore not be offensive to anyone, whether Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, etc."

Parker had a problem, because he knew that centuries of Orthodox tradition forbad this approach. He decided that the policy was so inclusive that ancient Christian prayers would be excluded.

"As an Orthodox priest, I was invited to pray on behalf of all and for all," he said. "The question was, once I was there, would I be allowed to pray as an Orthodox Christian? According to that memo, they wanted me to pray in somebody else's words and, if you stop and think about it, to pray to somebody else's God. ...

"I knew that my archbishop would not allow me to do that. We cannot pray the way they wanted me to pray."

Nevertheless, Parker sent school officials the text of the Orthodox benediction. His invitation to pray was immediately revoked and the May graduation slot filled by a Southern Baptist pastor, one linked with the progressive Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Another member of the same church serves as the medical school's chaplain.

The goal was not to "silence any local pastor or the voice of any religious tradition in the public square," wrote Chaplain Terry Wilson, responding to Parker's concerns. Neutral prayers had, in the past, been offered by an array of clergy -- Presbyterian, United Methodist, Episcopal, Jewish and Catholic.

"Our graduates represent the major faith traditions of the world," noted Wilson. "Watching the commencement service, I hummed to myself the words of the old spiritual, 'He's got the whole world in his hands.' " On 9/11, he added, the beautiful St. Luke's Chapel at the school "overflowed with students, faculty and medical staff. We prayed, wept and sang together as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Bahais and Sikhs in the midst of the terror. ... This is who we are and such is the make up of our graduates. God bless us all."

Parker understood this dynamic. But it is one thing, he said, for Christians to gather in "ecumenical" settings in which their prayers can be based on images and beliefs that they share in common. It is something else to participate in truly "interfaith" events that blur the lines between world religions or, even worse, combine pieces of these faiths in a syncretistic puzzle.

At some point, he stressed, leaders of public institutions must ask why they want to continue including moments of prayer in these pluralistic public settings.

"No Christian may judge the soul of any person. God alone is judge," said Parker, in a final response to school officials. "We must learn to dwell in peaceful co-existence with those who do not believe as we do. But, dwelling in peace co-existence does not mean the same thing as saying that we actually believe the same thing. To the contrary, it would be disrespectful to pretend that we have no differences."

After the Iakovos earthquake

When Archbishop Iakovos first became America's Greek Orthodox shepherd, he spent most of his time helping immigrants follow a familiar faith in a strange land.

That was in 1959. By the time he finished his 37-year reign, the Turkish-born archbishop faced a different challenge -- helping American converts find their place in the unfamiliar sanctuaries of Eastern Christianity.

Iakovos knew that America would change the Greeks, challenging their faith and traditions. He also knew that Americans would change his church, in ways that would help an ancient faith reach modern America. He spent the final decades of his long life wrestling with both sides of that equation.

"I cannot visualize what an American Orthodoxy would look like. ... But I believe that it will exist. I know that it must be born," said Iakovos, while visiting Denver's Assumption Greek Orthodox Cathedral in 1992.

"I do know this for sure. The essential elements of the Orthodox tradition will have to remain at the heart of whatever grows in this land. The heart has to remain the same, or it will not touch peoples' souls. It will not be truly Orthodox. I know that this will happen here, but I do not know when it will happen or how."

The 93-year-old archbishop died on April 10 without fanfare, although he was an almost mythic figure among Greek Americans and mainline ecumenical leaders.

Soon after becoming archbishop, Iakovos met with Pope John XXIII, the first formal meeting between an Orthodox leader and a pope in 350 years. This opened a door for later reconciliation efforts between the ancient churches of east and west.

The archbishop marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, Ala., and then appeared -- in his flowing black robes -- with King and other civil rights activists on the cover of Time magazine. It was an early glimpse of Orthodoxy on the main stage of American public life.

Iakovos met with presidents, earned a Harvard Divinity School degree, led interfaith dialogues, asked Arab Christians to seek peace, lobbied for human rights and, in 1980, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The official church obituary hailed him as a "role model for American Greek Orthodox Christians, thoroughly committed to the vital democracy of his adopted country without forfeiting the ageless values of Greek culture or abandoning Greek Orthodoxy's spiritual and ecclesiastical roots in the Church of Constantinople."

Nevertheless, it was a showdown with the hierarchy in Turkey that forced his exit.

In 1960, Iakovos pushed to create the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas to promote cooperation between Greeks, Arabs, Russians, Romanians, Serbians and other Orthodox believers.

Then in 1994, he dared to chair a summit for bishops committed to "bringing our household into order" and seeking a plan for Orthodox unity in America.

The document released after that Ligonier, Pa., meeting boldly said: "We commit ourselves to avoiding the creation of parallel and competitive Orthodox parishes, missions, and mission programs. We commit ourselves to common efforts and programs to do mission, leaving behind piecemeal, independent, and spontaneous efforts, ... moving forward towards a concerted, formal, and united mission program in order to make a real impact on North America through Orthodox mission and evangelism."

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was furious, seeing this as an effort to weaken ecclesiastical and financial ties with Istanbul. Then Iakovos retired, stunning Orthodox leaders in America. His exit was an earthquake and the aftershocks have not stopped.

Today, Orthodox unity here remains a dream. But it's impossible to study the media, education and missions work that Orthodox churches are now doing together without seeing signs of the changes that Iakovos believed were coming. The problem is finding a way to express centuries of Orthodox tradition in such a pluralistic, intensely Protestant land.

"Orthodoxy still has not found its niche yet in American life," said Father Christopher Metropulos, executive director of the multi-ethnic, convert-friendly Orthodox Christian Network based in Ford Lauderdale, Fla. "It hasn't found its unique voice for speaking to this culture. I think the archbishop knew that. ...

"But it is too late to stop the changes. We are working together. We are starting to do mission work together. We are Orthodox and we are in America. That's the reality."

Santa Claus vs. St. Nicholas?

We see the headlines every two or three years during the holidays.

A pastor preaches on the true meaning of Christmas, warning about sins of selfishness and materialism. Then, in a moment of candor, disaster strikes.

This time the dateline was Santa Fe Springs, Calif. Local newspapers, followed by national wire services, reported that Father Ruben Rocha of St. Pius X Catholic School did something shocking during a Mass for students in kindergarten through third grade. He told the children that there is no Santa Claus.

The church hierarchy sprang into action.

"There's a time and place for everything, and this was not the time or the place or the age group to be talking about the true meaning of Christmas, at least in terms that young children cannot understand," Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the media.

Father Rocha apologized in writing to parents. Few details of his sermon are known beyond reports that, in response to a child's question, he said that parents eat the milk and cookies left for Santa.

As a public service to cautious clergy, it might help to review the few options available to those considering discussing the spiritual and commercial versions of Christmas with children. Santa is hard to avoid.

Nevertheless, remaining silent is the first option. Many clergy and parents do not choose silence because it affirms the schizophrenic, secular-sacred Christmas split.

The second option is to nix Santa, right up front. Beliefnet.com columnist Frederica Mathewes-Green has offered blunt reasons for why Christian parents should -- gently -- reject the Santa Claus scenario.

"First, it's a big fat lie," she said. "What kind of an example are you setting here? How stupid are your kids going to feel when they realize they fell for this? What else of what you taught them are they going to doubt?"

Wait, she's just getting started: "The Santa myth teaches kids ingratitude. ... They learn that goodies magically appear and don't cost anybody anything. Their role in life is just to open packages and enjoy. It also teaches greed. We may say piously that we want our children to develop just and generous virtues, but filling them with images of a toy-wielding potentate with a lifetime pass on eToys will knock all that flatter than Kansas."

There is a third option for tradition-loving clergy and parents and, truth be told, I have never read a headline about a pastor being nailed for using it.

Call it the St. Nicholas option. It is especially easy for believers in Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican churches that emphasize the lives of the saints. The goal is to teach children about the 4th century bishop known as St. Nicholas of Myra, while noting that elements of his story later helped inspire the secular story of Santa Claus.

According to church tradition, he was born into wealth and gave his inheritance to the poor. The most famous story about the bishop is captured in the Charity of St. Nicholas icon. It shows him visiting a poor family at night, carrying a bag of gold. The father could not provide dowries for his daughters, which meant they could not marry. Nicholas rescued them from ruin by dropping gold coins through a window.

These gifts fell into their stockings, which had been hung up to dry. The rest, as they say, is history.

The feast of St. Nicholas falls on Dec. 6 and, in parts of the world, remains a day for gift giving and alms for the poor. It is also a good time to discuss the pre-Christmas season of Advent or, in Eastern tradition, Nativity Lent.

The message to children is simple. Yes, there is a real St. Nicholas. But he is not what Christmas is all about.

Playing the St. Nicholas card is the best option, but it is not without its risks, said Father Nicholas Bargoot, an Eastern Orthodox priest here in South Florida.

"With all the commercialism that surrounds us, we still have to be careful when we make that link that we do not to tarnish the reality of St. Nicholas and who he is," he said. "It is still easy for young children to be confused. I mean, what is St. Nicholas doing at the mall?"

Facing a low-carb Lent

Depending on who is counting, somewhere between 5 million and 50 million Americans are on low-carbohydrate diets -- give or take a few million.

Trend watchers are even tossing around this monster statistic -- one in four Americans has caught the low-carb bug. That's a lot of bacon, sausage, eggs and cheese for the Atkins disciples and turkey, fish, egg substitutes and low-fat cheese for those who walk the way of the South Beach Diet.

This also means -- with 5 million Eastern Orthodox Christians in America -- that lots of people are trying to reconcile low-carb diets with the fasting discipline of Lent.

"I know that I'm struggling and everywhere I go I discover I'm not the only one," said Chuck Powell of the national Orthodox radio program Come Receive the Light (www.receive.org). "Lent is always a challenge and that's a good thing. But combine Lent with trying to stay on a low-carb and it's like, 'What is there left we can eat?' "

This leads to new questions, he said, such as: "What is the purpose of food anyway? What is the spiritual lesson to be learned here?"

Fasting is a part of life for many religious believers, including Jews at Yom Kippur and Muslims in the season of Ramadan. During the 40-day season of Lent, which precedes Easter, faithful Catholics will abstain from meat to varying degrees. Christians in other flocks may give up sweets or some other favorite food.

But Eastern Orthodox churches urge their members to follow an ancient fast that means abstaining from meat, eggs and dairy products. Orthodox believers do eat shrimp, scallops and other shellfish, but avoid meats with bones. There are subtle fasting differences between Greeks, Russians, Arabs and other Orthodox.

Nevertheless, these traditions tend to push those keeping the fast toward rice, pasta, corn, potatoes and bread -- the very foods shunned in low-carb diets. For many dieters the fear is real: What if they strive to keep the fast and, with a burst of carbohydrates, start regaining the weight they have struggled to lose?

"It seems like everybody in America is concerned about their weight and their health right now and you'd have to say that is a good thing," said Father Christopher Metropulos of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., founder of Come Receive the Light. "At the same time, it seems that this is making everyone totally consumed with food and the reason we fast is to try to learn not to be consumed with food. ... The goal of the fast is to learn to crave God, not food."

And it's not just the lay people who are struggling with the fast, or being tempted to deny that these diet conflicts are real.

"I know priests who doing these diets and they are working for them," said Metropulos. "But I asked a priest who is doing the Atkins Diet, 'What are you going to eat during Lent?' And he said, 'I'll be busy. I just won't eat. I won't have time to eat.' I told him, 'Good luck. You'll need it.' "

Some Orthodox people cope by sharing recipes for tofu desserts, falafel, oriental salads (the key is the right sesame-seed dressing) and every imaginable casserole that can be made with beans. They know the microwave properties of every soy product on the market. They can read food labels like scientists.

In the end, many find it easy to lose sight of what Lenten fasting is supposed to be about in the first place, said Father Matthew Streett of Saints Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Potomac, Md. The goal is to discipline the will and to encourage repentance. Anyone who thinks of fasting as a form of dieting is missing the point.

"Fasting from food is only one aspect of fasting," he said, in a commentary written for strugglers. "Lent is a time for turning away from the emptier pleasures of our society: television, video games and the other forces that often do more to harm family communication and bonding rather than help.

"In Lent, we should examine our lives and isolate the influences that are destructive or silly, the habits that draw us away from God."