It is the 12th of December 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1666.
With all apologies to those who may suffer from Hexa-kosioi-hexe-konta-hexaphobia, the fear of the number 666, we will take a few moments today to look at the symbolism of the year as we make our way to today's remembrance. The triple 6's trace back to the book of Revelation, chapter 18 verse 13: "Let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty-six."
As 666 was the mark of the beast, you might imagine anything with those numbers might freak some people out. So, the fair question is, what did people do in the run-up to the year 666? The answer is nothing, really. The new calendar system was barely in place and wasn't standard. Secondly, apocalyptic expectations were used to counting down to something, not up to. In the minds of many, time was like a clock that was wound and is now in the process of running out.
But by the 16th century, a certain kind of numerology and apocalypticism ran amok. The protestant Reformers were mostly apocalyptic in thinking that their movement coincided with the church's last age. Charges of "Antichrist!" were flung far and wide, and it was not uncommon for preachers to make parallels with their own time and the book of Revelation. And by now, the year 1666 was commonly understood as approaching according to the Christian calendar. In 1597 Thomas Lupton suggested that 1666 will be the year that it all ends. He took 1000 years for the millennium from Revelation 20 and added the number as mentioned above of the mark of the beast to add up to the year 1666.
So, imagine what it might have felt like in that year when perhaps the most devastating fire and the plague broke out in English history. With the Monarchy restoration, London had become a place of bustling international activity, making the fire and plague that much worse. Days of public prayer and mourning took over as all gaming, feasts, and theatre productions were closed.
1666 was also the year of Shabbetai Zevi, a self-proclaimed Kabbalistic Messiah. In 1665 the Smyrna born prophet traveled to see Nathan of Gaza. Nathan proclaimed that in 1666 Zevi would take the Sultan's crown, reunite the ten lost tribes of Israel, and marry the daughter of a resurrected Moses. None of that happened, by the way. Zevi, after a flash of popularity, was arrested and later converted to Islam.
Messianic expectations often hover around times and places that have seen great suffering and devastation. They usually produce charismatic leaders who end up establishing new schools of thought and are possibly even martyred.
In the Russian church of this era, there was perhaps no more charismatic leader and symbol for reform than Nikon, the Patriarch of Moscow. Nikon's liturgical and textual revisions based on older Greek texts made him a hero or villain, depending on your theological predilections. Nikon's work to bring the Russian church into communion with other Orthodox communions was also seen as either a boom or bust. He was either a hero or a heretic. One of Nikon's critics suggested that these reforms confirmed that Nikon was the Anti-Christ.
The decision over Nikon's teachings to be made, and indeed they were, it was on this, the 12th of December in 1666, when Nikon the Patriarch of Moscow was found guilty on several charges and deposed. Nikon spent time in exile, but his reforms were vital for the very important Raskol in the Russian Church. The "Raskol" in the Russian Church was the division between "old believers" and "new believers" and would have parallels to Reformation Europe. Similarities between Raskol and Reformation abound. In the Russian Church, Nikon's name has come to represent reforms considered both agreeable and profane. Amidst apocalypticism and a daunting year of disaster, we remember the deposition of Patriarch Nikon, which took place on this, the 12th of December in 1666.
The reading for today is a reading on Advent from Frederick Buechner's "Whistling in the Dark"
"In the silence of a midwinter dusk, there is a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen. You are aware of the beating of your heart. The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 12th of December 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by that Raskol-y Nikonite, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.