The ‘trends’ and ‘fads’ of a society are a constant ebb and flow.
For a certain part of my lifetime, beards were widely seen as an adornment fit only for the homeless, the unkempt, or the unsuccessful. In a previous generation, they were associated with being a rebel or societal outcast. In the days of Thomas Cranmer, the beard was a visible sign of the English emancipation from the Roman church. And at present, the beard is apparently being glorified by a popular television show about ducks, while also receiving the praise of so-called ‘hipsters.’
As when Heraclitus once pondered a river, the only constant is change.
But in the eastern sees throughout Church history, the beard has remained a steadfast feature of praiseworthy males—just as with Judaism before it. In fact, a number of Church fathers, writers, and even councils make references to beards and their significance.
One of the most common references is to the beard of Aaron and the scriptural connection to priestly ordination (being anointed with oil, as in the mystery of chrismation; cf. Ps. 132:2 LXX). Wearing a beard was a sort of imitation and participation in the priesthood of Aaron. For example, in the Paradise of Palladius we read:
And we saw another blessed man whose name was John, and he was an Abba of the monks in the city of Dikapolis; and grace clung to him even as unto Abraham, and his beard flowed down like that of Aaron.
Beyond a connection with the priesthood, St. Augustine says that “by the beard, strength is signified” (On the Psalms, 34). Lactantius claims that the beard shows “the beauty of manliness and strength” (On the Workmanship of God, 7), along with showing a key—albeit obvious—distinction between males and females. Dionysius writes that beards are “a seemly ornament for the philosopher,” having them to also be a sign of wisdom.
If beards are truly a sign of strength, dignity, and wisdom, then the shaving or mutilation of one’s beard should have contrary or opposite significance. And this is precisely what we also find in the writings of the fathers and other ancient literature.
For example, the Testament of Abraham tells us that Adam’s lament over the punishment of sinners in the afterlife is met with the tearing of hairs from the sides of his beard. The extreme asceticism of certain desert fathers is set forth as a reason for the inability of some to grow their beards to a respectable length. On the other hand, St. Cyprian of Carthage tells us that lapsed Christian men are wont to ‘style’ or remove their beards altogether, which to him demonstrates a lack of contrition for sin (Treatise 3, ‘On the Lapsed’; cf. Lev. 19:27).
For Orthodox clergy today, one’s facial hair—or lack thereof—is ultimately a decision left to their bishop or holy synod. While we have a plethora of citations, references, and even ecclesiastical canons on this matter, there have been times where certain clergy have made the decision to go clean shaven (for various reasons).
In a culture that is so frequently dictated by ‘trends’ and ‘fads’—and where men and women are more-and-more being forced to subsume into one, indistinguishable, de-personalized entity—I personally think it’s a wise and praiseworthy thing for males to uphold the esteemed, bearded tradition. If it’s good enough for Jesus and the Forerunner John, it’s good enough for me.