But first, let’s get Christmas out of the way.
Sorry, folks, it’s all over. Western Christians get a full 12 days of Christmas, but we Orthodox get only 7. No fair – though our fast-free period lasts for 12 days till Epiphany. However, in our liturgical calendar December 31, this coming Sunday, is the “Leavetaking (last day) of Christmas”. (For what it’s worth, Khouria Dianna and I keep our house Christmas decorations up till the Leavetaking of the Epiphany, January 14 – and our “winter” lights in the windows beyond that. Anything to help us get through our long, cold, dark Wisconsin winter nights.)
This Sunday is also titled the Sunday before the Epiphany. Already we prepare for Christ’s Manifestation to the World. (For any Westerners who may be reading, Epiphany in the West is the feast of the Visit of the Wise Men. Orthodox cover that on Christmas morning.) Orthodox Epiphany, also called the Theophany, is the feast of the Baptism of Christ.* In ancient times in the East, the Epiphany was considered more important than Christmas. Poor Epiphany – these days hardly anyone has even heard of it. More about that next week.
* By the way, Old Calendar Orthodox keep the same feast dates but move them ahead 13 days because the Old Julian calendar is now 13 days out of sync with nature’s calendar. Are you Westerners all still with us?)
But moving back to January 1: In the Orthodox Church this is the feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus Christ, and the feast of Saint Basil the Great. January 1 is also, of course, the Civil New Year. Orthodox New Year’s Day is September 1. Nevertheless the Church also appoints some new year’s prayers for January 1. So we’ll call this our half-a-feast. Let’s take these 2 /12 in order.
1 The Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord Jesus Christ
On the eighth day after birth Jewish boy babies are circumcised and named and join the Old Covenant community. The name Jesus (“Yeshu”), given both to Mary and to Joseph by angels, means “God saves”. Jesus said later to the Samaritan woman, “Salvation comes from the Jews.” And so he did. From that one Jewish Man God’s saving grace has reached out to all the world. We Orthodox still have 8 day Naming prayers for new babies, but the New Covenant equivalent of circumcision is Baptism which includes both males and females on an equal basis. This is what Saint Paul called the “circumcision not made with hands”, i.e. performed directly by God. Through the waters of Baptism we are joined to Christ’s body, the Church, the New Covenant community, and become partakers of his death and resurrection and enter into eternal life.
I have not seen many icons of the feast of the Circumcision. Several I have seen show the priest with a long knife welcoming the infant Lord in a rather menacing way. I give special thanks on this feast that I, a Christian priest, do not have to perform circumcisions!
2 The Feast of Saint Basil the Great
Saint Basil the Great – my patron, and a rather intimidating patron he is. He was one of those people who did everything well. Basil (in his own way, of course) reminds me of the guys I knew in high school and college: football star, scholar, musician, handsome. Saint Basil was like that for the Church.
Born in 330 into a wealthy Christian family of Caesarea of Cappadocia, in Asia Minor, his father was a prominent teacher, his mother a devout Christian. His was a family of saints: His grandmother Saint Emelia guided and preserved her family during the years of persecution. His sister Saint Macrina founded women’s monasticism and was spiritual guide to her brothers. One of Basil’s brothers was Saint Gregory of Nyssa. Another Peter was a bishop.
Basil was brilliant, studied classics in Constantinople and Athens. He was unsure about Christianity but then, influenced by Macrina, he returned to faith. He traveled east, spent time in Jerusalem, in Alexandria and among the desert fathers. Then he returned to Caesarea and formed a small monastery, apparently the first west of Egypt, where he took the preliminary monastic rules of Saint Antony the Great, refined and added to them, and to this day they are followed in every Orthodox monastery. A generation later Saint Benedict in Italy used them as the foundation of his monastic rule which became the norm in the west. Visit almost any Western Benedictine monastery today, and you’ll find that, while the modernized Mass seems foreign to us, the Daily Offices and general atmosphere still retain an Orthodox feel.
The Archbishbp of Caesarea convinced Basil to be ordained priest. Only 8 years later Basil at age 40 was chosen as his successor. Now his greatness came into full blossom. He showed himself to be a profound theologian, preacher, teacher and writer. He wrote the definitive theology on the Holy Trinity and the Holy Spirit. (See his book On the Holy Spirit, part of Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press’ Popular Patristics series, available from Saint Vladimir’s, Light and Life Publishing, on Amazon and other places.) The latter part of the Creed on the Holy Spirit and the Church was chiefly Basil’s work. He wrote on monastic life, on problems of youth, on controversies plaguing the Church, and a multitude of other things. In a sermon on the book of Genesis he suggested that the term “day” in the creation story may refer to a period of time, an “age”, an “aeon”. He compiled the core of the Divine Liturgy which goes by his name, shortened from earlier longer liturgies, because he felt his people were not as pious as earlier Christians and could no longer handle 4 hour liturgies! Perhaps 90% of the Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil is composed of Scriptural passages pulled together. Though long by our standards, it is magnificent and I think the best summary of the history of salvation ever written. I hope the priest reads it aloud in the your church. People should hear this masterpiece. If so, when it comes up at Christmas and Epiphany and during Lent, don’t endure it. Listen to it; pray it. It reflects Basil’s concern for every person, every human need. It is said Archbishop Basil responded personally to every letter written to him, giving advice to orphans and widows, to businessmen, to the clergy whom he valiantly tried to reform (clergy are always getting lax), humorous letters to his friends and firm letters to emperors, defending his people against injustice and promoting Orthodoxy.
Saint Basil was bold. Once the Arian emperor Valens threatened to silence him by confiscating his possessions or exiling him or maybe executing him. Basil replied to the emperor’s envoy (I paraphrase here) that he had already given away his possessions so he had nothing to lose, he would welcome exile for it would give him a chance to get some rest, and if he was executed the people of Cappadocia would rise up in revolt. The envoy was amazed; he said he was accustomed to compliant bishops. Basil responded, “Perhaps you’ve never dealt with a real bishop before.” The emperor backed off.
Indeed Archbishop Basil had given away his possessions. He spent nearly all his inheritance building a community for the poor just outside Caesarea. It included a hospital, several homes for poor widows, orphanages, a leprosarium, inns where poor travelers could sleep without charge, food kitchens where the poor could eat without paying. He also used his resources to endow the upkeep of the town so that money and food would be distributed regularly for the poor. He inspired the wealthy to give and threatened them with hellfire if they didn’t give generously. He also got government aid – what we now call (and many despise) federal “welfare”- and for centuries afterwards Byzantine emperors supported the charitable work of the town. After Basil’s death it was named Vasilios in his honor.
When famine struck Basil wrote to his people: “If you are reduced to your last loaf of bread and a beggar appears at the door, then take that loaf, lift your eyes to heaven and say, Lord I have but this one loaf: hunger awaits but I revere your commandments more than all else. If you should say this, then the bread you gave in your poverty will be changed into an abundant harvest.” (Read another little book of the Popular Patristics series, On Social Justice, with Basil’s quotes on the subject. If you think today’s social justice advocates are radical…)
So great was Basil’s charitable work that in Greece to this day it is not Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus who brings gifts, but rather Saint Basil on his feast day, January 1.
Archbishop Basil was a tireless worker, often remaining sleepless at night writing, praying, thinking. He had fasted strictly all his life from the time he was a young monk. Finally it all got to be too much for his system. He died exhausted of kidney failure on January 1, 379, at age 49. Only 49. He had been bishop less than 10 years, ordained only 17. In those few years he had accomplished all this. Yet he wrote once to a friend, “Because of my sins I seem to fail at everything.”
Thousands gathered at his funeral. The crowds pressed so hard to touch his coffin that it is said some were crushed or asphyxiated. Even within his lifetime he was considered a saint, After his death people quickly titled him Saint Basil the Great. Little wonder. Holy Basil, pray for us.
Speaking for myself again, I’ve been ordained over 50 years now (counting my time as both an Anglican and as an Orthodox priest) and compared to him, I have done so very little. I told you he is an intimidating patron saint. Look at him over there staring at me. Holy Basil, pray for me.
2 1/2 The Civil New Year
The date of the new year is completely arbitrary. Unlike days and seasons and years, which are ordered by nature, the date of the new year could be fixed at any time – as with the Chinese New Year, the Jewish New Year, Western Christian Advent, and our Orthodox ecclesiastical New Year, September 1, which is almost completely ignored – apparently ever since the Emperor Constantine decided it should be taxation day in the empire – and you know how we Americans celebrate April 15! (Though at Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, we have occasionally brought out a little champagne on September 1.) In the pagan Roman empire, January 1 marked the new year, and for some reason that seems to be taking over most of the world. From Australia to China to Europe to North America, it’s fireworks on January 1. So even we immovable Orthodox have some new year prayers for January 1.
No matter how people now describe the years – Anno Domini or Christian Era or Common Era or whatever may come next – the obvious fact is that they are all measured from the birth of Jesus Christ. The truth is that even the modern secular world can’t get away from him.
The even more important truth is this: Every day we begin a new year. Every day we start all over again with a new beginning, a new chance for each of us. Every day is a fresh gift of God. Every morning is God’s new creation, the first morning in Eden.
So Happy New Year to you – today and tomorrow and every day.
Do any of you remember this popular song from the 1970s? Listen closely to the words: the theology is quietly profound. (By the way, the singer, Cat Stevens, now takes the name Yusuf Islam. We’ll consider that in the future when we talk about Islam.) For now, just listen:
You may need to push “Watch on YouTube” at the bottom, and I’m sorry if there are commercials. We can’t seem to escape them these days.
Next week: Poor Epiphany and poor us. In 2 weeks: finally -another trip to Greece