Happy New Year! On September 1st, Orthodox Christians from around the world who follow the New Calendar ushered in the beginning of yet another ecclesiastical year, a day of joyful celebration and expectation that the Church calls the Indiction. The Indictio, as it is known in Latin, was a Roman imperial decree issued once every fifteen years, which assessed the military taxes to be collected each year during this period. Since Roman soldiers served for a period of fifteen years, after their tour of duty was over, the financial health of the Empire was evaluated and a new decree was issued with the incoming enlistment of new soldiers. Institution of this Distribution, or Διανομή (as it was known in the Greek East), was believed by some to have been begun by St. Constantine the Great in the early fourth century A.D., but in all likelihood was started by Augustus Caesar in the century before the birth of Christ, as suggested by a papal bull issued in the year 781 A.D. There were three types of indictions known in the ancient world: (1) the Imperial (Constantinian or Caesarean) indiction, which began on September 24; (2) the papal indiction, which began on January 1; and (3) the Constantinopolitan, or Patriarchal, indiction, which begins on September 1. This third dating is what the Orthodox Church has been celebrating since 1453.
The indiction, as the beginning of the new ecclesiastical year, is celebrated each year with great ceremony especially at the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople, and we shall see why in a moment. September in the Mediterranean world was harvest month, in which crops were gathered and stored for the winter, marking the end of one crop year and the beginning of a new one. September, corresponding to the respective Jewish month Tishrei, is also when Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is observed. The Church, at the beginning of the new ecclesiastical year, offers special prayers to God for fair weather, gentle rains, and abundance of the earth’s fruits. At the same time, such intentions that look forward to a new year of renewal and growth are intimately related to yet another important commemoration: the Orthodox Day of the Protection of the Environment, an observance established under the Patriarchate of the late Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios of blessed memory and continued to this day by Patriarch Bartholomew. An entire service dedicated to this special commemoration was penned by the late great hymnographer of the Orthodox Church, Father Gerasimos of the Skete of Little Anna on Mt. Athos.
So, enough of the history lesson already. Why is the Indiction such an important celebration for the Church and her faithful today?
Before seeking out answers, let us focus our attention upon the Gospel reading from St. Luke, read on September 1st. Our Lord Jesus Christ enters into the synagogue in Nazareth and is handed the scroll of the Prophecy of Isaiah, from which He reads the following verses (Is 61.1-2): “The spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor; He has sent me to proclaim release to captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Lk 4.18-19). Immediately after reading this passage, He offers the shortest sermon ever preached: “This day is this Scripture fulfilled in your ears” (Lk 4.21). In one sense, the beginning of the ecclesiastical year celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit and His very presence upon those baptized and chrismated in Jesus Christ. And this grace is given so that each of us may become “little christs” in our world, teaching the ways of God and preaching by our words and example the Gospel of righteousness and truth. In this new year, we are directed to soothe the pains and sufferings of our fellow man by becoming incarnated into their reality, as Christ Himself was incarnated into our fallen world and had become like us in every way, except sin. In the end, the Indiction directs us to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, that is, to reclaim for God not only our brothers and sisters who dwell upon the earth but equally the material world and creation that we call our own.
In the dismissal hymn of the feast, we pray: “O Creator of the universe, setting times and seasons by Your sole authority, bless the cycle of the year of Your grace, O Lord.” The Church calls us to understand and accept the inherent beauty and purity of the material world that He created. The pristine glory and harmony between man and nature, realized before the Fall, was the visible fruit of the relationship humanity shared with God. Sin, the result of the abuse of our free will, severed this relationship, but not permanently, prompting God to act quickly and decisively and lead His most prized and beloved creation, created in His image and likeness, back to Him. So God, in the person of Jesus Christ, came down to us and remains with us indefinitely through the Church. And God continues to remind us, through the liturgical services of the Church, of the innate holiness of each human being and his natural environment. Thus, the material world is sanctified, blessed, and redeemed, proclaimed “good” once again and restored to its original beauty and function, not to be exploited for greedy purposes but to be enjoyed by all as a sign of God’s immeasurable love for all humankind.
His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in his yearly encyclical on the feast of the Indiction, writes that “biodiversity is the work of divine wisdom and was not granted to humanity for its unruly control. By the same token, dominion over the earth and its environs implies rational use and enjoyment of its benefits, and not destructive acquisition of its resources out of a sense of greed.” Hence, the Church calls us on this day to become aware of the proper relationships that must exist between the Lord God, human beings, and the created order. We are invited to cultivate in our hearts compassion and affection for that over which we have been appointed stewards. Attaining an ecological sensitivity essentially means respecting our oikos, our home, which is the planet on which we live. This likewise implies a respect for God, from whom all material and spiritual benefits derive, and a respect for ourselves and the future generations that will succeed us, who will reap accordingly the fruit of whatever seeds we have sown.
The Patriarch also indicates that the beginning of the new ecclesiastical year is not only a day of celebration, but also a day of solemn reflection and repentance. “We are praying for personal repentance for our contribution – smaller or greater – to the disfigurement and destruction of creation, which we collectively experience regionally and occasionally through the immense phenomena of our time.” The message then of September 1st is no different really than what every Divine Liturgy seeks to communicate to us every day and every week. Three things, namely: (1) that the world is permeated by the presence and grace of God, and the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated into history, as we can see all around us when we worship in church; (2) that our lives are not our own but are intricately linked with the lives of others, again by the will of God; and (3) that all of creation, in its splendor and grandeur, is intended for sanctification, which essentially means to reassign to it its intimate connection to God and to give it freedom to benefit the steward who cares for it.
As we celebrate this new ecclesiastical year, may we also become more sensitive to the suffering and pain caused by our collective negligence or exploitation of the created world. And may we bless God by offering εὐλογίες, or “good words”, upon nature, embracing it lovingly and using it responsibly, seeing in it the holy presence of the Lord and His unwaning love for us all.
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