And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. And at the end of eight days, when He was circumcised, He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. And the Child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon Him. Now His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up according to custom; and when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing Him to be in the company they went a day’s journey, and they sought Him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances; and when they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking Him. After three days they found Him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. And when they saw Him they were astonished; and his mother said to Him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for You anxiously.” And He said to them, “How is it that you sought Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?” And they did not understand the saying which He spoke to them. And He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and His mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man. Luke 2: 20-21, 40-52 (Gospel from the Feast of Circumcision of Christ)
Christ is Born! Glorify Him! Happy New Year!
After I moved away from home in my early 20s, my Dad used to ask me each year, the first time we spoke “Where did the New Year find you?” And I would always laugh and think to myself, “I was not lost, the New Year did not have to find me.” My Dad passed away several years ago, so no one will ask me that question this year. However, I know what my answer will be—the New Year (at least the first morning of it) will find me in church, celebrating the Divine Liturgy. This is not the primary reason that Divine Liturgy is scheduled in parishes this morning—remember that up until recent centuries, the New Year was celebrated on September 1, rather than January 1. However, the two feasts we celebrate provide us with the opportunity to add in a third feast—New Year’s Day—and begin our year off with Christ.
Now to the two feasts—First, we commemorate the Circumcision of Christ, eight days after His Incarnation. There are two significant take-aways from this Feast. First, Christ was born as a Jew. So, his family followed the Jewish Law, which required that all males be circumcised when they were eight days old. Circumcision was the tangible sign that one was a child of God. This was a required “initiation” in order to be Jewish. It was the sign that accompanied God’s covenant, given back in Genesis 17. He would be God to the Hebrew nation, and those who followed after Him would be circumcised. Christ did not come to abolish the Law, but to supersede it. He followed the Law. Thus, He was circumcised. However, Saint Paul in Romans 2:29 wrote “Real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.” We no longer circumcise people as a sign that we are children of God. Instead that sign is now baptism. Each Christian must undergo an initiation, a “circumcision of the heart,” and this is baptism.
The second thing we take away from the circumcision of Christ is that He was given the name “Jesus” on His eighth day. There is a “tradition” that has evolved in the Orthodox Church (especially in Greece and other countries) where a child is not given a name until its baptism, and then the name is given by the Godparents. While this might be a cute cultural custom, it actually has no basis in Scripture. To the contrary, the name is given at the 8th day and is given by the parents, not the Godparents. There is even a beautiful prayer of naming a child, done by a priest when a child is eight days old. It can be done in a hospital, a home or at the door of the church, outside the church proper.
The Gospel lesson read on January 1 incorporates the circumcision and naming of Jesus and also gives us the only glimpse we have into His childhood. We read of the account of when His parents visited Jerusalem when He was twelve years old and He went to the temple and was sitting and asking questions of the teachers in the temple.
The second feast we commemorate on January 1 is the Feast of St. Basil. Together with St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory the Theologian, these “Three Hierarchs” lived in the fourth century. They are commemorated together on January 30 but each has his own feastday and St. Basil’s is on January 1. Saint Basil was a bishop, writer and speaker. He also helped create the rules for modern day monasticism. He took the Divine Liturgy of St. James, which had been the Eucharist service of the Church until the fourth century, and edited it. He wrote the “Anaphora” of St. Basil, which is the section of the Divine Liturgy where the bread and wine are consecrated into the Body and Blood of Christ. This extended prayer is so magnificent that it includes first a concise history of the salvation from the creation to the second coming. It also includes a prayer for just about everything one can think to pray for. If one memorized the Anaphora of St. Basil, they would have a complete history of the Church as well as the most complete prayer I’ve ever encountered. Saint Basil also had an affinity for the poor and the sick. He built hospitals. He is the founder of what today is the Philoptochos Society—“Philo-ptochos” literally means “friend of the poor.” Saint Basil was also well-known for baking bread that had money inside of it and throwing it in the windows of the widows and orphans. This is where we get “Vasilopita” from. In our homes at New Year, we cut a bread that has a coin in it. This is the Vasilopita, or “Basil’s bread.” Whoever gets the coin is said to receive luck for a whole year. In cutting the Vasilopita, in our homes or at our churches, we cut a piece for each person (or ministry at the church) and we ask God bless all for whom the Vasilopita is cut.
Many people will make New Year’s Resolutions today. And many of those resolutions will revolve around eating and exercise, and then we’ll joke about how we will put off starting our resolutions until January 2, so we have January 1 to feast and relax. Our spiritual life is not a resolution we should put off until January 2. Begin today with a prayer thanking God for bringing you to another year, and if possible, attend the Divine Liturgy, receive Holy Communion, and begin your year with Christ!
Your proclamation went forth into all the earth, for it accepted your word, through which you taught the dogmas befitting God, you expounded on the nature of all that is, and you arranged the morals of society. A royal priesthood! Devout father Basil, intercede with Christ our God, to grant us His great mercy. (Apolytkion of St. Basil, Trans. By Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Happy New Year!
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The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.