Fasten Your Seatbelts. It's Going to Be a Wild Ride.
The Sunday after the Nativity. The Memory of the Holy & Just Joseph, Husband of the Theotokos; of David, Prophet & King; and, of the Holy Apostle James, Brother of the Lord.
The Sunday Before the Theophany.*
A Postfestive Day of the Nativity.
The Holy Martyr Anysia, Bishop of Thessalonica (406).
The Venerable Zoticus, Priest & Protector of Orphans (4th Century).
Return to ByzantineCatholicPriest.com.
12:07 PM 12/30/2012 — Part of the genius of the ancient Church in the East is that it saw the psychological impact of presenting the thirty-three year life of our Lord on earth in one year, allowing us to re-live the life of Christ through the Church's liturgy; and, it was a great saint of the Western Church, St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits and the master of meditation and mental prayer, who taught us one of the most effective ways to read the Gospel: by picturing ourselves in the scene.
If we pictured ourselves at Christmas time, traveling with the Holy Family to Bethlehem to report for the census, being turned away at the inn, finding the cave and watching Joseph fashion a cot for the Mother of God, witnessing the birth of our Lord, kneeling next to the Magi as they presented their gifts, now we push the fast-forward button and skip ahead. On January 1st we'll travel with the Holy Family to Jerusalem and witness the Circumcision of our Lord and, five days later—this year, on a Sunday—we'll hike down to the banks of the River Jordan where John, the son of our Blessed Mother's cousin, will be preaching and baptizing and announcing the imminent arrival of our Lord in Judea, and will baptize him. And we will both see and hear the great announcement from heaven declaring Jesus the Divine Son of the eternal Father.
From that point on, events seem to move very quickly, almost too quickly for comfort; but, remember, we're compressing the life of our Lord into one year. John will get himself into trouble by his preaching and end up murdered, Jesus will begin to collect around himself his disciples and begin his preaching, he will perform a number of miracles and cures; then, almost as if there's a reel missing from the movie, the Sunday of the Prodigal Son will be upon us, beginning the Triodion which prepares us for the Great Fast. And all of this happens before the end of January.
It's St. Matthew, from whose Gospel we are reading during this time, who tries as best he can to give us a seat belt to hold us steady during this warp-speed rip through our Lord's life. You might recall the Sunday of the Ancestors, just a couple of days before Christmas, when I asked you to notice that Matthew's Gospel was originally intended for a Jewish readership, which is why he went through the entire genealogy of Joseph's family to show how Jesus is the very Messiah foretold in the prophesy of Isaiah; and, he will continue, as we go along, to throw in these little references to remind everyone that Jesus is "the rod from the stump of Jesse" of which Isaiah spoke: the fact that the Messiah was prophesied to come from the City of David, Bethlehem, yet, he would be called a Nazarene, both of which would turn out to be true of our Lord; the fact that he would be rejected by his own people; the fact that his mother would be a virgin, a prophesy which, at the time, no one really understood.
And as we move on from there into the Triodion at the end of the month, and then into the Great Fast, after a brief return to the Gospel of St. Luke, we'll pick up the Gospel of St. Mark, which will take us through the Great Fast itself, and we'll be reminded of even more from Isaiah which points to Jesus as the Christ, particularly the suffering of his passion and the redemption of mankind that it will bring.
It's a very fast trip and, if one is not paying attention, one can miss it. It's a great shame, too, because most of us don't pay attention to it. We regard the selection of the readings and texts of the Divine Liturgy as something that someone just sat down in some office and put together, not realizing that this plan of liturgical services crystallized in the first four hundred years after our Lord's Ascension as a result of the preaching and practice of the Apostles and their immediate successors whom we call the Fathers of the Church. But they didn't have a meeting about it and discuss, “How do we want to do this?” in most cases, they didn't even know one another. All of this developed as a result of the common experiences of the Christians of those early centuries as they sought to preserve the faith in circumstances which, as I pointed out to you on Christmas Day, are very similar to what we face today.
Picture yourself in the year 300 somewhere in the Middle East, gathering on a Sunday to celebrate what was already called the Divine Liturgy, and which had already begun to look very much like what we do in church now. You're gathering in secret because your religion has been declared illegal; most of your friends and neighbors do not understand it, and would be shocked to find out that you're a part of it. You're in someone's home; or, if you're not in the Middle East but in Rome, you're underground in a subterranean cemetery; or, if you're in Greece or thereabouts, you may be in an actual church built for that purpose, which was just beginning to happen in some places. There is no icon screen in it, for that wouldn't happen until a couple of hundred years later, but everything else would seem very familiar. The language would be Greek, or, if in Rome, Latin, or perhaps Aramaic if you were in Palestine or Jerusalem itself; but, everything else would be almost the same. There would be a reading from one of St. Paul's letters, then an episode from the life of our Lord taken from one of the Gospels. The homily would focus on the life of our Lord, emphasizing his divinity, how his death and resurrection saves us, and how we all must be courageous in the face of great temptation and difficulty. At the Great Entrance, gifts of bread and wine would be brought in, and the priest would change them into the Body and Blood of Christ. By this time, the troparia and kontakia were beginning to take shape, most of them composed by the Fathers of the Church themselves; they were full of theology, expressing in song the Church's understanding of the nature of Christ, and they would be committed to memory as a way of passing on to our children this faith.
It would take about six hundred years before the schema of the Church Year came to look like it does now, and it happened naturally: as Christians traveled from one part of the world to another, they informed one another of what each was doing in church; and, eventually, the Liturgies celebrated in the various churches around the world started to look more and more the same. Eventually, the Emperor would convert to the faith, and lend the force of the government to the spread of the Gospel. As crises would arise, the bishops of the Church would meet in council to discuss them and seek solutions; one of those councils composed the creed and inserted it into the Liturgy, so that the basics of the Christian Faith would be proclaimed by every Christian on every Sunday, so that they would never forget them.
And so, here we are, so many centuries later, reliving the same journey of our Lord's life on earth through the Liturgy, traveling along with our Lord from his birth, through his baptism and early preaching, through his passion and death and finally his resurrection. Every year we make this trip, just as our fathers did before us, and their fathers before them, and their fathers before them, for the last two thousand years. That's a long time to be doing the same thing over and over again. We do it now for the same reason that every Christian before us did it: we want to go to heaven, and the only way to get there is to follow our Lord, and live the way he taught us to live; and, we can't do that if we don't know our Lord.
What we do in church came to be because, over the course of time, it became clear that it was the most efficient way to keep our Lord's life and message alive, not to mention the fact that, as a sacrament, the Liturgy gives us our Lord's actual Body and Blood, without which our attempt to follow our Lord would be fruitless. It really would be a shame if we allowed the Liturgical Year to slip by without really paying attention to it, and consider the lessons it presents to us. And this month, as we wrap up Christmastide and move toward the Triodion, I would like to recommend a New Year's resolution. Each week, consider going to the parish web site—the address is in the bulletin—to the “Homilies” section; there your will find an entry for each Sunday, posted usually that afternoon or the next day, and there you can find the citations of the Scripture readings that you heard in Church, so that you can look them up in your own Bible and read them again. If you found the homily helpful, you can read that again, too. And this way you can travel along the road of our Lord's life with a little more attention, and allow those lessons to permeate you, rather than simply hearing them once on Sunday then forgetting them. Go back periodically and review them from time to time, so as to keep the whole picture of the Liturgical Year in mind. You will find that it will transform your daily prayers, and bring you even closer to our Lord, which is what the Liturgy of the Church is all about.
Father Michael Venditti
* The celebration of the Sunday Before the Theophany is surpressed this year, due to the fact that it coincides with the Sunday After the Nativity, from which all the texts of today's Liturgy are taken.