Happy New Year!
For the Sunday:
2 Corinthians 4:6-15;
For the New Year:
1 Timothy 2:1-7;
For the Stylite:
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost; the Beginning of the Year of Grace 7522 of the Byzantine Era.
Our Venerable Father Simeon the Stylite & His Mother.
The Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos of Miasena.
The Holy Martyr Aeithalas.
The Forty Holy Women Martyred with their Intructor, Ammon the Deacon.
The Holy Martyr Callista & Her Two Brothers, Evod & Hermongenes.
The Just Joshua, Son of Nun.
Return to ByzantineCatholicPriest.com.
12:31 PM 9/1/2013 — The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost presents to us the Gospel of the Great Commandment, which our Lord gives in response to a question put to him. But this year the Sunday also falls on the first day of the Church year; and, since it rarely happens, I should like to take this time to reflect with you about it. The original intention of the Byzantine Emperors in assigning September 1st as the first day of the year was to correspond to the beginning of the Jewish year, which starts in September as well, but the exact date of this in our Lord's time is an open question. Thus, for centuries, the Churches of Rome, Constantinople and Antioch all observed different days. In the Julian Calendar still used in some Orthodox Churches, the new year falls on Sept. 14th.
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 teaches us one of the most effective ways to read the Gospel: by picturing ourselves in the scene.
So, let's take this opportunity to think back to our Lord's birth, and picture ourselves traveling with the Holy Family to Bethlehem to report for the census, being turned away at the inn, finding the cave and helping Joseph fashion a cot for the Mother of God, witnessing the birth of our Lord, kneeling next to the Magi as they present their gifts. On January 1st we travel with the Holy Family to Jerusalem to witness the Circumcision of our Lord and, five days later we hike down to the banks of the River Jordan where John, the son of our Blessed Mother's cousin, is preaching and baptizing and announcing the imminent arrival of our Lord in Judea, and will baptize him. And we 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 is upon us, beginning the Triodion which prepares us for the Great Fast. And all of this happens in late January or early February.
And as we move on from there into the Triodion, and then into the Great Fast, we are reminded of the Prophesy of 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 last 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 pray for them to change 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 considering the lessons it presents to us.
Now, while the Gospel for the Fifteenth Sunday is taken from Matthew, the second Gospel we heard today, the one for the New Year, is taken from Luke. Returning to Nazareth, Jesus enters the synagogue, and is asked to read the portion of Scripture appropriate for that sabbath. He opens the scroll to chapter 61 of the Prophecy of Isaiah and reads: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has anointed me, and sent me out to preach the gospel to the poor, to restore the brokenhearted; to bid the prisoners go free, and the blind have sight; to set the oppressed at liberty, to proclaim a year when men may find acceptance with the Lord, a day of retribution.” And it would not be inappropriate for us to take a lesson from the secular observance of the new year and make for ourselves a Church Year resolution; for we are poor, probably materially, but certainly spiritually; we are prisoners of our egoism and our sins; we are all blind because our sins have blinded us to the beauty of the Divine Light, and are oppressed by attachment to the things of this world.
When he had finished reading, our Lord told the congregation in the synagogue, “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Whether it's fulfilled in our hearing depends entirely on us. There is Jesus, offering us a new life. Today, on the first day of the Year of Grace, this offer is made to us. And even if we have squandered it many times over the years, he renews the offer to us again; this year can still be for us a year of Grace with the Lord. We don't know if this will be the year we persevere; but at least, on this first day, we are offered another chance to try again.
The Gospel says, “Then he shut the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. All those who were in the synagogue fixed their eyes on him....” Perhaps that's enough for our Church Year resolution: that we will begin today to keep our eyes fixed on the Lord.