On January 1, Orthodox Christians observe a double feast as part of the grand winter celebration of our Lord’s Epiphany (Theophany), His shining forth unto the world.
THE LORD’S CIRCUMCISION:
First, the commemoration of Christ’s Circumcision. The Church’s services highlight the fact that as an eight-day old Child, Jesus the Divine Law Giver, allowed Himself to be brought to the Temple in fulfillment of the Law which He Himself had imparted to the people. He even said at the start of His ministry, "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets by His very appearance, since they pointed to His coming. He fulfilled them as well by perfectly accomplishing all that God’s Law required, including Circumcision.
Jesus endured this ritualistic cutting of the flesh, to provide the people an example of humility, and of how divine teachings are to be followed faithfully. Christ's Circumcision bore witness additionally to His complete identification with man, serving to emphasize the reality of the Incarnation; it was not an illusion as some people taught. The Son of God actually took for Himself an authentic humanity. If this were not so, what need would there be for Circumcision?
“The God of all goodness did not disdain to be circumcised. He offered Himself as a saving sign and an example for us all. He made the Law, and He obeyed His own commands. He fulfilled the words of the Prophets concerning Himself. He holds the world in His hands, yet is bound in swaddling clothes. Let us glorify Him!” (Lord I Have Called: Eve of the Feast).
Moreover, Jesus submitted to Circumcision as an indication of things to come. Circumcision was an Old Testament sign of God's Covenant with His people. It gave way however, to the mystery of Baptism in the New Testament. Circumcision prefigured Baptism, so that one’s Baptism into Christ is now the sign of entry into a new life, a new Covenant with God.
In addition to Circumcision, the Lord also received on the eighth-day the Name of Jesus (meaning Savior) as an indication of His overall mission, the work of salvation (Matthew 1:20-25; Philippians 2:9-10).
“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.” (Matthew 1:20-25).
The faithful commemorate as well, on January 1, St. Basil the Great or St. Basil of Caesarea (330-379 A.D.). A fourth century archbishop, theologian, ascetic, and Christian luminary, St. Basil is also remembered as one of the Three Holy Hierarchs on January 30th, together with his friend St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom. (A large icon of these hierarchs hangs near the front of St. Barbara’s Church opposite the choir).
A number of Basil’s family members are also venerated as saints: two brothers, Gregory of Nyssa (January 10) and Peter of Sebaste (January 9), and two sisters, Macrina the Younger (July 19) and Theosebia the deaconess (January 10). Basil’s father and mother, Basil the Elder and Emmelia (May 30), as well as his grandmother Macrina the Elder (January 14) have also been canonized by the Church. The latter helped to raise the future hierarch, and Basil extolled his oldest sister as being his greatest teacher. This holy family serves as a reminder that sanctity is often fostered through community, that saints frequently come in clusters. A person’s household, local parish and friendships can be sources of spiritual strength when people are focused on, “the one thing needful” (Luke 10:42).
St. Basil served as a clergyman -- deacon, priest then bishop -- for a total of seventeen years. Nine years were spent as the ruling hierarch of Caesarea, but during his brief tenure Basil impacted the life of the Church greatly. He fought as strongly as anyone against the heresy of Arianism, defending the divinity of Christ. Among his writings is a treatise, On the Holy Spirit, in which he defends as well, the Spirit’s divine nature.
The Church celebrates a Liturgy of St. Basil ten times a year, during the most intense and/or spiritually rich liturgical seasons. The consecration prayers of this Liturgy – longer than those in the Liturgy of St. John – have been described as more penitential. They also offer expanded supplications for people from all walks of life, as well as a detailed reference to salvation history. Furthermore, St. Basil’s Monastic Rules remain the basis for much of the formal monasticism practiced in the Orthodox Church, as well as in some Eastern Rite Catholic communities.
Basil’s personal sanctity, faith and insights are extolled by the flock of Christ in her worship.
One hymn for example, likens him to the great ones of both the Old and New Testaments:
“Holy Father Basil, you acquired the virtues of all the saints: the meekness of Moses, the zeal of Elijah, the faith of Peter, the theology of John. You cry with Paul the Apostle: “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I do not burn in indignation?” Therefore, as you dwell with them all in heaven, pray that our souls may be saved!” (Aposticha Hymn, Eve of the Feast).
Basil fell asleep in the Lord on January 1st at the age of 49 from natural causes. Some believe his rigorous asceticism may have contributed to an early repose. It can be truthfully said however, that in his brief seventeen years as a clergyman – nine as a bishop – St. Basil had about as great an impact on the life of the Church as any hierarch or saint. His prayers and example continue to guide Christians in every generation.
The commemorations of the Lord’s Circumcision and of St. Basil the Great can be fully appreciated within the greater context of the winter cycle of festivals, starting with the Nativity of Jesus (December 25), including Theophany (January 6), and ending with the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple (February 2).
Commemorating Jesus’s Circumcision under the Law is closely tied to celebrating His appearance to, and identification with the Hebrew race, and through them to all nations. It brings to mind St. Paul’s words, that with the advent of the Messiah members of the New Israel (the Church) experience a circumcision of the heart (Romans 2:29 and Colossians 2:11), a cutting away of the sins of the flesh. They experience a cleansing, a renewal, that was only foreshadowed in the Old Testament, but is made real to us, available in Christ.
In addition, the feast of St. Basil begins a month of special commemorations focusing on some of the Church’s greatest saints: Seraphim of Sarov (January 2), John the Baptist (January 7), Gregory of Nyssa (January 10), Nina of Georgia (January 14), Anthony the Great (January 17), Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria (January 18), Macarius the Great and Mark of Ephesus (January 19), Maximus the Confessor (January 21), Gregory the Theologian (January 25), and the Hieromartyr Ignatius (January 29), among others. St. Basil is only one example of diverse expressions of holiness found within sacred history. Such illustrations for Church members, in the first month of 2018, extend and enrich the great feasts of Christ’s Epiphany: His Birth, Baptism and coming to the Temple, His overall shining forth to the world. The commemorations of great saints in January offer concrete examples of the New Life entered into through, “water and the Spirit” (John 3:5).
So, at the start of the year, as people focus on new beginnings, perhaps the most important resolution – with the above in mind – is a rededication to the basic principles of the Christian Faith; those exemplified in the humble, obedient life of the Savior, and taught by St. Basil and God’s holy ones. Members of the Body have indeed been cleansed, renewed, and set apart as St. Peter says, "to proclaim (through words and deeds) the praises of Him Who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light."