The Circumcision of Our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ*
On the eighth day following His birth, the Divine Child was presented in the Temple and circumcised according to the Law existing in Israel since the time of Abraham. On this occasion He was given the name Jesus, which the Archangel Gabriel had announced to the Most-holy Virgin Mary. The Old Testament circumcision was the prefiguring of the New Testament baptism. The circumcision of our Lord shows that He truly received upon Himself the body of man and not just seemingly, as was later taught of Him by heretics. Our Lord was also circumcised because He wanted to fulfill the entire Law, which He Himself gave through the prophets and forefathers. In fulfilling the written Law, He replaced it with baptism in His Holy Church, as was proclaimed by the Apostle Paul: For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature (Galatians 6:15). (In the liturgical calendar of the Church, this Feast of the Lord’s Circumcision has neither a forefeast nor an afterfeast.)
Saint Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea*
Basil was born during the reign of Emperor Constantine. While still unbaptized, he spent fifteen years in Athens, where he studied philosophy, rhetoric, astronomy and all the other secular sciences of that time. His colleagues there were Gregory the Theologian and Julian, later the apostate emperor. In his mature years he was baptized in the Jordan River along with Ebulios, his former teacher. He was Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia for almost ten years and completed his earthly life fifty years after his birth. He was a great defender of Orthodoxy, a great light of moral purity, a religious zealot, a great theological mind, and a great builder and pillar of the Church of God. Basil fully deserved the title “Great.” In liturgical services he is referred to as the “bee of the Church of Christ, which brings honey to the faithful and with its stinger pricks the heretics.” Numerous works of this Father of the Church are preserved; they include theological, apologetical, ascetical and canonical writings, as well as the Holy and Divine Liturgy named after him. This Divine Liturgy is celebrated ten times during the year: on the first of January, his feast day; on the eve of the Nativity of our Lord; on the eve of the Theophany of our Lord; on all Sundays of Great Lent except Palm Sunday; on Great and Holy Thursday; and on Great and Holy Saturday. St. Basil reposed peacefully on January 1, 379, and entered into the Kingdom of Christ.
The Synaxis of the Seventy Holy Apostles*
Besides the Twelve Great Apostles, the Lord chose seventy lesser apostles and sent them to preach the Gospel: Behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves (Luke 10:3). But just as Judas, one of the Twelve, fell away from the Lord, so some among the Seventy abandoned the Lord—not with the intention of betrayal, but because of human weakness and faintheartedness (John 6:66). As Judas’s place was filled by another apostle, so also were the places of these lesser apostles filled by others that were chosen. These seventy lesser apostles labored at the same work as did the Twelve Great Apostles; they were co-workers with the Twelve in spreading and establishing the Church of God in the world. They endured many sufferings and malevolent acts from men and demons, but their strong faith and fervent love for the resurrected Lord made them victors over the world and inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Venerable Mother Syncletica*
Syncletica was of Macedonian descent and was educated in Alexandria. As a wealthy and distinguished maiden she had many suitors, but she rejected them all and fled from her parents’ home to a convent. In great self-restraint, vigil and prayer, Syncletica lived to her eightieth year. Her counsels to the nuns have always been considered true spiritual pearls, for this righteous one did not attain the heights of wisdom through books but through sufferings, pains, daily and nightly contemplation, and spiritual communication with the higher world of the Divine. Her soul took up its habitation in that higher world in the year 350. Among other things, St. Syncletica was known to say: “If it is the season for fasting, do not dismiss fasting, claiming illness, for behold, even those who do not fast succumb to the same illness.” She further said: “As a treasure, when uncovered, is quickly seized, so it is with virtue: when it is made public it becomes eclipsed and is lost.”
The Theophany [Epiphany] of Our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ*
When our Lord reached thirty years from His physical birth, He began His teaching and salvific work. He Himself signified this “beginning of the beginning” by His Baptism in the Jordan River. St Cyril of Jerusalem says: “The beginning of the world is water; the beginning of the Gospel is the Jordan.” At the time of the Baptism of the Lord in water, the mystery was declared to the world — the mystery that was prophesied in the Old Testament; the mystery that was known only in fables in ancient Egypt and India — the mystery of the Divine Holy Trinity. The Father was revealed to the sense of hearing, the Spirit was revealed to the sense of sight, and the Son was revealed to the sense of touch. The Father uttered His witness about the Son, the Son was baptized in the water, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove hovered above the water. When John the Baptist bore witness to Christ, saying: Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world (John 1:29), and when John immersed and baptized the Lord in the Jordan, the mission of Christ in the world and the path of our salvation were shown. That is to say, the Lord took upon Himself the sins of mankind and died under them (immersion) and rose again (the coming out of the water); and we must die to the old sinful man and rise again as cleansed, renewed and regenerated. This is the Savior and this is the path to salvation. The Feast of the Theophany is also called the Feast of Illumination. The event in the Jordan River illuminates us by manifesting God to us as Trinity, consubstantial and undivided. That is one way that we are illumined. And the second way is that every one of us through baptism in water is illumined, in that we become adopted by the Father of Lights through the merits of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Saint John the Baptist*
Because John’s main role in his life was played out on the day of the Theophany, the Church has from earliest times dedicated the day following Theophany to his memory. An incident with the hand of the Forerunner is also linked to this feast. The Evangelist Luke desired to remove the body of John from Sebaste, where the great prophet was beheaded by Herod, to Antioch, his place of birth. He succeeded, though, in acquiring and translating only one hand, which was preserved in Antioch until the tenth century. After this it was transferred to Constantinople, whence it disappeared during the time of the Turks.
Feasts of St. John are celebrated several times throughout the year. Among the Gospel personalities who surround the Savior, John the Baptist occupies a totally unique place by the manner of his entry into the world, and by the manner of his life in this world; by his role in baptizing people for repentance; by his baptizing the Messiah; and, finally, by his tragic departure from this life. He was of such moral purity that, in truth, he could be called an angel — as Holy Scripture calls him — rather than a mortal man. St. John especially differs from all other prophets in that he had the privilege of being able, with his hand, to show the world Him about Whom he prophesied.
It is said that every year on the feast of the saint, the bishop brought the hand of St. John before the people. Sometimes the hand appeared open and other times the hand appeared clenched. In the first case it signified a fruitful and bountiful year, and in the second case it meant a year of unfruitfulness and famine.
Saint Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa*
Gregory was the brother of Basil the Great. At first he was only a presbyter, since he was married; but when his wife, Blessed Theosevia, reposed, Gregory was chosen and consecrated Bishop of Nyssa. He was distinguished by his great secular learning and spiritual experience. He participated in the Second Ecumenical Council (Constantinople, 381). It is thought that he composed the second half of the Symbol of Faith (the Creed). He was a great orator, an interpreter of Holy Scripture and a theologian. Because of their defeat, the Arians especially attacked him as their worst enemy, so that during the reign of Emperor Valens — their ally of the same mind — they succeeded in ousting Gregory from the episcopal throne and sent him into exile. This Holy Father spent eight years in exile, patiently enduring all miseries and all humiliations. He finally reposed in old age toward the end of the fourth century, and entered into the Kingdom of God, remaining throughout the ages as a great beacon of the Church on earth.
The Righteous Theodosios the Great (the Cenobiarch)*
Theodosios was the first founder and organizer of the cenobitic way of monastic life. He was born in the province of Cappadocia in the village of Mogarisses, of devout parents. As a child, he visited St. Simeon the Stylite, who blessed him and prophesied great spiritual glory for him. Carrying a censer in which he placed unlit charcoal and incense, Theodosios sought out a place where he could settle and establish his monastery, and he stopped when the charcoal began to burn on its own. There he settled and began to live the ascetic life. He soon gathered around him many monks of various nationalities. He built a church for each nationality, so that services and hymns were offered to God in Greek, Armenian, Georgian, and other tongues at the same time. But on the day of Holy Communion all the brotherhood gathered in the great church, in which the Greek language was used. There was a common table for all, common property, common penance, common labour, common endurance and, not rarely, common hunger. Theodosios was an exalted model of life to all the monks — an example in labour, prayer, fasting, watchfulness and all Christian virtues. God granted him the gift of working miracles, by which he was able to heal the sick, appear to people in distant places and help them, tame wild beasts, discern the future, and cause bread and wheat to multiply. Prayer was on his lips day and night. He reposed peacefully in the Lord in the year 529, the 105th year after his birth.
John the Hut-dweller*
John was born of wealthy and distinguished parents in Constantinople during the reign of Leo I. He was their only child. Drawn by an inclination for the spiritual life, the young John secretly fled with a monk to a monastery in Asia Minor. For six years in this monastery, he remained in the greatest abstinence, prayer and obedience toward the abbot. Then the devil assailed him with the temptation that he should leave the monastery, return home to his parents, and live with them there as a nobleman. Indeed, he did return to the home of his parents dressed as a beggar. He saw his parents but did not want to make himself known to them. He took up lodging as a beggar in their courtyard, living on the crumbs that the servants threw to him and enduring much ridicule from everyone. John lived thus for three years, constantly praying to God that He save the souls of his father and mother. When John fell ill and sensed death approaching, he made himself known to his parents – who recognized him by a precious book of the Gospels which they had given him is his childhood and which he had kept for himself as his only possession. And so, this young man, even though he was very wealthy, defeated the devil and saved his soul and the souls of his parents. He reposed in the Lord in about the year 450.
Paul of Thebes*
Paul was born of wealthy parents in Lower Thebes in Egypt during the reign of Emperor Decius. Paul, with his sister, inherited all the property of their parents. But his brother-in-law, an idolater, wanted to confiscate Paul’s share of the property and threatened to betray Paul before the judge as a Christian if he did not cede his property to him. This misfortune, coupled with the heroic examples of self-sacrifice by the Christian martyrs that Paul saw with his own eyes, motivated him to give his share of the property to his sister. Then he, as a pauper, withdrew into the desert, where he lived an ascetic life until his death. To what spiritual heights this ascetic giant reached was witnessed by no less a person than St. Anthony the Great, who once visited Paul and saw how the wild beasts and the birds of the air ministered to him. Returning from this visit, Anthony said to his monks: “Woe is me, my children! A sinful and false monk am I, a monk only in name. I saw Elias, I saw John in the wilderness – and in truth, I saw Paul in Paradise!” St. Paul lived 113 years and peacefully reposed in the Lord in the year 342.
The Venerable Anthony the Great*
Anthony was an Egyptian and was born in about the year 250 in the village of Koman near Heraclea. Following the death of his noble and wealthy parents, he divided the inherited estate with his sister, who was a minor, and made sure that she was cared for by some relatives. Anthony distributed his half of the estate to the poor, and in his twentieth year he dedicated himself to the ascetic life for which he had yearned from his childhood. In the beginning, Anthony lived a life of asceticism in the proximity of his village, but in order to flee the disturbance of people he withdrew into the wilderness on the shore of the Red Sea. There he spent twenty years as a recluse, not associating with anyone except God. Through constant prayer, reflection and contemplation, he patiently endured unspeakable temptations from the devil. His fame spread throughout the entire world, and many disciples gathered around him, whom he set on the path of salvation by his example and words. During the eighty-five years of his ascetic life, only twice did he go to Alexandria: the first time to seek martyrdom during a time of persecution of the Church, and the second time at the invitation of St. Athanasius the Great, in order to refute the accusation of the Arians that he too was an adherent of the Arian heresy. Anthony reposed in the 105th year of his life, leaving behind an entire army of disciples and emulators. Even though Anthony was not a scholar, he was nevertheless a counselor and teacher of the most learned men of his time, as was St. Athanasius. When certain Greek philosophers tempted him with literary wisdom, Anthony shamed them with the question: “Which is older, the understanding or the book? Which of these two was the cause of the other?” Ashamed, the philosophers dispersed, for they perceived that they only had literary knowledge without understanding, whereas Anthony had understanding. Here is a man who attained perfection insofar as man, in general, can attain on earth. Here is an instructor of instructors and a teacher of teachers, who for a full eighty-five years perfected himself; and it was only in that way that he was able to perfect many others. Filled with many years of life and great works, Anthony reposed in the Lord in the year 356.
Saint Athanasius the Great, Archbishop of Alexandria*
Athanasius was born in Alexandria in the year 296, and from his early childhood he had an inclination to the spiritual life. He was a deacon to Archbishop Alexander and accompanied him to the First Ecumenical Council (Nicaea, 325). It was at this Council that Athanasius became renowned for his knowledge of, devotion to, and zeal for Orthodoxy. He contributed greatly to the destruction of the heresy of Arius and the strengthening of Orthodoxy. He wrote the Symbol of Faith (the Creed) which was adopted at the Council. Following the death of Alexander, Athanasius was elected Archbishop of Alexandria. He remained in his calling as Archbishop of Alexandria for forty years, although not for the entire time on the archiepiscopal throne. With few exceptions, he was persecuted by heretics throughout his life. Of the emperors, he was persecuted the most by Constantius, Julian and Valens; of the bishops, by Eusebius of Nicomedia and many others; and of heretics in general, by Arius and his followers. Athanasius was forced to hide from his persecutors at various times: once in a well, once in a grave, and sometimes in private homes or in the deserts. Twice he was forced to flee to Rome. Only for a while before his death did he live peacefully, as a good shepherd among his good flock, who truly loved him. Few are the saints who were so mercilessly slandered and so criminally persecuted as was St. Athanasius. His great soul patiently endured all for the love of Christ and, in the end, emerged victorious from this entire terrible and long-lasting struggle. For counsel, for comfort and for moral support, Athanasius often visited St. Anthony the Great, whom he respected as his spiritual father. A man who formulated the greatest truth, Athanasius had much to suffer for that truth — until the Lord gave him repose in His Kingdom as His faithful servant, in the year 373.
The Holy Apostle Timothy*
Timothy was one of the Seventy Apostles. He was born in Lystra in Lycaonia of a Greek father and a Jewish mother. The Apostle Paul praised his mother and grandmother because of their sincere faith (II Timothy 1:4-5). Timothy first met the great Apostle in Lystra, and was himself a witness when Paul healed the one lame from birth. Later, Timothy was an almost constant traveling companion of Paul, going with him to Achaia, Macedonia, Italy and Spain. Sweet in soul, he was a great zealot for the Faith and a superb preacher. Timothy contributed much to the spreading and establishing of the Christian Faith. Paul calls him my own son in the Faith (I Timothy 1:2). After Paul’s martyrdom, St. John the Evangelist was Timothy’s teacher. When the Emperor Dometian banished John from Ephesus to the island of Patmos, Timothy remained in Ephesus to serve as bishop. During an idolatrous feast called Katagogium, the pagans, resentful of the Christians, disguised themselves and treacherously attacked Timothy, killing him in about the year 93. His honourable relics were later translated to Constantinople and were interred in the Church of the Twelve Apostles, beside the graves of St. Luke the Evangelist and St. Andrew the First-called.
Xenia, Deaconess of Rome*
Xenia was born in Rome, the only daughter of a prominent senator. Drawn by love for Christ, she refused to enter into marriage as her parents wished. To avoid it, she secretly fled her home with two of her slaves, and arrived on the island of Kos, at a place called Mylassa. There she founded a convent for virgins, where she lived an ascetic life until her death. Even though she was a frail woman, she possessed a steadfast endurance in fasting, prayer and all-night vigils. She often stood all night in prayer. She was dressed more poorly than all the other sisters, and she often sprinkled the bread she ate with ashes from the censer. At the time of her death (450), a wonderful sign appeared over the virgins’ convent: a wreath of stars with a cross in the center, brighter than the sun. Many who were sick received healing from her relics. Her female slaves (who became tonsured nuns) continued in the example of their abbess. When they reposed, they were buried, according to their wish, at the feet of Blessed Xenia.
Gregory the Theologian, Archbishop of Constantinople*
Gregory was born in Nazianzus of a Greek father (who later became a Christian and a bishop) and a Christian mother. Before his baptism, he studied in Athens with Basil the Great and Julian the Apostate. Gregory often prophesied that Julian would become an apostate and a persecutor of the Church, and this actually happened. Gregory’s good mother, Nonna, had an especially great influence on him. When he had completed his studies Gregory was baptized. St. Basil consecrated him as Bishop of Sasima, and Emperor Theodosius the Great summoned him to fill the vacant archiepiscopal throne of Constantinople. He wrote numerous works, the most famous of which are those on theology, for which he is called the Theologian. Especially known, because of its depth, is his work Homilies on the Holy Trinity. Gregory wrote against the heretic Macedonius, who erroneously taught that the Holy Spirit is a creation of God. He also wrote against Apollinarius, who erroneously taught that Christ did not have a human soul, but that His divinity was in lieu of His soul. Additionally, Gregory wrote against Emperor Julian the Apostate, his one-time fellow student. In 381, when a debate began regarding his election as archbishop, he withdrew on his own and issued a statement: “Those who deprive us of our archiepiscopal throne cannot deprive us of God.” Afterward he left Constantinople and went to Nazianzus, and there he lived a life of solitude and prayer, writing beneficial books. Although he was in poor health throughout his entire life, Gregory nevertheless lived to be eighty years old. His relics were later transferred to Rome. A reliquary containing his head reposes in the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow. He was, and remains, a great and wonderful light of the Orthodox Church, as much by his meekness and purity of character as by the unsurpassable depth of his mind. He reposed in the Lord in the year 390.
Ephraim the Syrian*
Ephraim was born in Syria of poor parents during the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great. He spent his youth rather tempestuously, but suddenly a change took place in his soul, and he began to burn with love for the Lord Jesus. Ephraim was a disciple of St. James of Nisibis (January 13). Due to the great grace of God, wisdom flowed from his tongue like a stream of honey, and ceaseless tears flowed from his eyes. Industrious as a bee, Ephraim continually wrote books, orally taught the monks in the monastery and the people in the town of Edessa, and dedicated himself to prayer and contemplation. Numerous are his books and beautiful are his prayers, the most famous of which is his prayer recited during the season of Great Lent: “O Lord and Master of my life, a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition and idle talking give me not; but rather a spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love bestow upon me, Thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not condemn my brother; for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.” When they wanted to appoint him a bishop by force, he pretended to be insane and began to race through the city of Edessa, dragging his garment behind him. Seeing this, the people left him in peace. Ephraim was a contemporary and friend of St. Basil the Great. St. Ephraim is especially considered to be the apostle of repentance. Even today, his works soften many hearts hardened by sin and return them to Christ. He reposed in extreme old age in the year 378.
The Three Hierarchs: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom*
Each of these saints has his own feast day: St. Basil the Great, January 1; St. Gregory the Theologian, January 25; and St. John Chrysostom, January 27. This combined feast day, January 30, was instituted in the eleventh century during the reign of Emperor Alexius Comnenus. Once, a debate arose among the people concerning who among the three was the greatest. Some extolled Basil because of his purity and courage; others extolled Gregory for his unequalled depth and lofty mind in theology; still others extolled Chrysostom because of his eloquence and clarity in expounding the Faith. Thus some were called Basilians, others Gregorians, and the third were called Johannites. This debate was settled by divine providence, to the benefit of the Church and to the even greater glory of the three saints. Bishop John of Euchaita (June 14) had a vision in a dream: At first all three of these saints appeared to him separately in great glory and indescribable beauty, and after that, all three appeared together. They said to him: “As you see, we are one in God and there is nothing contradictory in us; neither is there a first or a second among us.” The saints also advised Bishop John to write a common service for them and to order a common feast day of celebration. Following this wonderful vision, the debate was settled in this manner: January 30 would be designated as the common feast of these three hierarchs. The Greeks consider the feast not only an ecclesiastical feast, but also their greatest national and school holiday.