Every single day of the year, the Church commemorates at least one Saint or Feast of the Lord or of the Mother of God, or some other event of significance to the life of the Church. This, along with the Church’s inclination to unceasing prayer (“Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18]), has led to the development of a treasury of divine services and a vast array of poetic and hymnographic texts. Regarding the organization of these daily commemorations, the Church has developed a scheme: twelve books, one for each month of the year, filled with hymns for the major Saints or events for each day of that month, and a daily list that goes through each of the people or events commemorated. For example, on January 21, the “main” Saint is Maximos the Confessor, and this is the person to whom a few pages in the January Menaion (that is, the “Month Book”) are dedicated. But, along with him on that day are remembered twelve others (and more, depending on the local tradition)! This listing of Saints for each day in a given month is the Synaxarion (literally, the “gathering around”).
January happens to be the thickest book in the series.
You see, the ‘bigger’ the Feast or Saint that is celebrated, the more pages they are likely to take up in the Menaion, since more poems and hymns have been written in their memory. January is packed. It’s full of commemorations like the Circumcision of Chirst and St. Basil the Great (January 1st), Theophany (the 6th), St. John the Baptist (the 7th), St. Gregory of Nyssa (the 10th), St. Anthony the Great (the 17th), Sts. Athanasios and Cyril (the 18th), St. Makarios the Great (the 19th), St. Euthymios the Great (the 20th), St. Maximos the Confessor (the 21st), St. Gregory the Theologian (the 25th), Transfer of the Relics of St. John Chrysostom (the 27th), St. Ephraim of Syria (the 28th), and the Three Hierarchs (Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom) together on January 30th.
This month, our society begins a new calendar year, and a secular tradition is to make New Year’s resolutions. This is not a practice that is without merit, as self-reflection and discernment are important parts of the Orthodox Christian’s life – so long as such endeavors have a maturing relationship with Christ as their aim. In fact, it is this ongoing work that, with the help of God, we hope will make us worthy of enteral life, or, to look at it another way, to become saints ourselves, as we are called to be! In January, we as Christians are surrounded by a plethora of examples worthy of imitation – Saints of all types from whom we might receive inspiration or insights to the spiritual life, which might aid us to improve in each passing day. Below, we’ll look at just a few examples from the month of January that might help us in this way.
St. Basil the Great (January 1)
Saint Basil (d. 379) came from a holy family – his mother, grandmother, sister, and three brothers are all saints – and was elected to be Bishop of his region at the age of forty. He was very well educated, but abandoned secular studies and work to pursue an ascetic life, inspired by his sister, Macrina. He wrote a number of homilies, studies, and letters that have helped shape the theological and pastoral tradition of the Church. We can look to St. Basil as inspiration to excel in our studies and our work, and furthermore to dedicate all these things in service to God and neighbor: “Devote yourself entirely to the advocacy of the truth, and to the intellectual energies God gives you for the establishment of what is good” (Letter VII, to His Friend, Gregory [the Theologian]).
St. Xenia of Rome (January 24)
St. Xenia (d. 450) started her life as Eusebia, the daughter of a Roman senator. Because of her societal rank, her marriage was to be arranged for the benefit of the family and the greater societal order. However, Eusebia felt deep in her heart a longing to live a life close to Christ. Taking two of the household servants, she fled her home. She and her companions were taken in by the Monastery of St. Andrew in Milassa, and she changed her name to “Xenia” (which means “foreigner”). She bought land, built a church and a monastery, and lived a life of purity and devotedness to God. She was made a deacon by the local bishop, Paul, and in that role taught and healed many, leading them to live a Christian life. Xenia was known in particular for her profound humility. We can look to St. Xenia as inspiration for singular devotion to God – not letting anything coming between us and our longing for Christ, even (and, especially) familial or societal expectations. Additionally, we see that she not only had this devotion to Christ, but acted on it, working in the Church to provide comfort for the poor and the needy, healing the sick, and teaching. All of us have opportunities to do this, and the Church offers many different ways to act on these intentions. Talk to your priest about opportunities to serve in a hands-on way in your community. If you haven’t done this before, you may be surprised by what you experience.
St. Anthony the Great (January 17th)
As a young man, St. Anthony heard in the Gospel of Matthew, “If you would be perfect, go and sell what you have, and give to the poor” – and did just that. He withdrew into the Egyptian desert where he spent years in intense prayer and fasting. With time, he gained a reputation as a holy man, and was a great aid to the faithful on an individual basis, but also to the Church in its greater sense. He is known as the ‘father of monasticism.’ Despite such a hard way of life, St. Anthony lived to be one hundred and five years old. One way we can use the example of St. Anthony in our own lives is to work at establishing our own inner ‘desert’ into which we can retreat and pray, and by moderating our desires and appetites. Make regular time(s) for quietude, prayer, and study. Eat only what you need. Do not buy frivolous things. Starting small in these areas can lead to great changes.
St. Maximos the Confessor (January 21st)
St. Maximos lived in a time when the Church was struggling with ideas that questioned the very person of Christ, namely, the controversy between orthodoxy and the heresy of monothelitism. Monothelitism is a heresy that asserted Christ had only one will, that of the Father (thus having no choice but to do the will of the Father). Orthodoxy, however, maintains that Christ, being fully man and fully God, perfectly aligned the human will with the divine will, part of what makes our salvation such a great and awesome thing. St. Maximos, in defense of orthodoxy, was brutally tortured and sent into exile, where he later died from his injuries. St. Maximos left a wealth of theological writings behind that are still the subject of much active scholarship and interpretation to this day. Much like St. Basil, we can look to St. Maximos as inspiration to do the best we can in our work, to apply our talents to the glory of God. But, particularly with St. Maximos, we can look at his example of unflinchingly standing up for the true faith – even when it wasn’t popular. Just think, how many of his own peers probably thought he was throwing his life away, when it would have just been ‘smarter’ to leave things alone. We face this temptation in many small and seemingly insignificant ways every day, with jokes we hear at school, social functions we attend, business decisions we might make, or as everyday citizens faced with political dialogue that challenges and marginalizes what we believe as Orthodox Christians.
St. Ephraim the Syrian (January 28th)
St. Ephraim (d. 379), who it must first be said was an ascetic, was a composer of a multitude of homilies, poems, hymns, and prayers. He is one of the main pillars of the Orthodox tradition of expounding the Truth of Christ in this way – that is, not just through dry, systematic, scientific treatises that try to exhaustively ‘prove’ the truth of our Faith. Rather, St. Ephraim’s approach embraced and communicated the mystery of our Faith. God, in His essence, is unknowable. Yet, per Christ’s own words, we hear that “this is eternal life: that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). While other ways of approaching and understanding Faith are good and helpful, the aspect of mystery is where we engage this unknowability of God, and it is in this area of our experience that the language of poetry and song must be employed to even begin to express the inexpressible. We can turn to St. Ephraim for inspiration in opening ourselves up more to this side of the experience of faith. Seek out and read the writings of St. Ephraim. Open the books of the Church and read through the hymns that have been written. Better yet, go to Church and hear them! Or, for those who have the gift of poetry, you might be inspired to write your own poems about your experience of faith.
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These are just a few examples, from the month of January alone, that we can employ in our own lives as we face the new year. What opportunities do we see in our own lives, for growth in our relationship with Christ? In what areas can we serve? How are we using our God-given talents – for selfish reasons, or to glorify God…or are we not using them at all? Do we live life in such a way that maybe, if we’re honest, we can stand to cut back on things – whether in terms of spending habits, diet, the language we use, the way we dress, and so on? Are we willing to stand up for what we know and believe is right, according to our Faith, regardless of the consequences?
May these questions and examples inspire us as this new year begins, and may God bless us each according to our need to grow into the saints we are called to be!
By Andreas Houpos, Pastoral Assistant