The reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians. (2:8-12)
My brothers and sisters, the grace of God has brought us to a new year today. How wonderful it is that we can be together doing the most important thing as a church family. As we are celebrating the new year we are also celebrating two very important events in the life of the Church. The first is the eighth day since the Feast of Nativity, the birth of Christ. This is important because on the eighth day according to the Jewish law and traditions, every male child was circumcised. This practice began with Abraham the father of the Jewish nation. It was established directly by God and was to be a sign of the covenant or sacred contract between God and His followers.
Thousands of years later, we see that the Jewish people continued in this practice that was deemed necessary and fundamental to being a Jew in good standing. In fact, if you refused to circumcise your male child, he would not be recognized as a Jew. He would be treated as an outsider. So it is no surprise that we see faithful Joseph and Mary do the same with the infant Christ. This practice of circumcising the infant boys also points us to the Church’s practice of infant baptism. Contrary to the beliefs of some, the covenant doesn’t depend on the understanding of the one who enters into it, rather it depends on the faith of the one who brings the child into the covenant and it likewise depends on the faithfulness of God to His people. The Church understood that baptism was the fulfillment of the practice of circumcision. Circumcision is seen as an outward cutting of the flesh. But baptism was seen as a circumcision of the inner heart by the work of the Holy Spirit.
Today the Orthodox Church also celebrates the memory of one of the greatest saints of the Church, St. Basil the Great. You will notice that one of the features of the day is that we are actually celebrating the liturgy of St. Basil instead of the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. In the early church it was actually much more normal to celebrate this liturgy but now in modern practice we celebrate the liturgy of St. Basil about ten times a year including the Sundays of Great Lent. I highly recommend that one of your practices in the new year would be to read the lives of the saints. There are extended versions of their lives at Patristic Nectar and those are available as audio as well. And I would ask you to read about St. Basil and you will find out why the Church calls him “great”.
As it is the beginning of the new year we are inclined to think about the year that has past. We should do so with gratitude to God for all that He has done for us and given us and all the ways He has blessed us throughout the last year and throughout our lives. As we look back at the last year we should also have time to carefully examine ourselves and our choices and even our beliefs to see whether those aspects of our life really and truly glorify Jesus Christ or if they are simply a mirror of ourselves and our own desires. In this way, our looking back will be fruitful and balanced. And this will also lead to a fruitful and balanced approach to this new year.
It just so happens that on this day, the Church prescribes for us a portion of the letter of St. Paul to the Colossians that challenges us to examine ourselves and our ways of thinking. St. Paul writes “Brethren, see to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.”
St. Paul speaks to the churches and writes to them with love. Real love. We know this because he rarely sugarcoats his message to them. The one who doesn’t love you, never challenges you and instead tiptoes and attempts not to rub you the wrong way for fear of offending you. The one who claims to love you and shows their love by supporting your misguided ways and your sins is not your friend. The one who tells you that you are well when you are very sick, doesn’t love you. This is part of the sickness of our country and culture. The word love is thrown around frequently but it can’t possibly mean love in the Christian sense because it doesn’t lead to healing and life. It is devoid of the life giver. We also can’t be healed unless we are willing to hear the truth with patient humility and we accept the medicine and healing that can only come from the Master, Jesus Christ. St. Paul tells us that we should not become prey to philosophy and empty deceit. What does this word “prey” mean? It means “An animal hunted or caught by another for food.” Or “An object or victim of attack.”
St. Paul acknowledges that false philosophy and human traditions can make you become prey. They leave you vulnerable to attack and to capture. Prey to whom? Prey to Satan and to spiritual death. The apostle tells us that the medicine and antidote to falling into such traps is to live “according to Christ.” As we celebrate the new year and think about our own resolutions for this coming year we should contemplate what it means to live “according to Christ” and what it means to live “the fullness of life in Him.” It shouldn’t surprise that we learn what it means to live according to Christ by studying the words and the life of Our Lord Jesus in the 4 gospels. But just in case that isn’t enough, there are other ways to contemplate what it means to live according to Christ. We can study the lives of the saints. The life of each saint is a rich and unique tapestry of how a Christian life can look. No two saints lives are identical.
We can study the teachings of the Church. Where do we find such teachings? We find them in her sermons, in the commentaries on holy Scripture, in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, and in the canons and the councils of the Church. Each of these offers us a different angle and insight into what it means to live according to Christ. When we put these things together and we balance them with the reading of the Bible, we find that there is no possible way that we will be swayed and deceived by the philosophies of the world. Instead of being ignorant or confused, we will live full and rich lives under the spiritual protection of God.
There is one more aspect to life in Christ that I want to share with you and that is our participation in communal prayer and worship. The services of the Church teach and heal and bring freedom and peace if you are faithful, humble and patient. Worship is the very act of making God first in our lives. It is the fulfillment of the first and greatest commandment. As we grow to make worship a priority in our lives, we will find that we have opened enough space in our hearts and lives for Christ to truly enter.
As we begin the new year I want to leave you with this beautiful prayer from St. Thalassios. He writes,
“Christ, Master of all, free us from all destructive passions and the thoughts born of them. For Your sake we came into being, so that we might delight in the paradise which You have planted and in which You have placed us. We brought our present disgrace upon ourselves, preferring destruction to the delights of blessedness. We have paid for this, for we have exchanged eternal life for death. O Master, as once You have looked on us, look on us now; as You became man, save all of us. For You came to save us who were lost. Do not exclude us from the company of those who are being saved. Raise up our souls and save our bodies, cleansing us from all impurity. Break the fetters of the passions that constrain us, as once You have broken the ranks of the impure demons. Free us from their tyranny, so that we may worship You alone, the eternal light, having risen from the dead and dancing with the angels in the blessed, eternal and indissoluble dance. Amen.