The circumcision of the heart

1 January OS 2016 – The Circumcision of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ; St. Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesaria in Cappadocia

Though the liturgical New Year is on September 1st, the civil New Year for centuries has been on January 1st.   Today is the civil New Year according to the Orthodox calendar, and on this occasion St. Theophan the Recluse reflects on how we should begin another year of service to the Lord:

Since New Year’s Day is the beginning of the days of the year, we ought to gather in our soul those thoughts, feelings, and dispositions that would direct our affairs throughout the year in a Christian way. We will find these the moment we bring to mind the meaning of New Year’s Day in the spiritual life. In the spiritual life, New Year’s Day is when one who has been living carelessly becomes zealous about salvation and pleasing God. When one makes this resolution, then all is rebuilt afresh both internally and externally, upon new beginnings – the old passes away and all is new. If you have this, renew it; if not acquire it – and for you this will be a New Year’s Day.

 A worthy celebration of the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord and of the commemoration of St. Basil the Great is also connected with this. The essence of the change we have mentioned is that a person begins from this moment to live solely for his salvation, for God; whereas previously he lived exclusively for himself, preparing destruction for himself. Now he abandons former habits, all comforts, and all in which he found pleasure. He cuts off passions and lustful dispositions and takes on works of strict self-denial. Such a change precisely represents that which, according to the Apostle, the circumcision of the heart should be. The celebration of the Circumcision of the Lord reminds us of this and obligates us to do it, while St. Basil the Great provides us with an example to follow. So all the themes which crowd our consciousness on New Year’s Day come together into one – our inner renewal through the circumcision of the heart. If it pleases the Lord to give someone this mind-set on New Year’s Day – that is, not only to think in such a way, but also to bring all of this into his life – he will celebrate New Year’s Day in a most perfect Christian manner, and will prepare for a Christian passage of the whole year. On the subsequent New Year’s Day he will have only to renew and enliven what he has now taken on. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 25-26

In the secular society in which we live, very few Orthodox of school age or working age are able to take off and go to Church this day, even when one’s parish has divine services for January 1st.   It seems like another regular day, another school day, another workday. But we know that today is indeed the first of January, and we can take some time off today from our duties to go aside and reflect on the words St. Theophan has written above.

The saint sums up the theme of today in one expression: “circumcision of the heart.” In today’s reading from the Apostolos for the Feast of the Circumcision, St. Paul speaks of this:

Brethren: Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power: In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. Colossians 2: 8-12

 In the fleshly circumcision He received on the eighth day of His birth, Our Lord fulfilled the Old Covenant and made way for the New: not a circumcision according to the flesh, but of the heart, of the spirit.   This had always been the real meaning of circumcision anyway, even in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people of the Old Israel,  “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked (Deut. 10:16).” And again, “… the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live (Deut. 30:6).” Later, the Holy Prophet Jeremias warns the people of Judea and Jerusalem, “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doing (Jeremiah 4:4).” In other words, mere physical circumcision was never sufficient to make a man the Lord’s true servant. Throughout the Old Testament, we see the Lord commanding, begging, persuading: “Serve Me with all your heart.”

In Acts 15, we read how the Holy Spirit inspired the first council ever held in the Church, the council of the Holy Apostles in Jerusalem, to abrogate the obligation of physical circumcision for the Gentile converts to the Faith.   The Church had a new and far greater initiation into the life of grace: Holy Baptism, which was not for men only but for women as well. But the image and true meaning of the old circumcision still remain: We must cut away our fleshly passions, which enslave us and prevent spiritual life, and we must be totally dedicated to God in body and in soul.   The baptismal grace is always there, but it does not energize in us unless we cooperate. Thus in his meditations for today, St. Theophan exhorts us to examine our lives and to re-dedicate ourselves to doing the Lord’s holy will with all our hearts.

On this day also the Lord received His name, the name above every name, the Name of JESUS, which the archangel had foretold to the Holy Virgin and commanded to be given to the Child by St. Joseph at His circumcision.   We can regard this day, then, also as the day on which the Lord Jesus gives us His name as an invincible weapon against the enemies who fight against us, and re-dedicate ourselves to the Prayer of Jesus.   This is an essential weapon in our struggle to acquire the true circumcision of the heart.

On this day also the Lord Jesus shed His Precious Blood for the first time, foreshadowing His divine Passion for our salvation.   One drop of this Blood is more precious than the whole universe, and yet He did not hesitate to mount the Cross and shed all of His Blood for us. How can we not desire to return such love with all our hearts?

This profound Feast of the Lord coincides by God’s Providence with the day on which St. Basil the Great departed this earthly life at the age of 50, having been a baptized Christian for a mere seventeen years and a bishop for only ten!    In those few years, he fought ceaselessly for the Orthodox Faith against the Arians, Eunomians and other heretics, struggled constantly for the unity of the Church in the East, established monasteries and hospices for the poor, rooted out corruption in the clergy, ordained many worthy bishops and priests, wrote commentaries on Holy Scripture and composed divine services, and, in short, became the perfect model of the bishop, combining the life of intense prayer and extreme fasting with ceaseless activity for the salvation of souls. And throughout this time, he was almost constantly ill: at one point, according to one of his letters, he had a fever continuously for 50 days.   By the age of 45, he had lost all of his teeth. At age 50, utterly worn out by a life of total self-denial, he reposed in the Lord.

As he was dying, did he see ultimate success in Church matters crowning his life? By no means.   Many heresies and schisms were still tearing the Eastern Church apart: reposing in 379, he did not live to see the triumph of the Orthodox Faith with the accession of the Emperor Theodosius the Great and the Second Ecumenical Council in 381.  What mattered to him was not to live on in order to see “success,” but to repose in the grace of Christ, in repentance, in the secure knowledge that he had done everything possible, with all his strength and every last breath, to do God’s holy will. What more could any of us ask for?

The duty is ours; the consequences are God’s. By the prayers of Great Basil, let us love the Lord with all our hearts and do His holy will. He will take care of the rest.

A blessed 2016 to all!

 

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