Although the Orthodox Church marks the beginning of the Church year on Sept. 1 (called The Indiction marking the beginning of the new regnal year of the Byzantine emperor), the beginning of our new calendar year gives us the opportunity to reflect on some ways we can help to improve our own lives and the life of our community.
On Jan. 1 the Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of a great saint, Basil the Great, the archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. Although the mention of these ancient places (which are now in modern-day Turkey) evoke images of the misty past, Basil (who lived from 329/330 to 379 AD) could be called a saint for our own day. He is best known both for his defense of the faith proclaimed at the Council of Nicaea in 325 against the Emperor Valens and for his establishment of monastic life based on a communal experience. What most people do not know about Basil is that, as bishop of Caesarea, he established an entire city outside of Caesarea called Basileia, which consisted of hospitals, homes for single mothers, poor houses and other institutions for the care of the poor and the sick. Basil even employed women doctors to take care of women patients.
Basil also never ceased exhorting his wealthy congregation to use their wealth to help the poor. He saw rich and poor existing in a symbiotic relationship, since the poor offered the rich the perfect opportunity to fulfill the command of Christ to sell one’s possessions and give them to the poor. Those who have the goods of this world, he constantly reminded his people, did not possess what they had, but held these things as stewards of God, and were responsible to distribute them to those in need. As he says in one of his sermons:
“He who strips a man of his clothes is to be called a thief. Is not he who, when he is able, fails to clothe the naked, worthy of no other title? The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.”
These are strong words, but they are as relevant to us in the 21st century as they were in the 4th. Basil should inspire us, as we begin a new year, to reflect on our material possessions, to see what God has given us for our needs and what He has given us to hold as stewards for others, and to be willing to part with whatever is superfluous. Those who receive these things, in turn, should show their gratitude by keeping their benefactors in their prayers.
We need to begin with ourselves. One by one we can transform our society as St. Basil the Great transformed his. Instead of isolated individuals, these acts of love will make us and our world into a single organism, each part working for the benefit of the other.
Father Constantine Newman is pastor of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Newburyport.