January 3, 2019

The Month of January in the Orthodox Church

By John Sanidopoulos

January (in Latin, Ianuarius) is named after the Latin word for "door" (ianua), since January is the door to the year and an opening to new beginnings. It is the first month of the year in the Julian and Gregorian calendars and the first of seven months to have a length of 31 days. The first day of the month is known as New Year's Day. It is, on average, the coldest month of the year within most of the Northern Hemisphere (where it is the second month of winter) and the warmest month of the year within most of the Southern Hemisphere (where it is the second month of summer). In the Southern Hemisphere, January is the seasonal equivalent of July in the Northern Hemisphere and vice versa.

Traditionally, the original Roman calendar consisted of 10 months totaling 304 days, winter being considered a month-less period. Around 713 BC, the semi-mythical successor of Romulus, King Numa Pompilius, is supposed to have added the months of January and February, so that the calendar covered a standard lunar year (354 days). Although March was originally the first month in the old Roman calendar, January became the first month of the calendar year either under Numa or under the Decemvirs about 450 BC (Roman writers differ). According to Theodor Mommsen (The History of Rome, vol. 4), 1 January became the first day of the year in 600 AUC of the Roman calendar (153 BC), due to disasters in the Lusitanian War. A Lusitanian chief called Punicus invaded the Roman territory, defeated two Roman governors, and killed their troops. The Romans resolved to send a consul to Hispania, and in order to accelerate the dispatch of aid, "they even made the new consuls enter into office two months and a half before the legal time" (March 15).

Despite the secular year beginning on January 1, in the Orthodox Church the beginning of the ecclesiastical year is on September 1. Instead, January 1 falls in the middle of the twelve day period between Christmas (Dec. 25) and Theophany (Jan. 6), with a special and important feast of its own - the Circumcision of Christ. It is considered one of the busiest of the liturgical months, due to it being populated with important feasts and saints. This may be due to the fact that it is the last month before Great Lent can have an effect on it, at which time festivals are forbidden on weekdays and limited on weekends. Also, beginning in the late fourth century, the month of January was dedicated to the commemoration of important teachers and shepherds of the Church, which is still reflected in the calendar today.

We begin the month of January with a dual feast of great importance within the Church. The first is the Circumcision of Christ, which took place eight days after Christ was born, and therefore falls eight days after Christmas in the liturgical calendar. The importance of this feast lies in the fact that it proves God indeed came in the flesh, and by doing so He also submitted Himself to the Mosaic Law as a child of Abraham. The second is the commemoration of Saint Basil the Great, one of the Three Hierarchs of the Church and among the greatest Fathers of the Church. This dual commemoration has become so conflicting in the Church, over which feast to emphasize, that often we find in icons of the Circumcision a smaller image of Saint Basil, making him look as if he was present at the event.

With January 1st behind us, we now enter the Pre-festal days of Holy Theophany. Like the hymns for the Nativity of Christ which begin a week before Christmas as slightly modified versions of the hymns of Holy Week, we also begin on January 2nd the same thing for Holy Theophany. And like Holy Week, we especially focus on preparing for the Day of Theophany (January 6). One way the Church does this is by celebrating the feast day of the Prophet Malachi on January 3rd, who was the Prophet that foretold the coming of the Forerunner and Baptist John, who would prepare the way for the manifestation of the Lord to the people of Israel. Then January 5th is known as the Eve of Lights, for the radiance of the feast of Theophany the next day. This culminates with Holy Theophany itself, or the Feast of Lights, on January 6th, which is considered one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church. And just like the day after Christmas we have a special commemoration, or Synaxis, for the principle character of the feast without whom it would not have been possible; in that case being the Mother of God herself, so also on the day after Theophany, January 7th, we have a special Synaxis for Saint John the Forerunner. Then the octave of the feast of Theophany culminates on January 14th, with the leavetaking of the feast of Theophany.

In the Synoptic Gospels we read that immediately after Jesus was baptized, He was led into the desert by the Holy Spirit in order to be tempted by the devil. The Lord spent forty days of complete abstinence in the desert, where He faced the temptations of the devil, and overcame them all. In imitation of the Lord, Saint Euthymios the Great in the early fifth century would annually leave his Palestinian monastery for the inner desert after the leavetaking of the feast of Holy Theophany, which was January 14th, in order to face the temptations of the devil, "sundered from all human intercourse and yearning to consort with God in solitude through prayer." He would return to his monastery from his sojourn in the desert on Palm Sunday, in order to celebrate Holy Week and Easter with his fellow monks and disciples. This is most likely the origins of the period of Great Lent, based on the forty day fast of the Lord following His baptism.

Saint Euthymios further influenced the month of January for the Church. In the Life of Euthymios written by Cyril of Scythopolis, we read that before his death he was granted to know in advance the day of his repose. He died on January 20th, which was a Saturday (this is now his feast day). On the Tuesday before, January 16th, we read that the Saint ordered a final vigil before his departure to be celebrated in the monastery in memory of Saint Anthony the Great. Though we do not know for sure, this may indicate the origins of the feast of Saint Anthony the Great as being established by Saint Euthymios on January 17th.

The tradition of Euthymios to annually retreat into the desert after the leavetaking of Holy Theophany was kept alive following his death by his disciples, most notably by Saint Savvas the Sanctified. However, there was one slight change made by Saint Savvas, which we read about in the Life of Savvas also by Cyril of Scythopolis:

"The solitary and bishop John, great in virtue, told me that our holy father Savvas was eager to follow in every way the manner of life of the great Euthymios. So, since the latter had been accustomed at an appointed time in January to retire to the utter desert and spend Lent there, he would depart, slightly altering the custom, after the commemoration of Saint Anthony: he would celebrate the commemoration of the great Euthymios, which is celebrated on 20 January, and then immediately retire to the utter desert, withdrawing from all human society until Palm Sunday. This he did almost every year."

It seems, therefore, that Euthymios established the feast of Saint Anthony for January 17th in order to encourage both himself and his disciples for their own ascetical sojourn in the desert, which was in imitation of Saint Anthony, who is known as the first monk to journey into the innermost or utter desert in pursuit of a pure solitary life with God. In this way, those who followed this practice, would not only have the Lord as an example to imitate, but also a servant of the Lord in the person of Anthony to imitate. Even in our context today, for both monastics and non-monastics, the feast of Saint Anthony falling on January 17th can serve for us as an example to imitate him as we soon embark on the journey of Great Lent.

With all this, we also commemorate in the month of January many high profile Saints and Fathers of the Church. Among these are the following: St. Sylvestor the Pope of Rome (Jan. 2), St. Seraphim of Sarov (Jan. 2), Synaxis of the Seventy Apostles (Jan. 4), St. Syncletike (Jan. 5), St. George of Chozeba (Jan. 8), St. Polyeuktos (Jan. 9), St. Gregory of Nyssa (Jan. 10), St. Theodosios the Cenobiarch (Jan. 11), St. Tatiana (Jan. 12), St. Maximos of Kavsokalyva (Jan. 13), St. Nina (Jan. 14), Holy Martyrs of Sinai and Raitho (Jan. 14), St. Paul of Thebes (Jan. 15), the Chains of St. Peter the Apostle (Jan. 16), St. Anthony the Great (Jan. 17), Holy New Martyr George of Ioannina (Jan. 17), St. Athanasius the Great (Jan. 18), St. Cyril of Alexandria (Jan. 18), St. Makarios of Egypt (Jan. 19), St. Makarios of Alexandria (Jan. 19), St. Euthymios the Great (Jan. 20), St. Maximus the Confessor (Jan. 21), St. Timothy the Apostle (Jan. 22), St. Dionysios of Olympus (Jan. 23), St. Xenia the Martyr (Jan. 24), St. Neophytos the Recluse (Jan. 24), St. Xenia of St. Petersburg (Jan. 24), St. Gregory the Theologian (Jan. 25), St. Xenophon (Jan. 26), Translation of the Relics of St. John Chrysostom (Jan. 27), St. Ephraim the Syrian (Jan. 28), Translation of the Relics of St. Ignatius the God-bearer (Jan. 29), Sts. Cyrus and John the Unmercenaries (Jan. 31), St. Arsenios of Paros (Jan. 31), and many many more.

The month culminates on January 30th with the feast of the Holy Three Hierarchs - Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom. This feast arose during the reign of the Emperor Alexios Komnenos (1081-1118), when a controversy arose in Constantinople among men learned in the Christian faith and zealous for virtue about these three holy Hierarchs and Fathers of the Church.

With each faction setting up one of the Fathers against the other two in this way, the whole Christian people were soon caught up in the dispute, which, far from promoting devotion to the Saints in Constantinople, resulted in nothing but ill-feeling and endless argument. Then one night the three holy Hierarchs appeared in a dream to Saint John Mauropous, the Metropolitan of Euchaita (Oct. 5), separately at first, then together and, speaking with a single voice, they said among other things: "You can conjoin our three commemorations in one feast and compose a service for it, inserting the hymns dedicated to each of us according to the skill and knowledge that God has given you." Saint John Mauropous immediately assembled the people and informed them of this revelation. As he was respected by all for his virtue and admired for his powerful eloquence, the three parties made peace and everyone urged him to lose no time in composing the service of the joint feast. With fine discernment, he selected January 30 as appropriate to the celebration, for it would set the seal to the month in which each of the three Hierarchs already had a separate commemoration.

Though the month of January is among the darkest times of the year, the Church has made it one of its most luminous with such a vast array of feasts. From the beginning right through the end of the month, the Church does not cease to celebrate and keep festival. For soon Great Lent will be upon us, and the mood will be changed to one that is more sober and reflective. Therefore, let us take advantage of the opportunities this month offers to us, and celebrate the Light of the world, Who has come to disperse every darkness.