January 1, 2020

Homily on the Circumcision of Christ and Basil the Great (St. Amphilochios of Iconium)

St. Amphilochios of Iconium

The great Paul declared that the written "Law possesses a shadow of future good things, not the very image itself" (Heb 10:1). For it is just so with painters who have set their sights on the original form and the living shape: first, using black pigment they carefully outline the form of their subject in shadows on the canvas. Then, artfully mixing up different colors, and casting them in shadow and light, they clearly display the original shape through imitation of its form.

So too the Law of the Spirit, just as in living forms and pure objects, envisions the good things prepared in heaven for those who are worthy: now the shadows and types of these things, through Moses and the Old [Testament], were faintly 11 sketched out beforehand. But through Christ and the New [Testament], the teachings of piety and truth, indeed cast to such an extent in very florid and bright colors, have been set before the eyes of those who see the brighter form of celestial and unseen good things. Just as when the form has been arranged in colors, and has received its proper beauty, the shadow which was laid down is hidden and passes away: so now while good things have been hidden in heaven, when later they are revealed, the same image of the things, passing away, will cease to be.

As it is written, “Then the prophecies will pass away, then forms of knowledge will cease: for we know only partially, and we prophesy only partially. But when completion has come, then what is partial will pass away” (1 Cor 13:8-10). So therefore the old things have gone away, while all the new things have come to be; and the shadows and the types have passed away, while the images of things themselves have suddenly become visible through the grace of the Spirit and the apostolic wisdom of God, let us disregard the rest of the legal types, and the shadows: let us have regard instead for the finely etched form of the things itself.

Christ and the Law

Also does the divine apostle say: “forgetting what is behind, and stretching toward what is ahead, we pursue the goal, to the reward of God’s portion above [Phil 3:13]; so that we may no longer be children tossed about by waves, and 12 borne about by every wind [anemos]” (that is, spirit [pneuma]) “of doctrine” (Eph 4:14), let us speak and discern and reason not like children—in the manner of the child-minded, or mindless!, Jews—but “let us attain to the perfect man, to the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13), through both performing (poiein) and contemplating (theōrein) in a spiritual manner his Law. For this did the only-begotten Word of God become flesh for us. For this did the Lord God show himself to us as a child: so that which is childish and imperfect of our intellect may be transformed into perfection and firmly virile mind.

On this account also the Exalted One took part in the legal purifications and observances, and the other shadowy traditions, and indeed even in circumcision on the eighth day. The result is that he, paying back our debt in these matters, and liberating us from all of the legal servitude and childish behavior (politeia), delivered us. For the commandment of circumcision was necessary, and it was unavoidable: not only insofar as it occurred in the older Law, and was received of old from Abraham, and was affirmed by Moses himself and the Law, and the prophets in turn unto future generations as a custom; but, because it was given by God as a sign of the greater and spiritual circumcision, out of necessity the thing itself oppressed all with its yoke: until the Lawgiver, in similarity to us, in his love of humankind, shared in the same flesh, and, in the likeness of 13 others, deigned likewise to be circumcised, thereupon demonstrating the greater circumcision, that which is in baptism, how the former remained imperfect and functioned ineffectively, he anulled it and put a stop to it: now Jesus is circumcised according to his own eight-day Law, not so that he might teach us to be circumcised, but so that he might put a stop to circumcision; rather, so that he might divest us of the preconception of the old, useless [Law], and reveal the power of the new and salvific one; so that he might abolish [circumcision] according to the flesh, and cause it to sprout anew according the spirit; for Christ is circumcised in a refutation of the former [Law's] weakness and in an affirmation of the latter [Law's] strength.

For he did not come to abolish the law (cf. Matt 5:27), as if it were foreign (allotrion), but rather he came fulfilling it by this deed, as his own (oikeion) and having been established by himself, as his own doctrine and the commandment of God. He came fulfilling the letter, and preaching the spirit. And just as the best painter first engraves the outline of the truth “in himself,” so to speak, and so makes clear the image's beauty, through which he might more accurately strive toward it and craft the perfection of the model, with great clarity and inspiration; so also circumcision according to the flesh outlines not only a reckoning of sins, and the circumcision of Christ in baptism (cf. Col 2:12), but indeed also subtly and in shadows it de-14scribes the resurrection and alteration of all, according to which all carnal discernment of human beings is circumcised and excised, and transformed into another living being.

Circumcision according to the flesh is like some obscure and shadowy prototype. So also the eight days were first established as law. This octave, I think, alludes to the eternal and future octave; when the time for the image of the thing themselves (so to speak) and of the circumcision in the spirit was not yet ripe, it became necessary for circumcision according to the flesh to be established as law. But now that it has appeared in the spirit, through Christ, through him it was necessary for circumcision in the flesh to be annulled for all people. For if indeed the reason and the Law for circumcision in the flesh and animal sacrifices was perfect, and able to perfect those who kept them correctly, at no time and in no way would they be able to be dissolved (cf. Heb 10:1-4). For the word of the Lord, as it is written, remains forever (cf. Isa 40:8).

But then it was given as a discipline (paidagōgia) of the imperfect of habit and of the children until the time of their correction: when perfection became clear in his time, it was entirely necessary for the imperfect and weaker to be annulled and diminished. It was necessary, at the rising of the sun, for the moon and the stars to grow dim and shrink; and when the true circumcision and ministry were laid bare, it was necessary for the shadowy perceptions of the truth and the types to withdraw.

Because of this, ac-15cordingly God the Word first became flesh, and on this the eighth day today was bodily circumcised: so that, discharging on our behalf the debt in the letter, the law of the spirit was introduced for all eternity: and the worse was concealed and covered over by the better. Through this also the priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek has been cut off from the priesthood according to the order of Aaron (cf. Heb 7:5, 11), so that the shadows have been ended, while the truth has been allowed to speak freely: and so that the imperfection and childishness of the legal traditions have been hidden from sight, while the perfection and magnificence of the gospel doctrines have been brought to light.

Apostles, Disciples, Bishops and the Law

For this also [came] Peter and Paul, the pinnacles of the divine mysteries, for this also all of the holy apostles and disciples, educated first in the written Law, and the one practicing circumcision in the flesh transformed circumcision into the spirit, and into baptism, so that, the spirit of servitude having been nullified through them, the spirit of grace and of sonship has been brought to life again for us through divine baptism in Jesus Christ. For this also all of the bishops most worthy of God, and all others, and especially Basil the Great, great in his own time, brought to life the high priesthood of the church: not passing bodily through the heavens, but in contemplation and in spirit, 16 imitating that first and most divine high priest, Jesus Christ, who also himself entered into the innermost shrine (cf. Matt 27:51), who was there the law of the spirit, and the great thundering voice of the doctrines, and who annulled and halted the law of the letter and the circumcision in the flesh by the lofty expression of the gospels.

Encomium of Basil

This is Basil: of glorious and famous name, firebrand of the catholic church: renowned sun of the gospel truth, setting ablaze the entire earth with the rays of his theology. Inimitable in deed, and unmatchable in contemplation; perfect in manner of life, and most clever in reason; consummate in virtue, and most accomplished in both divine and human learning; and fully complete, lacking in nothing. First well-trained in and equipped with all worldly wisdom and knowledge, then throwing it away to follow the footsteps of the apostles of Jesus. Well-disciplined in the highest and holy fashion, in all of the old and prophetic holy Bible, and through them raised up and strengthened directly toward the most perfect faith of Jesus Christ. He who used the gospel as a guide and a director to true prophetic knowledge, from the prophetic divine doctrine to the precise sacred knowledge of the gospel, 17 passing through both to the purest recognition of the divine principles.

He is the sublime and pre-eminent pillar of the church of God, the guiding light of theology; the ornament of the church offices; the truest human of the Father; the most fervent messenger of the only-begotten; the most faithful steward and scribe of the holy spirit; the offpsring of wisdom; the fullness of perception; the storehouse of knowledge; the schoolhouse of piety; the educator of the holy and divine council, and of the power and strength of Christ, unbroken and steadfast tower. He is the director and teacher of divine fear and the Master’s commandment, and of virtue, to all human beings: Basil the Great, the most majestic trumpet of the divine Word, covering the ends of the world with its mighty sound.

Basil, the Law, and Circumcision

This one, nobly preaching the circumcision in the spirit, and the divine baptism, especially clearly if someone is not one of the wise men of God, he has put a stop to circumcision in the flesh. Thus also the dissolution of his body and his migration from the earth to God did not just happen to coincide with the same day as the circumcision of Jesus, as someone might irrationally suspect, between the divine birth of Christ and the baptism : but, by proclamation, as an exaltation of Christ's birth, his baptism, 18 his circumcision in the spirit, exalted by that most blessed one on its sacred commemoration, then was he deemed worthy to be exalted in his passing alongside Christ. And it was decided that he would be honored on the very same day as these annual commemorations and celebrations: so as the universal church of all the saints in every part of the world celebrates and magnifies his most saintly and sacred commemoration, it also sings praises and extols Christ, who is glorified with his holy and most divinely appropriate praises by all his saints; since, through him, it has been delivered from every heresy, confirmed in all piety through doctrines; and since it has been differentiated from every strange-thinking and heterodox teaching, and brought near to the Master’s faith and teaching alone.

Basil the Orthodox

For also through the thundering-voiced speech of the this sacred teacher, Arius was struck down by thunder and cancelled out. Also Eunomius was destroyed: and, as if by bolts of lightning (that is, by his rebuttals) he was burned to cinders and destroyed. Also Sabellius perished and disappeared; and Macedonius, who raged against the Holy Spirit, was driven away and utterly destroyed by the spirit of Basil. Apollinarius the mindless—the most mindless and senseless!—was thoroughly refuted by his divine speeches, and sent off into eternal shame. All of this, to speak simply, is the cultivation of weeds: 19 and all of this is the diversity of God-hated heresies. As many as a long period of time before him brought to light, so many has the period after his death continued to bring to light; but all of them have been cast into the fire of Basil’s divine theology, set afire and consumed: no less than the holocaust offerings, and the altar of Elijah, and the logs, by the fire which came down from heaven because of his prayer (cf. 1 Kgs 18:33-38).

This is the exalted Basil, not only of the church of Caesarea, of which he was proclaimed bishop: and not only in his own time, and in his own generation, but in all the lands and cities of the world, and for all of eternity, useful to all people, he is declared the most salvific teacher to Christians. What sort of birth he had as his beginning, and dwelling and upbringing, and zeal for the holy teachings! How that most blessed one turned from Greek learning to Christian holy wisdom! By the best manner of life, by the finest reason, he surpassed almost every philosopher who came before and after him, and thereafter, mounted on his high priestly throne, and like a fully-illuminating lamp set on the candelabra of the holy churches, he shone forth upon the whole world with vigorous sacred reason: and how against the heresiarchs 20 and those struggling against the truth he battled firmly, as a shepherd driving the Arabian wolves away from his flocks.

And he struggled against impious emperors, engaged with lawless governors, and erected the most illustrious trophies of victory against all of them: and in a good and rich pasture, and by a display of sacred marvels and speeches, and by an explanation of celestial and divinely perfect laws, he himself as the good shepherd of Christ’s flock, and as the sacred high priest, without evil, undefiled, having left behind sins: and (if such a thing should be dared) having become more exalted than the many heavens, and himself working in the gospel of salvation for many, later released from this humble tabernacle, and in the place of the wondrous tabernacle unto the house of God in the voice of exultation and the ringing echo of profession of the celebrants as he passes through, and he has laid down with the first born children of the celestial Zion and taken rest with them. I suppose that all of these things have been sufficiently philosophized and psalmodized in the sacred speeches of the divine Gregory: and I have now undertaken to speak at too much length about them.

Honoring Basil and Christ’s Circumcision

But let us glorify today the memory of our God-bearing father. Let us resound with hymns of this teacher of virtues and with well-earned and divinely inspired praises. Let us be instructed by him on how to honor virtue, and let us honor him in his debt as the true 21 father, as we have been begotten in Jesus Christ through the gospel, and as we have been transformed into Godlike children by his teaching, which penetrates our inner human.

How shall we honor him? Let us be circumcised! Not according to the flesh of our foreskins, as that Old Israel does, but let us circumcise the interior person of the heart: stripping away all of the hidden passions of the soul and of the mind, or killing them: and having eagerly died together with Christ, and having been crucified with him and buried with him in the shedding of the body of sinful flesh, in the circumcision of Christ, in baptism (cf. Col 2:12): so we and the great teacher in his other divinely worthy exhortations, and even especially in the speeches exhorting us to approach baptism, let us now permit circumcision according to the flesh: let us rise up to baptism! Let us run from the shadow, and let us run to truth; let us come out to John.

For now the voice crying out in the wilderness has echoed piercingly, and calls the world to it. Now the voice runs ahead of the Word, and the groomsman ahead of the groom, and the messenger is sent in advance of the emperor, and goes ahead to straighten his ways: and to make ready the people that have been prepared for the lord, he stands by at the Jordan. Now Je-22sus after his circumcision in the flesh on the eighth day according to the Law, comes to John at the age of 30, to be baptized in the water: so that, bringing a halt to the immature circumcision of the letter, he might establish as law perfection in the spirit; now the great herald, and forerunner, in a great voice orders the crowds in the desert to repent: “Because the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2).

For where the king is, the kingdom is always there with him. Where the King of Heaven is near, in the water of baptism, of necessity also the kingdom of heaven has come there: but now the one who truly and well takes his name from the kingdom of humans, next after that great Baptist, who himself on this day commemorates his release today; both in silence and in voice, he prepares all the people for the baptism of the spirit. Now let us prepare the paths of our God; let us flatten out his roadways; let us straighten out his courses. Let us prepare our hearts to be worthy of the appearance in the Jordan of the Great King Christ, through works of repentance; and, buried with him through baptism and rising up with him into a new life, let us glorify and reign together with him, forever and ever: Amen.