January 1 – Basil the Great; Circumcision of our Lord; Solemnity of Mary

Basil the Great roundel from painted glass by Anonymous ca 1515Basil the Great (330–379) had saint in his blood, being the grandson of two, the son of two, and the brother of four. He tried hermitting, but was better suited to cenobitism*, so he founded a monastery (or his sister did, depending on whom you ask) and wrote books on monasticism that are foundational for cenobitic life in the East. His friend Gregory Nazianzen (Jan 25) joined him, and together they compiled the Philokalia, although probably not the one you’re thinking of, if you’re thinking of the, you know, Philokalia*. (Theirs was a collection of the writings of Origen.)

Basil was eventually made bishop of Caesarea, and devoted himself to fighting Arians and feeding the poor, of whom he became an outspoken champion and on whom he spent his inheritance (the poor, I mean, not the Arians). He died relatively young of liver failure, exacerbated by his strict asceticism.

One of Basil’s greatest contributions to Orthodoxy was his work developing and augmenting the church’s worship. The Liturgy of St. Basil has been supplanted on most Sundays by the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, but it is still used on certain days, such as the Sundays in Lent. John, who is called “the Golden Throat,” gave the celebrant a far shorter anaphora to pray than did Basil, who is not so called. Reminding one of the aphorism “Silence is golden.”

On this day it is traditional in certain Orthodox traditions to bake a coin into a traditional cake, called (depending on which ancient language your ancient ancestors spoke) the “Vasilopita” or “St. Basil’s Bread.” When the cake is cut and served to everybody who likes cake, the person who finds the coin gets seven years of bad luck. I kid! One year of good luck.

This is also the Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord, in keeping with the 8-day “No Money Down!” waiting period prescribed by the Law of Moses (do the math). On this day, Joseph (Mar 19) and Mary the Theotokos (lots of days) presented our Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem, paid the two-bird fee, and had him circumcised. I note in passing that the words of the famous carol, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he made,” refer to Christmas, not Brismas.

Mary and infant Jesus from stained glass window in Ireland (date unknown)The Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God has supplanted the Circumcision in the Western rites of the Catholic Church. It was introduced in the fourth or fifth century, only to be eclipsed (unofficially) in the Middle Ages by the Circumcision. The unofficial finally became official with the 1570 publication of the Tridentine Missal under Pope Pius V. (It is important to distinguish between the Tridentine Missal, which is a prayer book, and the Trident submarine, which fires missiles.)

Wait, did I say “finally”? Alas, the izmel has swung the other way, and the massive calendar reorganization that was the Second Vatican Council not only moved guitar masses from never to every Sunday; it also moved the Feast of the Holy Name from January 1 to January 3, reinstating the Solemnity of Mary on January 1. The Solemnity is a holy day of obligation, which means Roman Catholics in good standing must attend mass, even if their New Year’s Eve celebrations have left them not standing good. Standing well. Whatever.

The Solemnity honors Mary as the Theotokos or Mother (literally, birth-giver) of God. This of course means not that she is the mother of the Eternal Godhead (one grows tired of saying this, and a little ashamed for the people who make it necessary), but that the child she conceived and bore was at the time (and still is) God incarnate. Calling Mary’s mother “Annie, God’s Granny” is strictly colloquial and is not found in the services of the Church.