“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me … to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” [Luke 4:18-19].
The beginning of the Church New Year occurs on September 1. This is also referred to as the Indiction, and there are both religious and political reasons behind this date, as the Church was accommodating itself to the realities of a Christianized Roman Empire by the fourth century.
This year September 1 coincides with the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost. Though hardly commemorated today with much attention, the fact that it will fall on the Lord’s Day this year may bring to the ecclesial New Year a bit more attention than usual. Living as we do in a completely different and secularized society from the Roman/Byzantine world in which our Church calendar was more-or-less fully developed, we have a difficult time conceiving of any new year commemoration other than that of January 1. Be that as it may, if we want to understand the liturgical year with its developed rhythm of feasting and fasting, we will need to embrace “the mind of the Church” to some extent to make that understanding attainable. As Orthodox Christians, we live according to the rhythms of two calendars – the ecclesial and the secular – and often enough we are caught up in a “battle of the calendars.” That is a struggle that can strain our choices and possibilities when we make decisions that affect the use of our “time, talent and treasure.”
The appointed Gospel reading for the Church New Year is Luke 4:16-22, from which the scriptural text above is taken. Every year is potentially “the acceptable year of the Lord,” but from our all too-human perspective that will be determined by how we approach each year as it comes to us in our appointed time in this world.
Two terms come to mind when approaching the beginning of the new Church year—and beyond, in our approach to life as Christians. Those terms are convenience and commitment. As we approach the new year, we can ask ourselves: Do I choose convenience over commitment when these terms apply to my relationship to God and with the Church? ? Is my first concern when the “distribution” of my time, talents and treasure is under consideration reduced to a matter of convenience; or do I first think in terms of my commitment to the Lord? Am I therefore trying to “fit” the Church into my life rather than trying to “fit” my life into the fullness of life offered in the Church? At the beginning of the Church new year on Sunday – a beginning that not only implies, but offers the gifts of repentance, renewal and regeneration – these may be questions worthy of our heartfelt and serious consideration.
It may seem too simplistic to ask these questions in a stark “either/or” manner. Life is a bit more complicated than that. The choices of convenience and/or commitment – made consciously or unconsciously—can be seen as relative terms that often overlap and get entangled in ways that only further accentuate life’s complexities. Nevertheless, with the utter seriousness with which the Scriptures confront us with the “God question” we do find set before us a rather stark choice between “two ways”—and that would be between life and death. These are not choices that impinge upon our biological well-being. Rather, “life” and “death” are choices that depend upon our commitment to not only believing in God’s existence, but of our willingness to live according to the commandments of God. That is why the choice is presented in a very straightforward, unambiguous manner. The stakes are that high. It is not as if the teaching found in the Scriptures lacks an awareness of the difficulties of life; or of what we like to refer to as life’s “nuances.” But in the Scriptures we find the “ultimate questions” presented with a clarity that, again, demands a clear choice with a full understanding of just what is at stake. For ultimately, there is an “either/or” distinction when it comes to our decision for or against God.
The term “Two Ways” was from the beginning of the Church’s life even a technical term found in the earliest Christian literature. Although not a part of the New Testament, this is perhaps best illustrated by the first century known as The Didache. This document opens with a classic expression of this teaching: “There are two ways: one is the Way of Life, the other is the Way of Death; and there is a mighty difference between these two ways. The way of life is this: first, that you shall love God who created you; second, your neighbor as yourself; all those things which you do not want to be done to you, you should not do to others” [Didache, 1:1-2].
This clearly echoes the direct teaching of Christ found in the Gospels, of course. And in the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, we hear the Lord’s own versions of this choice of the Two Ways: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” [Matthew 7:13-14;24-27].
Yet, the Christian teaching of the Two Ways finds its first and most definitive expression in the Old Testament. There, as something of a final summation of the lengthy discourse of Moses to the people of Israel before they enter the Promised Land, the following is recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy 30:14-18: “But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you this day, that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.”
The Church calendar with its new year commemoration on September 1 can be more than a quaint and antiquated remnant from the past. And it can even be more than a formal reminder that we will begin the annual cycle of feasting and fasting by celebrating the great feasts of the liturgical year – important as this is. The Church new year, perhaps coming after a long and “busy” summer, can remind us with a biblical urgency that the choice of the Two Ways may not be a once-in-a-lifetime decision; but one that needs annual renewal that can only be accomplished through repentance and that “change of mind” that directs us toward God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength [Mark 12:30]. Let us search our hearts about this carefully. This deserves our time and attention more than anything else. This is not an inner examination that can be postponed to a more “convenient” time. Rather, it is a time of “commitment” to the really essential question that shapes our lives decisively. As the Lord asked the Apostle Peter, so the Lord asks us if we love Him. Are we able to answer Him as did Saint Peter: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” [John 21:17].