Editor’s Note: The following homily, “Meditation for the Coming New Year (1901) and the New (20th) Century,” was delivered by Saint Tikhon the Confessor during his tenure as Bishop [and later Archbishop] of the Aleutians and North America at Holy Trinity Cathedral, San Francisco, CA on January 1, 1901. Originally published in the Messenger and translated by Alexis Liberovsky, Archivist of the Orthodox Church in America, it is as applicable today as it was the day it was delivered. In 2017, we observe the 100th anniversary of Saint Tikhon’s election as Patriarch of Moscow.
Usually we face a new year with some apprehension and spiritual excitement. We anticipate in it something new and primarily the realization of our most cherished desires and dreams of happiness. This excitement is even greater now because of the arrival not only of a new year, but also of a new century. Many await this impatiently: we have only to recall one year ago when some were so vehement to prove that the new century was beginning then. In such passionate anticipation of the new year and century, there is much frivolity.
The new century has now finally arrived. And so what of it? Has the day been changed because of this? Have the sky and the earth become different? Have we the young become older, an the old become younger? Are we kinder, smarter, happier? No and no! “What has been,” says the wise man of the Old Testament, “is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done” [Ecclesiastes 1:9]. Life goes on its uninterrupted path. Global events change, people are born and disappear, disregarding our counting of the years. Our new year and new century are only numbers, present in our minds and memories, and they do not have the influence on life which we often ascribe to them. They in themselves do not, of course, bring anything new. Even if in the coming century great discoveries, inventions, improvements occur this will not depend on the passage of time.
We often ascribe to time much significance which in reality does not pertain to it. We say, for example, that years age us; that time, above all, heals our wounds, reconciles us with losses, tempers our grief; that it is the testing ground of love, attachment, friendship; that it disperses darkness and brings light; that it is a great energy and a powerful force; that time, as is often said here, is money. All of these statements must, of course, be understood in a figurative sense. In these statements is the poetical expression not of time itself, but of various forces which only act within time. In and of itself, time is simply a formula for expressing a chronological sequence, and an indicator of changes in things. Consequently, in and of itself, time cannot create something new, and, if we reflect sensibly, we cannot demand or expect any of this from it.
Thus, if this is true, is there any significance or impact to our live in the coming of the new year and century?
Usually, as the old year ends and a new one begins, we reflect on the past, recalling what we have done and making plans for future activity. This kind of “contemplation” and introspection is beneficial as it obliges us to see how far we still are from the exemplary (the ideal), and compels us to strive for self-perfection. Unfortunately, we don’t practice this introspection often, but instead we live a superficial life, which is always full of frivolity, concern for the worldly, gratification, riches, power, glory. “We strive to live the way everyone lives,” “in the ways of this world.” In other words, we devote our time to work, business, receptions, travel, recreation, etc. In this kind of life, however, our soul remains hungry, for it is surrounded by a kind of worldly crust, which suppresses its perception of the spiritual, the exalted, the heavenly.
In this kind of life, according to Father John of Kronstadt, “the body thrives, but the soul wilts; the body is spacious, but the soul is crowded; the body is satiated, but the soul is hungry; the body is embellished, but the soul is disfigured; the body is fragrant, but the soul is malodorous; the body rejoices, but the soul is distressed; the body is radiant, but the soul is in darkness.” “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” [Matthew 16:26]. This, however, is not real life “nor the living age,” but “is false and temporal” (kontakion for the Feast of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist). For the kingdom of God is not food and drink, it is within you [see Luke 17:21 and Romans 14:17], and the quicker we assimilate it into ourselves, the more we take care of our souls, the better we can enter into ourselves, into our “room.”
Just as the best wife is considered to be not the one who spends all her time outside the home, visiting and enjoying herself, but rather, the one who is diligent in managing her household, who doesn’t partake of the bread of slothfulness but willingly works with her hands, who takes care of her children and her husband [Proverbs 31], likewise, in the good ordering of inner life, a zealous head of household is not the one who only amuses himself and is concerned only with external, social life, but rather, the one who withdraws from external amusements, which disperse the spirit, and stays “at home’ to focus on himself, his innermost thoughts and feelings, to ponder and safeguard them.
Therefore, the Church Fathers also forcefully exhort Christians to be temperate, vigilant towards themselves, in their thoughts, words and actions. Saint Ephrem the Syrian says, “Every evening, enter into your heart, ponder and ask yourself: have I offended God in any way? Have I been talking idly? Have I been negligent? Have I offended my bother? Have I condemned anyone? When my lips opened for praise, was my soul dispersed in the world? When sensuality was stirred in me, did I indulge in it? Was I preoccupied with worldly concerns? If in all of this you have suffered affliction, try to make amends for it, while lamenting and weeping, so that you do not suffer more affliction.”
However, if we, as a result of caring and speaking of great service, forget to act according ot this salvific precept, then at least now, with the advance of years and centuries, as conclusions are drawn everywhere, let us also examine our lives according to our conscience and fulfill that which the Holy Church commands us to do daily before going to sleep.
- Give thanks to God Almighty for the time He has given you, by His mercy, to live and have good health.
- Enter profoundly into yourself, and do an examination of your conscience with a thorough accounting and recollection of where you have been, what you have done, with whom and about what you have spoken; examine and remember all of your actions, words and thoughts with great prudence.
- If you have done anything good, this has not come from you but from God Himself, who gives us everything good, give praise and thanks for this; pray that He may strengthen this good in you and grant you the capability to do other good things.
- But if you have done anything evil, declare that this came from yourself, your own weakness, from your evil habits, and your own free will. Repent and entreat the Lover of mankind, while resolutely promising that you will not do this again, so that He may deign to grant you forgiveness for this.
- Beseech your Creator with tears that he may mercifully grant you at present to have a peaceful, calm and sinless time without temptation, for the exaltation of His holy name.