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MESSAGE OF THE MONTH
On the New Year
By St. Theophan the Recluse, his 1864 New Year homily; translation by Nun Cornelia (Rees).
What is renewal? When will the new heaven and new earth we hope for come? The explanation is in the Apostle’s words, Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. [2 Cor 5:17].
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Happy New Year, we greet each other now. But has anyone given any thought as to how new this coming year is? And where or, rather, how would we get anything new from it? In what way does the present day differ from yesterday, or from the first day of the past year? And in the future, will there not be the same interchange of days and nights, the same turn of months and seasons as there was before? Will the course of events not be new?
But Divine Wisdom also rejects this, saying: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there anything whereof it may be said, see, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us. (Eccl 1:9–10).
So, does this mean our New Year greetings are pointless?
It could not be that such a widespread custom sanctified by antiquity should have no meaning—and deep meaning at that. No matter how much we doubt the sincerity of these good wishes, we nonetheless cannot reproach them as unnecessary or pointless. There should be something truly new for the soul to believe in, regardless of the agedness of everything around us, something for which it assuredly searches and yearns; and it is ready to embrace it in everything that seems new. What could this “new” thing be?
Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness, says the Lord. (2 Pet. 3:13). This is the first true newness! It will be revealed in all its glory at the end of the world, when all will be purified by fire. But preparation for it ensued almost from the beginning of heaven’s and earth’s existence, and has been at work since that time—invisibly to the physical eye, but visibly to the eye of faith. The restorative powers placed in the cycle of the temporal passing of created things are so effective and true that, at the thought of them the Apostle calls out: Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.(2 Cor. 5:17).
And looking mentally over all creation, having tasted the seeds of renewal, he heard its complaint that the time will not soon come when it shall cast off its present garment of decrepitude and decay and put on a new one full of life’s radiance. For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. (Rom 8:19–22).
Establish your thought in this teaching and you will see that in our present condition, one thing is seen from without, while another is working within, both in us and outside us. The present state—both ours and of the whole world—is a transient state, like the state of a sick man covered with bandages, or of a tree frozen for the winter, or a house under renovation and encompassed with scaffolding. When the time comes, they will take the bandages off the sick man, and he will appear healed and healthy in a renewed life; the renovation will end, they will take away the scaffolding, and everyone will see the new house in all its beauty; the spring of a new age will come and the tree of the world’s existence, now bare, will put forth its leaves, flowers, and fruits.
In the beginning, when God looked upon the universe He had just created, everything in it was very good. (Gen 1:31). When man fell, everything went bad, like a chain when the first link is broken. Unto the woman He said, ‘I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.’ And unto Adam He said, ‘Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’ (Gen. 3:16, 18–19). Thus, all was clothed in mourning, or a penance was laid upon everything. Everything took on a decrepit and decaying state.
It would have remained thus forever if not for the ever creative wisdom of God that, through His love, goodness, and power, began to bring to pass a mysterious means of correction and restoration of everything to its better, former, and perfect form. The seed of a woman, it was said, will crush the head of the snake and destroy the evil that was poured into man and through him into all creation. And it was at that exact moment that this divine promise began to work.
The most wise divine economy, however, was not immediately manifest in full strength. The full effect of its power in creation was destined to be revealed through human flesh, which is always limited by conditions of time and place. The Seed of salvation, although it appeared in the flesh, It had everything in itself: the heavenly and the earthly, the past, the present, and the future. Through this it was able to penetrate all things with its restorative powers, without cancelling the mystery of their action. The outward state remains—the painful, disconsolate, decaying, corrupting state.
Enter, brothers, with the faith of your mind into the contemplation of this order of God’s economy on the meaning of time, establish yourself in it and stand there. For the sake of your faith, the Lord will give you the strength to withstand the calumny of the father of lies, who by corrupting those minds that believe his suggestions steals from them the ability to see renewal working amidst decay. They deceive themselves and lead others into deception, thinking that the seeming disorder around us is the natural (normal) state of things, and they allow themselves to make overly bold judgments against the creation of the Most Wise and the providence of the All-Good. Stand therefore in faith, brothers, and confirm yourselves in it!
This is the first newness, which could be called universal. But for each one of us there is a similar newness, which enters us and manifests its power in us, when we become partakers of the restorative powers brought to earth. If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. (2 Cor. 5:17). You already know that all the powers needed for new life are entrusted to the Holy Church, and all of us as true sons of the Church are undoubtedly fulfilled by them and obtain renewal through them.
Our renewal begins with holy Baptism, in which we put off the old man and clothe ourselves in the new, or are reborn to a new life. The power of inner renewal does not cease to work in those who preserve the grace of Baptism. It ceases in those who fall into mortal sins after Baptism. But it begins to work once more, when they again partake in a godly life in Christ Jesus through the sacrament of Confession. Whether one receives the grace of renewal in Baptism or in Repentance (Holy Confession), if he preserves it and acts according to its demands, the seed of new life no longer dies in him, but grows even more. And in this manner, the secret man of the heart grows and strengthens even more, becoming full of wisdom, spiritual reason, moral beauty, strength of character, and inner joy in the Holy Spirit—though he may be outwardly poor and naked. Inner beauty matures under an unsightly covering, like a beautiful butterfly in its unsightly cocoon. Reaching maturity, the butterfly breaks open its encasement and begins rejoicing in life on God’s earth. Once our hidden man has matured in his weak body, and when God judges it time, he throws off this encasement, rises to the heights, and begins to live a fully renewed life at the very source of life.
This, brothers, is our predestination. Therefore, the image of this renewal is brought into the soul, and an awareness of it is revealed in the soul’s presentiments and secret desires, even when the soul is a stranger to those renewing powers. This is the reason why we so love the new, and try so hard to find it!
You can see from what we have said how this longing can be satisfied. Nevertheless, I will cite to you several lessons from the Apostolic epistles. As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby. (1 Pet 2:2). Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump. (1 Cor 5:7). Put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts. And be renewed in the spirit of your mind. And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. (Eph. 4:22-24). You must become new within yourself, and then your thirst for the new will be satisfied, and satisfied perpetually. For new spiritual life in Christ Jesus is continually new in its essence. The perpetual newness present within us will quench our thirst for the new. May the Lord vouchsafe this to all of you. I could not wish you anything better for this New Year.
I was ready to end my sermon here, but the thought comes to me to give you a little word of caution, just in case. It is not surprising that you meet individuals who think otherwise concerning newness, and consider that which is in fact renewal to be dilapidation, and what is dilapidation to be renewal; what the Apostle exhorted us to put on as the new, they advise us to cast off as the old. You can understand what is going on here. I will offer two or three cases as instruction to you, so that you might correctly judge concerning this.
Before Christ the Savior’s coming to the world, outside of the people of God, ancient paganism colored all areas of life—intellectual, moral, aesthetic, family, and civil. After Christ the Savior and the spread of Christianity, the power of God’s word and the grace of the Holy Spirit expelled the pagan principles and Christian principles began to reign everywhere and in all spheres—the intellectual, moral, aesthetic, family, and political. These principles continued to be at work uninterruptedly in the Holy Orthodox Church in the East. In the West the pope, who separated from the Church, first accepted the root of pagan life: pride. Around this center, all the other elements of paganism were not slow to collect.
By the fifteenth century, they became rather strong, lifted their head and vocally entered again into contest with Christianity. A circle of people formed who were filled with a pagan spirit, and made it their task to introduce pagan principles once again, in all spheres—the intellectual, moral, aesthetic, family, and civil. The time when this was happening is called the Western Renaissance. Remind yourselves, that the Western Renaissance is the restoration of paganism in opposition to Christianity. Such is the significance of the Renaissance.
But as the
seed, so the fruit. All the current developments in the West in all their forms
are the sum of that movement given impetus by the Renaissance. It is its fruit.
Therefore, both in spirit and body, in the main and in its parts it is entirely
penetrated with pagan principles that are hostile to Christianity. Anyone who
comes into contact with it and makes friends with it in any way becomes more or
less an enemy of Christ. Experience shows this to be true.
But what do we care about the West? Let it do as it sees fit. We once lived simply under the influence of the life-giving principles of Christianity and never knew what was going on in the West, and we never would have known had not the need arisen to enter into relations with it. Having entered into relations, we began to adopt from it not only what is useful, but also its spirit of pagan education, which also produced here what they have; that is, whoever comes into contact with it immediately rises up against Christ the Savior and His Holy Church.
A class of people has grown here also who insist that Christian religion is something old that should be cast off, and European education is renewal, which should be assimilated. Knowing now what European education is, you can well understand what they are advising us to do. Here is what it is. The Apostle Paul says that God sent the holy Apostles, clothed in the grace of the Holy Spirit, to the world in order to bring everyone out of darkness into light, from Satan’s realm to God; and these people advise us to go from light back into darkness, and away from God to the realm of Satan, where there is not renewal of life, but death that kills all sprouting of true life.
See what benefactors they are! Entire books should be written in order to explain this in detail. I have offered you this truth in brief postulates, only just in case. See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise,… Henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive. But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into Him in all things, which is the Head, even Christ. (Eph. 5:15;4:14–15).
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 At the time of St. Theophan’s writing, various socialist movements were gathering strength in Russia. The Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, both of which persecuted Catholicism, were already history. The final result in Russia was the overthrow of the entire order and establishment of a militant atheistic regime. Thus, St. Theophan’s words came ever so bitterly true in his own country.