January 1 + The Naming/Circumcision of the Lord ("Holy Name").
On the eighth day after his birth, Jesus’ mother took him to the Temple to be circumcised according to the Law of
Moses. On this day he officially received his name. The account is in Luke 2. While in the Temple the holy family were met
by two elderly Jews who were led by the Spirit to recognize in Jesus the promised One. Simeon, the old man, spontaneously
sang a hymn which we still sing today. The old woman’s name was Anna. God had promised her she would see the Messiah
before she died.
It is fitting that we see this juxtaposition of an infant with two old people. It shows the continuity of what God is doing:
it is a new thing, yet it is consistent with the First Covenant as its fulfillment. God honors these elderly folks with the
good news; so we also ought to honor those among us of longer years who have kept the faith. They may be the first to see
the future when it comes.
January 2 + Seraphim of Sarov.
At the age of twenty, Seraphim entered the Russian monastery of Sarov. Eventually, he set off on his own to live a solitary
life of ascetic prayer, living in the wilderness alone for 15 years. Meanwhile, his reputation for holiness spread. A wealthy
but very sick landowner had himself carried to Seraphim’s hut; after the monk prayed over him, he was miraculously healed.
The man asked what return he could make to Seraphim, and the monk just said he should give away all he owned and embrace a
holy poverty. To everyone’s astonishment, the rich man complied.
Seraphim’s fame grew so that he was constantly entertaining pilgrims. He became the model Russian starets,
or "elder," which was the name given to holy men and women who renounced the world for Christ. Through his life, Seraphim
lived in austere simplicity, so much that he was often not recognized by pilgrims who took him for a poor laborer.
Seraphim died in 1833.
January 6 + The Epiphany of the Lord.
In the West, this day is also called "Three Kings Day," and celebrates the visit of the Magi from the east to the infant
Jesus in Bethlehem. In the east, this day commemorates Jesus’ baptism and is called "Theophany." As far as I can tell,
it was actually an older date for Christmas than December 25. The early church retained both days, giving each a different
focus within the theme of Jesus’ beginnings.
(This date is not, as is often supposed, "Eastern Orthodox Christmas." This confusion is based on two factors: in the first
place, the Eastern Church has always made a bigger deal out of the January 6th date than we in the west have. But also, some
Eastern churches never made the jump to the Gregorian Calendar. Western Europe adjusted the calendar by 13 days to account
for a growing inaccuracy, inventing "leap year" in the process. But many countries in the east retained the older Julian Calendar.
This meant that December 25 in the east was actually January 7 in the west. Hence, those churches from countries still using
the old calendar celebrate Christmas Eve on our January 6, or Epiphany.)
In any case, Epiphany concludes the twelve day liturgical "season" of Christmas. The January 6 date may also be rooted
in astronomy. While Winter Solstice occurs on December 21, it is not until January 6 (so I’m told) that the naked eye
can actually perceive that the sun is moving higher in the sky and the days actually begin to lengthen relative to the nights.
Thus there are about 15 days when the sun appeared to ancient people to stand still. (Hence the term "Solstice.")
Epiphany means "manifestation." It is when Jesus’ saving Presence is recognized and celebrated by the whole cosmos,
as represented by the Magi and their star.
January 9 + Philip of Moscow.
Philip was a ordinary monk in the Solovetsk monastery when he was elected Bishop of Moscow, a post he took with some trepidation
because it would mean working with the notorious Emperor, Ivan the Terrible. Sure enough, after one of Ivan’s particularly
murderous projects Philip denounced him to his face during the Liturgy. Philip was deposed and arrested; he was murdered while
in prison on December 23, 1569. His feast is celebrated on January 9, the date of his canonization in 1636.
January 10 + Evagrius Ponticus.
Evagrius was a friend and disciple of the three great "Cappadocian Fathers" of the 4th century Church: Gregory
of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil the Great. He had a comfortable life as a Deacon carved out for himself until he
fell in love with a married woman, which sparked a profound spiritual crisis. In response to this, he resolved to move to
the Holy Land and live as a monk. While living in the Holy Land, he produced many writings on philosophy, spirituality, theology,
and the Christian life. Unfortunately, the Church came to deem many of his philosophical works as too influenced by Neo-Platonism,
and they were declared heretical. His spiritual works however, remained influential, especially with his disciple, John Cassian,
who largely brought eastern spirituality to the west. Evagrius is also credited with developing theories of personality types
based on a list of "deadly sins." In this he predates psychologists like Carl Jung. Evagrius’ categories underwent considerable
historical evolution and emerge today in the form of the "Enneagram," a personality-type inventory.
January 11 + Brother Lawrence.
Lawrence is another of those obscure saints whose life and teaching have struck a chord in the hearts of modern people.
He was an ordinary, humble Carmelite monk in 17th century Paris, working mainly in the kitchen. Almost by chance,
a visitor struck up a conversation with him and was overwhelmed by his spiritual depth. The visitor returned for subsequent
talks with Lawrence, and these talks were eventually published in a book called The Practice of the Presence of God,
one of the great classics of Christian spirituality. As the title indicates, Lawrence’s theme was to practice and be
aware of God’s Presence in all things. The examples he gives come from his own work, including chopping vegetables and
washing dishes. Spirituality was less a matter of changing our daily behavior, and had more to do with seeing God’s
Presence in the tasks we would normally do.
January 13 + Kentigern of Glasgow.
It is difficult to separate legend from history when it comes to Kentigern, also known as Mungo. There are spectacular
stories about the uniqueness of his conception and birth, and accounts of more miracles when he was a school boy. He is supposed
to have founded the city of Glasgow, Scotland, on a spot originally blessed by Ninian of Whithorn. He was acclaimed Bishop
as a young man when the people recognized his innate holiness and authority. Kentigern was friends with Columba of Iona, and
it is said that at one meeting they exchanged staffs. Columba’s staff was said to have been kept in Glasgow until the
January 13 + George Fox.
The seventeenth century was a time of great religious and political upheaval in Britain. George Fox represents one of the
more extreme and pure expressions of the Reformation spirit. Frustrated with the way the teachings of religious leaders of
his day failed to "speak to his condition," Fox had a mystical experience of Christ which taught him that the answer was inside
of him. He immediately went out to preach his new insight, founding the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Their pacifism and
passion for social justice brought brutal persecution down upon the group, but they continued to grow in number and influence.
Eventually, they won toleration by the British government. Fox traveled to America for a two-year visit, and was followed
by his friend and disciple, William Penn, who founded Philadelphia. He died in 1691.
January 15 + Ita of Kileedy.
Ita established a monastery in Ireland and was teacher to many of the great saints of the Celtic Church’s golden
age, including Brendan the Navigator. She died around 570.
January 17 + Antony of Egypt .
When he was twenty years old, Antony left his home in 3rd century Memphis (Egypt) and went out into the desert
for a life of prayer, ascetic discipline, and solitude. While out there he battled temptation and inner demons. Eventually,
inspired by his example, other people joined him, and he organized them into loosely-knit communities, which became the beginnings
of Christian monasticism. In 312 he moved further away and lived out the rest of his life on Mt. Kolzim, near the Red Sea.
He died in 356 at the age of 105.
The monastic movement in Christianity, which Antony is credited with starting, was a response to the growing acceptance
and domestication of Christianity in Roman society. As the persecutions started to abate, and it became more socially acceptable
to be Christian, some believers missed the challenges and rigor of those difficult times. Many decided to voluntarily take
on a different sort of martyrdom: that of ascetic discipline.
It’s a good thing they did, for monasticism became a well-spring of church renewal and evangelism for over a thousand
January 21 + Agnes of Rome.
Agnes was about 12 or 13 years old when she was martyred in Rome in about the year 304. Her crime was refusing to marry,
and dedicating herself to Christ. Little more is known about her, but she has been a favorite saint of the Western church
January 16 + Timothy & Titus.
Timothy and Titus are two younger friends and companions of the apostle Paul. The New Testament contains two letters to
Timothy and one to Titus, from Paul. Timothy and Titus are remembered as two of the earliest post-Apostolic leaders of the
January 25 + Andrei Rublev.
Andrei was the greatest of all Russian icon painters. In the West, the Roman Catholic Church has always allowed the depiction
of Jesus and the saints in statuary and paintings; the Reformation saw the excess and at least potential idolatry of this
and banished images altogether from worship. In the East there was also an extended controversy over the use of religious
paintings, called icons. Icons were approved by Ecumenical Councils in 787 and 843, but three-dimensional statues were rejected.
The theology behind this affirmation is based on the Incarnation itself, when God sanctified matter by taking on flesh in
Jesus. The material world thus becomes an avenue to the spiritual world.
Icons are more than simple religious paintings. The Eastern practice is much more standardized and strict than that of
the West where artists like Michaelangelo used their own imagination and skill in depicting biblical figures and saints. Icon
production is a spiritual discipline surrounded by fasting and prayer, and guided by careful rules and precedents. Painters
are discouraged from introducing any individual traits into their work.
All the same, some artists were so gifted that their work stood out as bearing a particularly deep spirituality. Andrei
Rublev was one of these. He worked in the 15th century. His most famous work is a depiction of the Holy Trinity
as the three angels sitting near Abraham’s tent, in Genesis 18. Andrei died in 1430.
January 27 + John Chrysostom.
The greatest preacher and liturgist of the early Church, John Chrysostom served as Patriarch of Alexandria and Constantinople.
His sermons on scriptural texts remain central to the faith of the Orthodox, and are valuable to all Christians even today.
(John Calvin held his work in the highest regard.) His liturgy, a basic revision of the longer Liturgy of St. Basil, became
and remains today the principle worship service for Eastern Orthodox churches.
January 28 + Thomas Aquinas.
Thomas was the greatest Western theologian of the Middle Ages. His influence has shaped the Roman Church ever since. Thomas’
main contribution was in the discovery and appropriation of the philosophy of Aristotle. Until his time, virtually the only
philosophical reference for Western Christianity was Plato. Aristotle’s thought encouraged more systematic appreciation
for this world and creation, while Plato was arguably more concerned with meta-physics, or the ideal world above and
beyond this one.
While Thomas’ enthusiasm for Aristotelian categories made him in many ways a more worldly and immediate theologian,
it also had its shortcomings. For one thing, he prepared the way for the objectification of the world which eventually rose
to dominance in the Modern Age. His work also led to the dry and abstract Scholasticism that came to the fore in the West,
and which the Reformation was in large measure a reaction against.
However, we can remember and celebrate Thomas as a "creation-centered" theologian, who was passionately concerned with
God’s Presence in nature, and with building a bridge between nature and grace, which had been largely separated by Augustine.
January 29 + Gildas.
Gildas was born in 498, in what is now northern England, and went on to attend St. Illtyd’s monastic college. He
began writing is great work, The Ruin of Britain, when he was 43. This historical commentary-diatribe is an important
source of our knowledge of his time and place. He also lived near Glastonbury and in Ireland before he settled in Brittany
where he died in 570.
January 30 - Mohandas K. Gandhi.
Few Christians have lived as Christ-inspired a life as this Hindu lawyer from India. Gandhi was a student of the Christian
scriptures, and an admirer of the Jesus depicted in the gospels. He included many Christians, as well as Jews and Muslims,
in his circle of friends and supporters.
He began his career working against Apartheid in South Africa, and returned to his native India to lead a popular struggle
for independence from Britain. In so doing, he reformed forever how we think about oppression and protest. His greatest contribution
was in the concept of Satyagraha, which means "love-force." Satyagraha was embodied in the system of non-violent
protest by which India finally won independence in 1947. Gandhi himself stated that Satyagraha was inspired at least
in part by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Gandhi’s followers, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., also experimented with Satyagraha
in their own contexts, especially the latter. King’s application of Gandhian philosophy is what gave moral force to
the American civil rights movement in the late 50's and 60's.
January 31 + New Martyrs of Russia.
In 1917 the Communists, led by V. I. Lenin, took over the government of Russia by force, thus commencing over 70 years
of brutal persecution of Christianity in that land. While this systematic attempt to wipe out the faith varied in intensity
over the years, it remains by all measurements the worst persecution ever experienced by the Church in any time or place.
In the 18th & 19th centuries, Russian Orthodoxy had enjoyed a great renaissance, with the establishment
of churches and monasteries all across northern Asia, and the conversion of native peoples as far east as Alaska. It was a
time of great liturgical music written by composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, and a deepening spirituality among
the Russian peoples.
With the Revolution, however, the Church was attacked by the Communist government with unbridled violence. Churches were
closed, destroyed, turned into museums or even barns for animals. Monasteries were turned into prisons. Bishops, clergy, and
monastics were killed or sent to the infamous labor camps in Siberia. What remained of the Church was prohibited from publishing
or engaging in any educational, social service, or evangelistic activities. Basically their existence was limited to celebration
of the Sacraments. The hierarchy was infiltrated by Soviet agents, and the government instituted an intense anti-religion
campaign. Christians were excluded from significant positions in Soviet society.
Through it all, the Church remained, and by the 1980's 10% of the population was still Christian. (This is in contrast
with the churches in Western Europe where practicing Christians comprised as little as 3 or 4% of the population.)
The Church set aside January 31 to commemorate those killed for the faith by the Communists, beginning in 1917.