Feast of St Basil the Great and the Circumcision of Christ
IT'S AN old custom: on New Year’s Eve, while the clock strikes midnight, we think of our aspirations for the new year and try to enter the unknown future with a dream, looking forward to the fulfillment of some cherished desire. Today we once again are approaching a new year. What do we desire for ourselves, for others, for everyone? What is the goal of all our hopes? The answer is always the same eternal word: happiness. Happy New Year! New happiness for a New Year! The particular happiness we desire is of course different and personal for each of us, but we all share in common the faith that this year, happiness might be around the corner, that we can look forward and hope for it.
But when is a person genuinely happy? After centuries of experience and everything we have learned about human beings, we can no longer equate happiness with externals of any kind – money, health, or success, for example. We know that none of these corresponds completely to that mysterious and ever elusive notion of happiness. Clearly, physical comfort brings happiness, but not completely. Success brings happiness, but also fear. It is striking that the more external happiness we have, the more fragile it becomes and the more intractable the fear that we will lose it and be left empty-handed. Perhaps this is why we wish each other new happiness in the New Year. The ‘old’ happiness never materialized, something was always missing. But now once again we look ahead with a prayer, a dream, a hope…
My goodness! The gospel long ago recorded the story of a man who became rich, built new barns to store his grain, and decided he now had everything necessary to guarantee his happiness! He was comfortable and at ease. But that night he was told: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Lk. 12.20). The gradual realization that nothing can be held onto, that ahead of us lies inevitable death and decay, is the venom which poisons the little and limited happiness that we do have. This is surely why we have the custom of making such a din of noise-makers, shouting, and loud laughter as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. We are afraid of being alone and in silence when the clock strikes as the merciless voice of fate: one strike, a second, a third, and so on, so inexorably, so evenly, so terribly, to the end. Nothing can change it, nothing can stop it.
Thus we have two truly deep and indestructible poles of human consciousness: fear and happiness, nightmare and dream. The new happiness we dream about on New Year’s Eve would finally be able to calm, disperse and conquer fear; we dream of a happiness which has no fear lurking deep within, a fear from which we are always trying to protect ourselves, by drinking, by keeping busy, by surrounding ourselves with noise. Yet the silence of that fear is still louder than any noise. “Fool!” Yes, the immortal dream of happiness is by nature foolish in a world infected by fear and death. And at the highest points of human culture, people are well aware of this. One can feel the grief and sad truth behind the words of the great and life-loving poet Alexander Pushkin when he wrote: “In the world there is no happiness.” Indeed, a profound grief permeates all art. Only down below, at the bottom of human culture, do crowds go wild with noise and shouting, as if noise and feverish partying could bring happiness.
“In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1.4-5). What this means is that the light cannot be swallowed up by fear and anxiety, it cannot be dispersed by sadness and hopelessness. In this vain thirst for momentary happiness, if only people would find within themselves the strength to stop, to think, to look at the depth of life! If only they would listen to the words, to the voice calling to them eternally within those depths. If only they knew what genuine happiness truly is. “And no one will take your joy from you” (Jn. 16.22). Isn’t this what we dream about when the clock strikes midnight: joy that cannot be taken away? But how rarely we reach such depth! How we fear it for some reason, and put it aside: “Not today, but tomorrow, or the day after, I’ll turn my attention to what’s essential and eternal; only, not today. There’s still time.”
But there is really so little time. Only moments go by before the arrow of time whizzes to its fateful target. Why delay? For right here, in our very midst, Someone stands beside us: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (Rev. 3.20). If we would only set aside our fear and look at Him, we would see such light, such joy, and such abundance of life that we would surely understand the meaning of that elusive and mysterious word ‘happiness’.
*Reprinted from Alexander Schmemann, Celebration of Faith: Sermons, Vol. 2 – The Church Year (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1994), 59-62.