January: The Month of the Church Fathers



January is certainly the month of the Church Fathers. This month-long, annual celebration of the Fathers begins with the feast of St Basil the Great on January 1 and proceeds to honor many of the great Fathers of the Church throughout the remainder of the month, concluding with the feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs and Ecumenical Teachers on January 30:

St Basil

January 1

St Gregory of Nyssa

January 10

St Anthony the Great

January 17

Ss Athanasios and Cyril of Alexandria

January 18

Ss Makarios of Egypt and Mark of Ephesus

January 19

St Maximos the Confessor

January 21

St Gregory of Nazianzus

January 25

Ss Ephraim the Syrian and Isaac the Syrian

January 28

St Hippolytus of Rome

January 30

The Three Hierarchs: Basil, Gregory, and John Chrysostom

January 30


Other saints and feasts of January include:

Sylvester of Rome

January 2

Theoktistos of Sicily

January 4

Synklitiki of Alexandria

January 5

Theodosios the Koinobiarch

January 11

Paul of Thebes

January 15

The translation of the relics of St Gregory Nazianzen

January 19

A miracle of St Basil

January 19

Euthymios the Great

January 20

The translation of the relics of St John Chrysostom

January 27

The translation of the relics of St Ignatius of Antioch

January 29

Cyrus and John[1]

January 31

Why January?


Basil, Divine Liturgy, Church Fathers, Pappas Patristic Institute
St Basil of Caesarea

A rationale for dedicating the month of January to the Fathers of the Church is intimated by St Gregory of Nyssa, in his Eulogy on his Brother Basil, Archbishop of Caesarea.[2] Gregory begins his eulogy by calling our attention to the liturgical calendar. He notes that “God has provided us with an excellent order (τάξις) in the sequence of our annual feasts.” He suggests that this good order of the Church’s “spiritual festivals” is “also that which the Apostle Paul taught, and that Paul had the knowledge of these things from above.” Gregory supports his suggestion by citing 1 Corinthians 12:28:


In the church, God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers.


Gregory believes that this passage provided the church with “the order of our festivals for the year." At the same time, he does not place the feast of the Nativity on the same level as other feasts, because


The grace that flows from the manifestation of the Only-Begotten Son in the flesh, proclaimed to the world by his birth from the Virgin, is not merely a holy festival but indeed a holy of holies and a festival of festivals.[3]


Gregory therefore proposes to frame the Incarnation of the Word within the sequence established by St Paul.

St Athanasios and Prophet Elijah, Pappas Patristic Institute
St Athanasios and Prophet Elijah

While Gregory does not enter into the details, his words clearly suggest that, whereas the period before the Incarnation is the period of the prophets, who pointed to the Incarnation, the period after the advent of the Word in the flesh is the time of the great Christian teachers. Gregory’s surmise is borne out by the liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church. During the month of December, the Church celebrates:

Prophet Naoum

December 1

Prophet Habbakuk

December 2

Prophet Sophonias

December 3

The Conception of St Anna (an anticipation of the Incarnation)

December 9

The Sunday of the Holy Forefathers of Christ

Dec 11-17

Prophet Haggai

Dec 16

Prophet Daniel and the Three Children (Ananias, Azarias, and Misael)

Dec 17

Daniel and the Three Holy Children are also celebrated on the Sunday before the Nativity, which refers frequently to the prophets and the prophetic tradition.

The Forefeast of the Nativity (beginning on December 20) also contains references to the prophets.

The Eve of the Nativity features many hymns saturated with prophetic references.

The Royal Hours likewise contain reading from the Psalms, the prophecies of Micah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah.

The Vesperal Liturgy of the Nativity includes prophetic readings from Genesis, Numbers, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel.

And the Sunday after the Nativity makes similar references to the prophets,

St Theodore 'Graptos', Pappas Patristic Institute
St Theodore 'Graptos'

And no sooner than December 26th, the Church commemorates St Stephen, the first martyr, as well as the two brothers, Ss Theodore and Theophanes the “Branded,” Byzantine defenders of icons, for whom the icon of Christ was the necessary guarantee of the Incarnation.


The commemoration of martyrs continues on the 27th (with the martyrs of Nikomedia), but especially on the 28th, with the infants who were massacred by Herod, who are reckoned in the thousands, bringing us to January, with its breathtaking turn toward the Church Fathers.

The month of January in the ancient Roman calendar is itself named after the god Janus, who, as the god of doorways, looks both backwards and forwards, as the passage from the past through the present opens also to the future. The month of January in the liturgical calendar of the Church likewise connects what comes before with what comes after – leading us from the prophets, who anticipated Christ, forward to the teachers and doctors of the Church, who unfold the mysteries of Christ prefigured and revealed in the Scriptures.



The Feasts of the Fathers


For Gregory, Basil is the teacher par excellence, and he sees it as only fitting that his commemoration falls on the first of the month, the month of the Church’s great teachers. Throughout the remainder of the month of January, the Church remembers many other illustrious teachers and doctors, whose activities and writings on behalf of the true faith laid the foundations of Orthodoxy for generations to come. As the architects of Orthodox dogma, these Fathers are naturally celebrated after the Incarnation of Christ, following the season of the Nativity, in accordance with the “good order” of Christ's dispensation.



The month of January ends with the feast of the great ‘Ecumenical Teachers,’ Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom, whose writings and labors on behalf of the faith are commonly seen as the crown of the entire patristic tradition. Appearing in a dream to John Mavropous, Metropolitan of Euchaita in the twelfth century, the Three Hierarchs, as they are known, famously resolved the dispute as to which of the three Fathers was greatest. When their common feast was established at Constantinople, in the reign of the emperor Alexios Komnenos, it was only fitting that their memory should be celebrated at the end of January, bringing to a close the month dedicated above all to the ‘teachers’ of the faith proclaimed by the prophets and apostles.


 


 

[1] The Life of Cyrus and John was written by St Sophronios of Jerusalem, himself an important figure of patristic theology.

[2] Sister James Aloysius Stein, Encomium of Saint Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, on his brother Saint Basil, Archbishop of Cappadocian Caesarea, The Catholic University of America Patristic Series, vol. 17 (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1928), 2-61 [Greek text and English translation].

[3] “Festival of festivals” renders the Greek words, πανήyυρις πανηγύρεων, which is a phrase which Gregory of Nyssa’s friend, St Gregory Nazianzen, used to characterize the feast of the Resurrection: Αὕτη ἑορτῶν ἡμῖν ἑορτή, καὶ πανήγυρις πανηγύρεων (Oration 45; PG 36:624B).