January 1 is set apart primarily because it is the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus (eight days after his birth). Taken together with the other events that revealed who he was (the angels’ proclamation to the shepherds, the naming of Jesus, the prophecies of Simeon and Anna, the witness of the Magi, his baptism by the hand of John), we celebrate the fact that nothing in creation will ever be the same again.
It is also the day the Orthodox Church commemorates Basil the Great, one of the Cappadocian fathers who are given special honor in the Orthodox Church, and are even studied diligently by fundamentalist Protestant Bible College students, because of their role in describing the ineffable reality that this Jesus, who was named today, is fully God and fully human. Although it was Athanasius who is typically credited with giving the Church the definition of the hypostatic union which was set down at the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon — a place so reverred within Protestantism that places of worship and publishing houses are named after it — it was Athanasius’ teachers, Basil and the two Gregorys, who laid the biblical, theological, and philosphical foundations of the Church’s understanding of the hypostatic union: two natures in one person, fully human, fully God, indivisible, but unmixed.
But in many quarters of the Orthodox Church Basil isn’t remembered for his remarkable “Cappadocian Theology” which he helped hammer out, as he is for his unexpected visitations. As the “lives of the saints” describes it,
In some countries it is customary to sing special carols today in honor of St Basil. He is believed to visit the homes of the faithful, and a place is set for him at the table. People visit the homes of friends and relatives, and the mistress of the house gives a small gift to the children. A special bread (Vasilopita [a Greek term which could be transliterated, “a Basil Pita,” except it’s not a pita as we think of it in the U.S., but rather more like a coffee cake]) is blessed and distributed after the Liturgy. A silver coin is baked into the bread, and whoever receives the slice with the coin is said to receive the blessing of St Basil for the coming year.
These sorts of traditions get attached to different holy people in different traditions. Essentially the same story in attached to Nicholas in some European countries. It is not unlike Elijah’s possible visitation at Pesach on the Hebrew calendar. And when I was growing up mom often set an extra plate for Larry, because he was very good at showing up for a visit about a half hour before dinner.
But all of these traditions have one thing in common: people who participate in them are preparing for the unexpected. Even modern scientific man has a similar belief that in all things we must be prepared for that which we cannot expect. Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the term, “black swan event” for such unexpected occurrances.
One of the big differences between popular culture and Christianity is that while Taleb has given it a cute name, Christianity has institutionalized the unexpected. Theologians call it apocalyptic thinking. Biblical scholars point to Daniel, Amos, Micah, Mark 13, the Thessalonian letters, and of course the Apocalypse itself (called the book of Revelation in Protestant circles). Everyday Christians incorporate such thinking by celebrating St. Basil Day with a loaf of vasilopita, or St. Nicholas Day with a stocking on the mantle, etc.
But no matter how you slice it, the message is that we need to be prepared for the unexpected. It goes without saying that we can’t expect the unexpected. By definition the unexpected is that which we cannot expect. But we can prepare for it. And furthermore, there are different ways to prepare for it.
I got an email just this morning from Rich Checkan telling me that in order to prepare for the unexpected I needed to buy gold (preferably Perth Mint Certificates) or silver (preferably junk silver). Yesterday I heard from the ever ebullient and annoying Paul Smithson, telling me that we have to expect the unexpected (an oxymoron, btw, but that’s all right, Paul – you can always blame it on your copywriter, because I doubt you actually create all that drivel yourself) by creating a second stream of income by starting an internet business. (Paul has just the software to help you do that little task, by the way.) And finally, over the weekend Tom Yaneff, my insurance agent, sent my a nice “personal” note (well, I’m pretty sure it was every bit as personal as the two notes from my buddies Rich and Paul) telling me that the best way to prepare for the unexpected is to buy more insurance. (I suppose, in case I run my car up a pole.)
But I will propose that Rich, Paul, and Tom completely miss the point when it comes to the unexpected. For better advice allow me to turn to St. Basil, or rather to the people that commemorate St. Basil by preparing for the unexpected. What do they do? They don’t buy insurance. They don’t start a business. The do hide gold, but not for themselves, rather they hide it as a gift for a visitor. And, most importantly, they set an extra place at the table … in case of the unexpected.
The proper way to prepare for the unexpected is to think about and prepare for others rather than thinking about and preparing for myself. It’s not unlike a spider web. Webs can be unbelievably sturdy, even after an unsuspecting person walks unexpectedly through the middle of it. There are so many interconnecting lines that a great number of them can be broken but the web remains. Certainly not in the elegent form it had before the unexpected event, but in spite of the damage, it’s repairable because of the interconnecedness.
And of course all the human interconnected was pretty much shattered and done away with at Babel (and Babel’s precursors — Adam and Eve’s sin, Cain’s murder of Abel, Lamech’s revenge for his injury …)
But then a baby came along that was different than all others. Fully God and fully human, as St. Basil emphasized, and today they named him Jesus, which means “God rescues” us from our brokenness. In him it became possible to fully reconnect with God, and in so doing, it became possible to fully reconnect to each other. And such interconnectedness is the only potentially successful solution to the unexpected.
So set an extra place setting for Basil (or Larry, depending on whether you live around Orthodox people or lonely ex-drunks). Put your gold in your pita instead on the safe. Only then will you be prepared for whatever may come your way this coming year.