The Church New Year (September 1/14) brings to mind the practice of "new year's resolutions", along with a story that serves as our illustration of the kind of commitments Orthodox Christians might think about as we begin the new Church year. The story goes like this:
A man returns from church one Sunday, angrily greeting his sick wife, who is home with the flu. "What's wrong?", the woman asks. "It was the sermon again," says the man. "Even I could preach a better sermon than the ones we hear! Why, it's really so simple!" "Simple?", asks the wife. "So, what would you preach?" "That's easy," says the husband. "I'd stand up and say, 'My good people, you know what you should do - now do it!', and promptly sit down."
Most of us know what we should do in terms of the spiritual life: pray, go to Confession and Communion, live with humility and charity, and turn to God for all things. Yet on a practical level, we become so easily bogged down in the flow of events of each day that we can often forget to carry out this simple plan.
Nowhere is this more evident than in attendance at services . Most Orthodox have fallen into the western habit of thinking of church as a place we go for an hour or two on Sunday morning. Yet this has never been an Orthodox view. Orthodox Christianity is not a religion: it is an all-encompassing way of living out every moment of every day. It's a way of life, which to be real must reach into the way we live each moment. This is the reason we mark different feasts and times during the Church Year: the Feasts of the Lord and His Mother, the birth into everlasting life of the martyrs on the anniversaries of their respective martyrdom, and historic events such as the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Even on a weekly basis, we prepare to celebrate the Day of the Resurrection with an evening vigil or Vespers service on Saturday evenings. The rest of the world also "celebrates", but for no reason in particular, other than the fact that they can sleep in on Sunday.
We must ask ourselves: How are we as Orthodox Christians any different from the world? Do we set aside time to come to Church services on feast days, and for the Vespers each Saturday? If we treat our relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ as seriously as any human friendship, we would think it would be obvious that we would want to be with Him, in His House, on the days on which He and His family the Church, celebrate - including annual celebrations of the Transfiguration, the Dormition, and major saints feastdays. Furthermore, if we really care about our relationship with Him, we would also make an effort to be present to prepare His House and ourselves for the weekly celebration of His Resurrection: attending Vespers on Saturdays. Since the Fathers of the Church call us to prepare for Sunday with a calm, peaceful, godly and dignified evening on Saturday, the other things that might otherwise prevent us from attending Saturday Vespers - household chores, shopping, games and parties - would not be a factor.
But are they a factor for us? A great deal of regret is expressed by Orthodox Christians for not attending Church on Sundays. Those who do attend express regret that they had to work or had some social commitment that kept them from feastdays or Vespers services. The truth is, we would not have such justifications for missing work, a family celebration, or our favourite recreational activity. Why not? Because if we did, our friends and family would eventually start asking if we were serious about our relationship with them. In our efforts to grow in our lives as Orthodox Christians, we must ask the same question of ourselves when it comes to attendance at services beyond Sunday morning. Are these services served only for the Guest of Honour - the Lord Himself - or for those who are part of His family, the Church?
Too often, Vespers and Feast Day services can seem like throwing a party to which nobody comes. The numbers usually do not matter to those who attend, but they do impact profoundly on the relationship each of us has with Christ and His Church.
Our growth in the Orthodox Christian Faith is a gradual thing; we do not start off by saying 10,000 Jesus Prayers each morning, and attending all the services every day. But neither should we settle on a point where we are very comfortable, where our spiritual life is "enough", where we need no more nor intend to exert any new effort.
Let us ask God, intentionally in our prayers, to assist us to increase our faith by increasing our efforts in the common prayers of the Church outside of Sundays, and then let us plan in a concrete way to do one thing to this end, such as attending Vespers on Saturday or attending the midweek service. The Holy Apostles asked the Lord to increase their faith - and what was the result? The Gospel spread throughout the entire world. We are also promised that our common prayers for the needs of the world will save others - perhaps even members of our own family and friends - and bring them and us together into a fuller relationship with our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ.