Every year in January, Orthodox Christians gather to cut the Vasilopita (St. Basil’s or King’s Bread). Typically, we think of ourselves, hoping to find the coin hidden in the dough. But, if we stop to consider the story behind the tradition, it allows us to move outside of ourselves to love our neighbor.
For over 1,500 years, January 1st has had a special place in the hearts of Christians. That’s right, it’s the celebration of St. Basil the Great (died 379).
One of the great giants of the Church, St. Basil was the Orthodox bishop of Caesarea (in modern-day Turkey) and one of the leading Christian theologians of all time – east and west.
Because St. Basil is known for his generosity, love of the poor, and the distribution of coins, he is often linked to another famous Orthodox bishop, St. Nicholas of Myra (better known by his commercialized alter ego, St. Nick or Santa Claus).
Christians all over the world celebrate St. Basil in different ways. In fact, in some countries, it is St. Basil, not St. Nicholas, who delivers presents on the first of the year.
Here in Dubuque, we celebrate his legacy with a special treat: Vasilopita, which means, St. Basil’s Bread.
The story of this bread goes back to St. Basil himself.
As legend has it, the city of Caesarea came under siege. St. Basil feared for the safety of his parishioners and all who lived in the city, so he decided to raise a ransom to end the siege.
He called upon all the citizens to donate their gold, jewelry, and other precious possessions for the cause. The enemy was so embarrassed at this act of collective giving that he ended the siege without taking the ransom.
So, St. Basil found himself with the wealth of the city’s citizens. What to do? He didn’t know what belonged to whom.
Perhaps inspired by the Holy Spirit, St. Basil decided to bake all the items into special loaves of bread. When they were finished, he randomly distributed them to the citizens of the city.
A miracle happened! Everyone received the loaf of bread that contained their own precious items.
Today, St. Basil’s Bread reminds us of this great saint and this astonishing story.
After singing St. Basil’s hymn and the hymn of the New Year, the priest cuts pieces from the bread and distributes it to everyone gathered.
But St. Basil’s Bread is more than just a neat tradition for us to celebrate. It reminds us of our true calling in Christ: working together for peace.
The Deeper Meaning
I look at the world around me, and I see a world that’s under siege, just like Caesarea was.
Many of us are caught up in a rat race that has left us feeling hopeless. Whether at work, school, or in our personal lives, we find ourselves lost in despair for a variety of reasons.
While social media promises to bring people together in new and exciting ways, it has also created a forum where bullying can run rampant. Some people have even turned to suicide.
Social media has even created a new battleground for politics where it’s every person for himself.
Across our country, people are feeling more divided than ever over race, politics, and other cultural issues.
Around the world, wars continue to rage and refugees flee homelands under siege.
So now, more than ever, the spirit of St. Basil’s bread is needed.
This may seem like an overwhelming task, but my bishop of blessed memory, Metropolitan Iakovos of Chicago, reminded us in his 2017 Christmas encyclical that it starts at home.
“It may seem that we are incapable of effecting peace on such a national or global scale, but this is untrue. Praying for the salvation of all, even for those with whom we disagree, is the beginning, but not end. Our goodwill extends to every act of kindness, charity and love: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, striving for justice and righteousness everywhere at every moment, even our smile to others.”
There are many good organizations and dialogues happening, right here in Dubuque, where we all can collectively “chip in” to end the “sieges.”
So, for me, St. Basil’s Bread isn’t just a yearly ritual. It’s a reminder for me to live up to my calling as a Christian – a call to be a peacemaker.
P.S. Be Transformed by Peace
St. Elias the Prophet (419 N. Grandview Ave., Dubuque)
Saturdays: Great Vespers, 4 pm
Sundays: Orthros, 9 am; Divine Liturgy, 10 am
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(This article was originally published in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, January 7th, 2017.)