January 2 – Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, Bishops and Doctors – Memorial

Memorial, Liturgical Color: White; St. Basil the Great: 329-379, St. Gregory: c. 329 – 390

The persecution of the Church in the first few centuries, sometimes aggressive, more typically passive, starved her skinny biblical frame of nourishment. When the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 314 A.D., the Church’s bones finally stretched, grew, and put muscle upon muscle. Churches opened. Bishops preached. Schools taught. Theologians wrote. And, most significantly, Councils met. Three hundred years after Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, these large gatherings of bishops and theologians sought to end theological confusion, to settle thorny questions, and to establish a standard Christian doctrine. In the vast halls and churches of these councils the great cast of theologians of the 4th century put their prodigious talents on full display. We commemorate two of the greatest of these bishops and theologians in today’s memorial feast.

Saints Basil and Gregory lived so long ago, were so prolific, and played such crucial roles in so many areas of Church life, that they could each be remembered for any number of contributions to liturgy, theology, ecclesiology, church history, monasticism, and even popular customs, especially in the Orthodox east. Yet perhaps their greatest contributions were as theologians who defined, fundamentally and decisively, what the word Trinity actually means; how Jesus is both fully God and fully man; and how the Holy Spirit is related to God the Father. Such definitions and distinctions may seem technical, abstract, or remote. But it is always the most obvious things – the most necessary things – that are the most difficult to explain. Why do things fall down instead of up? Why does the sun rise in the east instead of the west? Why are there seven days in a week and twelve months in a year?

The most fundamental doctrines of our faith, understood now as perennial, were not always perennial. They originated in the minds of certain people at certain times in certain places. To today’s saints we owe the decisive words that the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from the Father and the Son. These words fall simply and familiarly from our lips. But the word “proceeds” was the fruit of intense thought and prayer. The Father generated the Son, but the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from them both. Interesting. Dozens of millions of Catholics says reflexively every Sunday that the second person of the Trinity is “consubstantial” with the Father. Not equal in origin. Not equal in role. But  “consubstantial,” or equal in nature. Thank you Saints Basil and Gregory! Thank you great Bishops and Doctors of the early Church! Thank you for pulling aside the veil of mystery for a peek into the Godhead. Without the teachings of the 4th century on the Trinity and Christ, there would be no Christmas trees. Think about that. Why celebrate the Christ child if he were not God? But he is God. So Carols are composed, mangers are displayed, lights are hung, and gifts are exchanged.  Culture happens, culture flourishes, when theology makes sense. Thank you saints Basil and Gregory for …. everything!

O noble Bishops and Doctors Basil and Gregory, we ask for your continued intercession to enlighten our minds to the truths of our faith, to remove the dark shadows that cause confusion and doubt, and to assist us from heaven in recognizing, with all clarity, that good theology understands God as He understands himself. When you gave us good teaching you gave us God. We seek nothing more.

More on Saint Basil

ST. BASIL was born in Asia Minor. Two of his brothers became bishops, and, together with his mother and sister, are honored as Saints. He studied with great success at Athens, where he formed with St. Gregory Nazianzen the most tender friendship. He then taught oratory; but dreading the honors of the world, he gave up all, and became the father of the monastic life in the East. The Arian heretics, supported by the court, were then persecuting the Church; and Basil was summoned from his retirement by his bishop to give aid against them. His energy and zeal soon mitigated the disorders of the Church, and his solid and eloquent words silenced the heretics. On the death of Eusebius, he was chosen Bishop of Cæsarea. His commanding character, his firmness and energy, his learning and eloquence, and not less his humility and the exceeding austerity of his life, made him a model for bishops. When St. Basil was required to admit the Arians to Communion, the prefect, finding that soft words had no effect, said to him, “Are you mad, that you resist the will before which the whole world bows? Do you not dread the wrath of the emperor, nor exile, nor death?” “No,” said Basil calmly; “he who has nothing to lose need not dread loss of goods; you cannot exile me, for the whole earth is my home; as for death, it would be the greatest kindness you could bestow upon me; torments cannot harm me: one blow would end my frail life and my sufferings together.” “Never,” said the prefect, “has any one dared to address me thus.” “Perhaps,” suggested Basil, “you never before measured your strength with a Christian bishop.” The emperor desisted from his commands. St. Basil’s whole life was one of suffering. He lived amid jealousies and misunderstandings and seeming disappointments. But he sowed the seed which bore goodly fruit in the next generation, and was God’s instrument in beating back the Arian and other heretics in the East, and restoring the spirit of discipline and fervor in the Church. He died in 379, and is venerated as a Doctor of the Church.

Reflection.—”Fear God,” says the Imitation of Christ, “and thou shalt have no need of being afraid of any man.”

Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed. [1894]

More on Saint Gregory Nazianzen

GREGORY was born of saintly parents, and was the chosen friend of St. Basil. They studied together at Athens, turned at the same time from the fairest worldly prospects, and for some years lived together in seclusion, self-discipline, and toil. Gregory was raised, almost by force, to the priesthood; and was in time made Bishop of Nazianzum by St. Basil, who had become Archbishop of Cæsarea. When he was fifty years old, he was chosen, for his rare gifts and his conciliatory disposition, to be Patriarch of Constantinople, then distracted and laid waste by Arian and other heretics. In that city he labored with wonderful success. The Arians were so irritated at the decay of their heresy that they pursued the Saint with outrage, calumny, and violence, and at length resolved to take away his life. For this purpose they chose a resolute young man, who readily undertook the sacrilegious commission. But God did not allow him to carry it out. He was touched with remorse, and cast himself at the Saint’s feet, avowing his sinful intent. St. Gregory at once forgave him, treated him with all kindness, and received him amongst his friends, to the wonder and edification of the whole city, and to the confusion of the heretics, whose crime had served only as a foil to the virtue of the Saint. St. Jerome boasts that he had sat at his feet, and calls him his master and his catechist in Holy Scripture. But his lowliness, his austerities, the insignificance of his person, and above all his very success, drew down on him the hatred of the enemies of the Faith. He was persecuted by the magistrates, stoned by the rabble, and thwarted and deserted even by his brother bishops. During the second General Council he resigned his see, hoping thus to restore peace to the tormented city, and retired to his native town, where he died in 390. He was a graceful poet, a preacher at once eloquent and solid; and as a champion of the Faith so well equipped, so strenuous, and so exact, that he is called St. Gregory the Theologian.

Reflection.—”We must overcome our enemies,” said St. Gregory, “by gentleness; win them over by forbearance. Let them be punished by their own conscience, not by our wrath. Let us not at once wither the fig-tree, from which a more skilful gardener may yet entice fruit.”

Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed. [1894]

Further Reading:

Sanctoral – Basil

Sanctoral – Gregory

Catholic Culture

Loyola Press

Basil – Franciscan Media

Gregory – Franciscan Media

Basil – EWTN

Gregory – EWTN

Basil – Catholic Online

Gregory – Catholic Saints Info

Basil – New Advent

Gregory – New Advent

Basil – Wikipedia

Gregory – Wikipedia

All Saints for the Liturgical Year