On February 12th (January 30th by the old calendar) the Church celebrates the Synaxis of the Three Hierarchs – Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostome.
There was a special reason for establishing this holiday in the Orthodox Church. During the reign of Byzantine Emperor Alexis Comnenus, a fierce argument arose among the Christians of Constantinople in regard to the three hierarchs: some Christians regarded Basil the Great as being superior to all, others elevated Gregory the Theologian, still others venerated John Chrysostome. Such a foolish quarrel over their worth was very displeasing to the great hierarchs. And finally the hierarchs themselves put an end to this church division, playing the role of great peacekeepers even after their repose. At the very height of the conflict they appeared in a vision to the blessed Bishop John of Evhaite and said to him: “We are all one before God, and there is no first or second among us; command the people to cease dividing us. As during our life on earth, so after our repose we concern ourselves with peace and unity among the fathers of the universe. Unite us on a single day, establish a general feast in our honor, and tell everyone that we are one before God!” After these words, before the bishop’s eyes the saints Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostome began to rise up to heaven, enveloped in a wondrous light. Instructed by the appearance of the hierarchs, Bishop John immediately took on the task of establishing peace among the quarreling Christians by telling them about the wondrous vision. Soon he also established this present feast in honor the three equally-ranked hierarchs and commanded the Church to observe it devoutly.
The wondrous appearance of the three great hierarchs, which was the occasion for this universal celebration, is very instructive for us. It confirms the rapture and the glory that surround God’s saints in the celestial abodes, and this glory accompanies them when they, by God’s special providence, descend to earth in the glitter of radiant light. It comforts us with the fact that we are not alone on earth: we have faithful teachers and intercessors for us in heaven. While living among us, they were concerned most of all with the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth; and now yonder, at the foot of God’s throne, with their active prayers to God they continue their great deed: they work to achieve peace and unity in all corners of the universe. The appearance of the great hierarchs teaches us that the saints are pleased with our mutual contact with them. They are pleased when we appeal to them in prayer, when the Church on earth piously commemorates them, – and that is because their veneration is of great benefit to us. By venerating their sacrifices and labors, by learning from the example of their lives, and by heeding their spiritual efforts on earth, we fortify our own spiritual strength and emulate their faith.
On the mystery of theology
The synaxis of the universal teachers and hierarchs Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostome is a feast of theology, in whose hymns we hear how the three hierarchs in their prayers call upon the Holy Trinity. These ecclesiastical teachers, whose church service, in the words of Apostle Paul, comprises the special calling of instructorship, instruct us in the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
On this day all of us are called upon to realize the importance of a true confession of faith in our spiritual life. As St. Cyril of Jerusalem says, good works without dogmas have no value, and the confession of dogmas without good works likewise has no value. All of us have been baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity. During the Divine liturgy we confess our creed before we embark upon the Divine Eucharist. And before partaking of the Holy Mysteries, we confess Jesus Christ as the Son of God – a mystery which is not revealed to man by flesh and blood, but by the Heavenly Father Who is in heaven.
This is the key to understanding the precise significance of the holiness of Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostome. Their instructorship is united with their holiness and their attachment to God, since without cognizance of God a person cannot engage in theology.
“The mystery of theology, – teaches the venerable Siluan – lies in that a person who has attained perfection never says anything of his own, but only that which God says through him.” The mystery of theology also consists of a person saying not what he has heard from other people, but what, by the grace of God, he has learned from his own spiritual experience. In the final analysis, it is only this precise theology which is genuine, but the path to it consists of our entire life being spent in obedience to the Church and of our aspiring towards the divinely-revealed mysteries that are given to us by the Holy Spirit.
The mystery of instructorship is tied in with the mystery of prelacy. The universal teachers Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostome are also hierarchs, who pray to God and compose their own prayers and services to Him. This is not because they possess a special gift of oratory (although they do happen to have it), but because the Lord sanctifies this gift and guides it toward supreme service. They themselves are the composers of the Divine Liturgy in which the Holy Eucharist is performed, and this signifies knowledge of the Living God which they pass on to us. This also signifies their stance for truth and their deflection of all false teachings which infringe upon the holiness of faith.
In resolving the most complex issues of spiritual life, the hierarchs respond to them by simply quoting the Holy Scriptures. St. Basil the Great has instructive discourses in the form of questions and answers that are composed entirely from the Holy Scriptures, without a single word of personal commentary. This is the kind of verbal depth at which these people lived. They lived by the word of God and the Word of God spoke through them. “Golden lips” (Chrysostome), – we say. And, in truth, these are lips through which God speaks. The holy Fathers taught us: “You have received gold, you must pass this gold on to others.” All of us have received gold, i.e. our Orthodox faith, and we should pass it on to others.
In contemplating the hierarchs’ spiritual labor, we should be amazed at how theology fed their prayers, while their prayers were a continuation of theology. Their prayers and their theology were united and nourished each other. We cannot but be amazed at the way genuine theology is filled with the poetry of supreme beauty.
Because of its relation to God, theology should be fiery, inspired, filled with living power. We know, for example, that iconography is theology in color. In genuine theology the gift of painting is not simply a delineation of certain truths, but beauty issuing from the Creator of heaven and earth, from the Holy Spirit. This kind of theology breathes with divine truth and love.
Of great danger is dead theology. It is the cause of many catastrophes in the Church and among mankind, when faith is confessed only verbally, while people have stopped experiencing it as life itself. In any confession of faith one should not chase after beauty, because truth is already beautiful in itself. But our faith should issue from our very life, from our stance for truth. We should stand up for truth both in personal endeavor, just as all the saints have done, and in our concern that the Church retain this truth forever. Such is the basic sign of genuine God-related inspiration.
When the Antichrist comes, he will amaze everyone with his false inspiration. Any word can be inspired and vivid, but we know that the Antichrist will attract a great multitude of people with his inspired but empty words. We should know that one of the outward signs that a word is genuine is when it is simultaneously reasonable and knows its measure. A genuine word is concerned with everything that is going on externally. It is not by chance that all three hierarchs were greatly concerned with church establishment. They participated in all external events: in the establishment of monastic life, in the writing of canons, in the building of churches. The vision of that which takes place in the external world is one of the signs of a genuine word, because the external is not abolished by the existence of the internal, but on the contrary, is enhanced and shown in its true light. Similarly little things do not become insignificant because of the existence of great things, but each has its own importance. Only the one who is faithful to the Lord in little things is also faithful in great things.
In our times, when there is so much disbelief and false belief around us, when iniquity in the external world (and even in the world of the Church) is attacking truth more and more aggressively, let us pray to the hierarchs of Christ and ask them for the help which we so greatly need. Let us pray that false ecumenism – an attempt to unite truth with falsehood without dividing them – and all the apostasy in faith which is one of the major signs of the triumph of Satan and the coming of the Antichrist, not overcome our Church. Let us pray that the gates of hell not vanquish it, for all the holy Fathers are with us; their holy faith, which also belongs to us, is with us; the thousands of saints who paid with their blood for the confession of Orthodoxy are with us.
May the Lord grant that we be worthy of the faith of these great saints. May the Lord grant each one of us, on this day which glorifies the theology which leads to knowledge of God, the realization that we are called upon to fulfill the primary commandment – to love God, not only with all our heart, not only with all our strength, with also with all our mind. Amen.