On January 14th (the 1st by the old calendar) the Church commemorates Saint Basil the Great.
St. Basil was born in the city of Caesaria in Cappadocia in 330 A.D., in a prominent Christian family that was notable not only for its material well-being, but also for its spiritual blessings: its ancestors included martyrs and confessors for Christ. St. Basil received his primary education at home under his parents’ tutelage, but afterwards he attended the most prominent schools of Caesaria and Constantinople, and finished his superior education in Athens. St. Basil’s friend, St. Gregory the Theologian, reminisced about their years of study together: “We knew only two paths: one was to our holy churches and their teachers, and the other – to our professors of secular studies.” It was said of St. Basil that “he was better versed in all subjects than others were even in a single subject… This was a ship laden with knowledge to the greatest extent possible for human nature.”
Soon St. Basil stepped upon the path of asceticism. He visited Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, in order to acquire the knowledge of truth from the great desert-dwellers. Having given away all his possessions, he settled in the desert, where a monastery soon sprang up. Here St. Basil wrote his commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, simultaneously engaging in spiritual labors, fasting, and prayer.
At that time the Church was buffeted terribly by the heresy of Arius. The moment arrived for St. Basil to become active in church affairs and become known as a prominent teacher and hierarch of Christ’s Church. Battling against heretics, propagating the true faith, caring for the poor and the orphaned, setting up monasteries, establishing order in churches, strengthening Church unity, comforting true believers who were persecuted by heretics with the help of civil authorities, – in all these tasks the great hierarch St. Basil labored most selflessly. St. Basil not only did not disdain to visit lepers, but gladly embraced them, giving them the great joy of feeling his love for them.
Fighting heretics “with the weapon of his verbal utterances and the arrows of his writings,” the indefatigable defender of Orthodoxy was hated by Arian heretics all his life, and suffered many sorrows and deprivations because of them. Besides his commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, St. Basil also composed a Divine Liturgy based upon apostolic tradition, which to this day is served in the Orthodox Church ten times a year; he also wrote many prayers, canonical rules, and rules for monastics.
The labors of dogmatic teaching, strict ascetic labors, and the great concerns and sorrows of hierarchal service exhausted St. Basil quite early. He died peacefully at the age of 49, having served for nine years as an archbishop and for seven years as a hierarch. St. Basil the Great is glorified by the Church as “the glory and the beauty of the Church,” “the light and the eye of the universe,” “a teacher of dogmas,” “an edifice of knowledge,” “a leader in life.”
Discorse on Saint John the Baptist
“In those days, – the Gospel tells us, – came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness and saying: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:1-2). “In those days,” that is, in the days of the Lord Jesus Christ’s coming to earth, in the days when the Heavenly King appeared, in the days when the pre-eternal Light began to shine in the world. In those days John the Baptist came and preached in the wilderness, in an uninhabited land, for mankind at that time was like a wilderness – it had not yet become the abode of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
What did John proclaim? “‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ John himself had a raiment of camel’s hair and a leather girdle around his loins” (Matt. 3:4). Let us, too, my beloved brethren, attire ourselves in John’s raiment, for in this raiment is concealed the mystery of our salvation. This raiment is the image of people coming from paganism to faith.
John had a raiment of camel’s hair. The Holy Scriptures often liken the devil to a camel, in view of the latter’s pride, perfidy, and rage. In the writings of Prophet Isaiah, for example, the watchman says from his watchtower: “And he saw a chariot of donkeys and a chariot of camels” (Isaiah 21:7). The chariot of donkeys represents Christ, Who entered Jerusalem sitting upon a donkey; while the chariot of camels represents the Antichrist, who will appear in the last days through the auspices of the devil. John had a raiment of camel’s hair. With his preaching he attracted pagans, who were like hair covering the devil, and thus, by making the devil lose his “hair,” John the Baptist united these pagans with the Church.
“John himself… had a leather girdle around his loins.” The Holy Scriptures speak also of John’s girdle and loins, in order to show that carnal desires, which so oppose virtue, were deadened by the external girdle made of dead skin; this girdle symbolized true inner chastity. According to the Gospel, John’s food was locusts and wild honey. This symbolizes the Jews’ abandonment of the law and the commandments, as it is described by the prophet: “Thy crowned ones are as the locusts, and thy captains as the great grasshoppers, which camp in the hedges in the cold day, but when the sun arises they flee away” (Nahum 3:17). And the wild honey indicates that by transgressing the commandments the Jews turned the sweetness of the law into bitterness for themselves.
“Then, – says the Gospel, – Jesus comes to Jordan unto John, to be baptized by him. But John restrained Him, saying: I have need to be baptized by Thee, and comest Thou to me? And Jesus replied to him: Suffer it to be so now, for thus we must fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:13-15). Suffer it now, for it behooves you to be a witness concerning Me. I have come to teach that “except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God (John 3:5), and therefore I Myself must first fulfill that which I shall teach others to do. Suffer it now, for the words of the long-suffering Job must be fulfilled: “Not one man shall be clean of impurity, even if he lives on earth just a single day.” I must cleanse the ancient sinful impurity and renew the soul by means of the Spirit and the body by means of water.
Then John let Jesus alone. And when Jesus descended into Jordan, a great miracle appeared before the eyes of all those standing around: they saw the Source of all things being cleansed in the river, and the River of all bounty immersing Himself in water. Christ is truly the source of all things, as He Himself testifies, saying: “They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters” (Jeremiah 2:13). At the same time Jesus Christ is a river of all bounty, as can be seen from the following prophetic words: “The river of God has been filled with water” (Psalm 64:9). The Saviour has descended upon the waters, and they have become blessed, for He has blessed them. If any of you, dear brethren, has not yet washed himself in the fountain of eternal being, let him come and see what God the Father proclaims from the heavens about Jesus: “This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well-pleased” (Matt. 3:17). “Hear Him” (Luke 9:35). Thus, a voice is heard at the river Jordan, the Father calls the Son by name, the Son cleanses the heavens and blesses the water, the Holy Spirit renews the earth and blesses the air. Now the ancient words of the psalm come to pass: “Day unto day uttereth speech” (Psalm 19:2). The day is the Father, and the day is the Son; and so, the Father passes the word unto the Son, as the Apostle Paul confirms when he exhorts us: “And take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). By this word may we all be joined in Jesus Christ, our Lord, unto Whom are due glory and worship unto ages of ages. Amen.