|Memorial of Saints Basil the
Great and Gregory Nazianzen,
Bishops and doctors of the Church
1 Jn 2:22–28
Psalm 98:1,2, 3-4
Today is the feast of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nazianzus, both doctors of the church. Basil and Gregory were both born Cappadocia, a region in the middle of the Anatolian plateau of west-central Turkey. They were good friends. Cappadocia is a distant place in 2003, but in the ancient world, it was a remote district in Christian Roman Empire. The great intellectual centers of Alexandria, Athens, Antioch, and Constantinople would have looked at Basil’s home in the provincial capital, Caesarea (modern Kaiseri) in much the same way that residents of New York or London might look upon lowly little Omaha. What good could come from Cappadocia? I did not fully appreciate the how remote Cappadocia is until I had the opportunity to visit there during the summer of 2002. My friends and I spent part of one of our days in the region driving to the little village of Guzelyurt, which is believed to be near the long lost birth place and family estate of St. Gregory. Nothing remains, yet, there was a kind of comfort in the knowledge that the vistas I was seeing and the spaces I was crossing were the vistas and spaces that Basil and Gregory had seen and crossed so many centuries ago.
The Greeks call Gregory “the Theologian,” a title he shares only with John the Evangelist. In this they testify to his greatness as a thinker. Both he and Basil were embroiled in a fourth-century controversy know as Arianism. The subject of the controversy was the question of the divinity of Jesus. Arius, whose teaching gave the controversy a name, could not image a way to preserve the oneness of God without in some way demoting the Son to an exalted but lower status than the Father. In the year 325, a council was held in the city of Nicaea (also in modern Turkey) to refute Arius’s ideas. However, the church lacked clarity about the issues, and a consensus was impossible at that time. For the next 56 years the church was bitterly divided about how to understand the nature of God. Basil and Gregory worked hard to help resolve the conflict. Basil, the tireless churchman, labored with the political aspects of the controversy, while Gregory worked through the intellectual issues. Finally in 381, when another council was held, this time in Constantinople, the church was able to reach a consensus. Today we call that consensus the Nicene Creed. The classical notion that the Christian God is Triune, understood as one divinity in three persons, is largely the intellectual work of St. Gregory.
Like John the Baptist in our reading today, these men bore tireless testimony to the truth of Christ. Had he been alive in the fourth century, they would surely have gladdened the heart of the author of 1 John: in defending the Son, they most surely remained (and remain) in the Father.
As one who also lives in troubling ecclesiastical times, I take great
comfort in contemplating the memory of these truly great men of the Church.
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