Audio length: 13:10 minutes
Transcript published: January 31, 2011
We all know about the Three Wise Men who came to worship Christ in the cave, but today we celebrate other Three Wise Men: St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom.
Now we all know about the Three Wise Men who came to worship Christ in the cave, but today we celebrate other Three Wise Men: St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom. There was a dispute in the 11th Century about which teachers in the Church were most renowned and a bit of an unholy struggle broke out between people who championed each of these three but it was then revealed to a certain monk, St. John Mauropous, that they should all be honoured together. And so it is today, after their individual feasts in January, that we celebrate them together as the Ecumenical Teachers of the Church.
Now these men have had a profound effect on the life and witness of the Orthodox Christian Church. Unlike any others they are drawn together in harmony because they speak with one voice. They also present to us their own distinctive individual contributions. These concern the renewal of human relationships, (marriage for example in the teaching of St. John Chrysostom), social justice (with St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great) and the eternal faith, the gospel of the Church - in the beautiful poetry of St. Gregory the Theologian, my patron saint (so let’s start with him).
St Gregory above all was responsible for putting the whole Christian Church back on the right track in respect of its belief in the Incarnation of our Lord and of the Blessed Trinity. He achieved this with great intellectual rigour and godly passion but he was no dry, abstract, boring, scholastic word monger as were many who followed. When he talked about these things his heart was on fire with the love of God for he spoke of that which he knew. He had tasted andf known that the Lord was good. He is one of only three saints whom the Orthodox Church dignifies with the title “Theologian.” Arguably his most sublime theology is to be found in his poetry. Listen to this for example as he contends for the Orthodox truth of the Incarnation.
“Foolish is he who honours not the Royal and eternal Word of God just as he honours the Father himself in heaven.
Foolish is he who honours not the royal Word appearing mortal in our midst just as he honours the Word himself in heaven.
For such a man separates the Word from the greatness of the Father and from the form of man and from our material state.
For the Word of the Father, made man for us, is God—compounded of the union of God and mortal things—one God in both, mortal to this extent that he might offer us divinity in exchange for our mortality.
Be merciful, O wounded One on high, for how great you are!
How could man’s mind ever grasp this union before beyond all words?
And so, mortal creatures cherish the dispensations the Word has made for us with God.
If I can persuade you on this, then all is well, but if you blacken this charter with teeming thousands of objections then come here to me that I may put these verses on the tablet of your heart with a pen that needs no ink.”
St John Chrysostom is well known for his defence of the poor and his readiness to challenge the rich and the powerful. However, his range of competence in handling day-to-day issues in the light of Scripture and the Tradition of the Church is perhaps unparalleled. Here he speaks of equality within marriage:
“When Paul says, ‘let him show the goodwill which is due,’ he adds, ‘the wife does not rule over her own body but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does.’ (1 Corinthians 7:3-4). So when you see a prostitute setting snares, plotting against you, desiring your body, say to her, ‘This body is not mine. It belongs to my wife. I do not dare to mistreat it or to lend it to another woman.’ The wife should do the same. Here there is complete equality. I ground that in other matters Paul gives the husband superior authority, when he says, ‘let each one of you love his wife as himself and let the wife see that she respects her husband.’”
After more discourse about the headship of the husband in marriage, St John Chrysostom concludes:-
“Why does Paul introduced so much equality? Although in other matters then needs to be a superior authority, here where chastity and holiness are at stake, the husband has no greater privilege that the wife. He is punished equally with her if he breaks the laws of marriage and with good reason.”
...and later in this admonition, the following…
“Just as a virtuous man can never neglect or scorn his wife, so wanton and licentious man can never love his wife, no matter how beautiful she is. Virtue gives birth to love and love brings innumerable blessings.”
(Sermon on Marriage)
No wonder that St John Chrysostom held his congregations in rapt attention. No wonder they clapped and cheered at various points requiring him to interrupt himself and calm them down. Would that we had such preachers today who could combine biblical wisdom in depth with such practical application in extent!
Our third wise man is, of course, St Basil the Great. One of the three fourth century Cappadocian fathers, with St Gregory the Theologian and his younger brother St Gregory of Nyssa, St Basil was a theologian of great renown. His magisterial work “On the Holy Spirit” is the classic defence of the divinity of the Holy Spirit in the economy of salvation. His practical labours for the kingdom of God stand as an equal and glorious testimony to his Christian charity and his strong sense of social justice. In his philanthropic foundation, later known as the Basiliad, the poor, the destitute and the ill received food, shelter and medical treatment free of charge. It was he who invented the National Health Service albeit on a local scale. There was no division in his mind or heart between care for the poor and the needy and the worship of God; indeed the Basiliad was a religious community with a fully functioning Chapel within its large complex of buildings. The whole person was ministered to by St Basil, his many labourers and rich benefactors. This combination of communal monastic practice and practical social care was both unprecedented and visionary. It formed the basis for much Christian social action subsequently in both the East and the West. Listen to this from one of his many admonitions to the avaricious and uncaring rich:
“Why then are you sad? Why do you mourn in the soul, hearing “Sell your possessions”? Even if your belongings could follow you to the future life they would not be particularly desirable there, since they would be overshadowed by truly precious things. If on the other hand, they must remain here, why not sell them now and obtain the profit? You are not disappointed when you must spend gold in order to purchase a horse. But when you have opportunity to exchange corruptible things for the kingdom of Heaven, you shed tears, spurning the one who asks of you and refusing to give anything, while contriving a million excuses for your own expenditures. What then will you answer the Judge? You gorgeously array your walls but do not close your fellow human being; you adorn horses, but turn away from the shameful plight of your brother or sister; you allow grain to rot in your barns, but do not feed those who are starving; you hide gold in the earth, but ignore the oppressed! And if your wife happens to be a money-loving person, then the disease is doubled in its effects.” (To the Rich 3,4)
So there we have it - three very wise men; men of God and men of the people; Orthodox in doctrine, Orthodox in practice; revolutionaries of the Spirit. We honour them today not with pious sentimentality but with the kind of love for God that will stir us after their example to work together to renew the world and the life of its peoples with the eternal Gospel of Christ.