Today we celebrate the feast of the Three Hierarchs. The Church glorifies the memory of these great laborers in the harvest-fields of the Lord, whom She singled out from the uncountable host of saints, calling them Universal teachers and hierarchs. The Church emphasizes that each one of them was in his own time a Diocesan Bishop, but that their spiritual influence spread far beyond their borders; and truly the entire flock of the Universal Orthodox Church learns of Christian wisdom, Christian knowledge and piety from them.
The Church canonized them each individually. In early January, we celebrated the feast day of Saint Basil the Great, not too long ago, Saint Gregory the Theologian, and most recently the Translation of the Relics of St John Chrysostom. Today, the Church established a special feast day of these Three Hierarchs, for according to Church tradition, after each of them completed their earthly path, there had been many conflicts among believers. Each of them represented great spiritual significance—they made an impression on all who met them and for this reason each of these three great hierarchs gathered devotees.
There were even groups who called themselves Basilites, Gregorians, and Johnites. There had been quarrels between them as to who among these bishops stood higher in the eyes of God. Church history teaches us that all three hierarchs appeared once to St. John Mauropous, and said, “We are very sorrowful that there are so many quarrels among the believers because of us. We are all of equal glory before God. Speak out, let them establish one holiday for the three of us—not because we are in need of it, but in order to pacify these quarrels and unite the believers in the spirit of faith, love and concord.” This is how the feast day of the three hierarchs was first established.
Basil the Great is a lantern of the Church, a hierarch who is always and everywhere during commemorations of the saints named first, as though he presides over the host of saints. We know of his courage, his staunch character, how he rebuffed the attacks of the heresy of Arius. His enemies themselves said that “The Church [diocese] of Basil alone is greater than all of us.” And they told the Emperor, an Arianist himself: “If we do not remove him, then all our efforts are in vain—he is not a man but a mountain. Victory is impossible over him—you must simply remove him.” But the emperor decided against it.
Basil the Great adorned the Church with his written works, his pious, holy life, and he left us an abundant legacy. First of all, of course, the inspired Liturgy he composed, which is celebrated ten times a year, his inspirational writings as well. He had a profound mind and ability to reason. If Basil the Great addressed and brought an explanation to some matter, then there was nothing left to say on the subject. How many prayers were penned by Basil! Recall the kneeling prayers to the Holy Trinity read during Pentecost! Remember the prayers from the hours: “Thou who at every season and every hour, in Heaven and on earth art worshipped and glorified, O Christ God!” A remarkably profound and powerful prayer which our ears are so accustomed to hearing, but which only skims over our consciousness, as do other prayers of his. At the end of the reading of the hours, we also come across the words of Basil the Great. He left a genuine treasure to the Church, adorning her with his works.
St Gregory the Theologian was a great friend of his, a person of equal genius, a colossal mind, and they shared a similar outlook. He and Basil lived as though with one soul their whole lives, with the exception of a brief period when Basil the Great forced him to receive the episcopal rank. Gregory’s meek soul sorrowed from this and was frankly bitter towards his friend.
St Gregory did not leave us with a Liturgy of his own, but he also adorned the Church through his works. Who does not know the canon of the Nativity, who doesn’t know the Paschal canon? One begins with the words: “Christ is born, glorify Him,” the other “Pascha of the Lord, O Pascha! It is the day of the Resurrection, let us be radiant, ye people!” The holy composers of the canons took these words from the inspired sermons of Gregory the Theologian.
When you read his works, you cannot but fall in love with their meaning. A deep, holy inspired meaning, crafted as though with a sharp blade in the hand of a master. We see this in his writings, in which he refuted heresy—the undeniable, unstoppable power of logic, the wealth of its content, the richness of thought and the utterly defeating critique of all that is in error. At the same time as he denounces heresy, when he writes about theology, his purified mind, illuminated and profound, is expressed in words of such loftiness, for which the church Praises him with the words, “Rejoice, O Father of Theology of the uppermost Mind,” that is, a mind that reached the highest level possible for a human.
He and his friend Basil were of completely different temperaments. Basil was by nature a warrior, a leader, while Gregory was as they said, a dove of the wilderness, who sought solitude, so that he could be alone with God, as he said, to be with the angels and be free from all that was earthly. But the Lord does not keep such lanterns hidden, and despite his striving for solitude, the Lord elevated his great God-loving soul to the lofty service of a bishop. Although it was a heavy burden for him, still, when needed, he held his archpastoral staff with a strong hand, as did his great friend Basil. They died different deaths—Basil amidst his weeping flock, Gregory completely alone with God and his holy Guardian Angel. How staunch they were when they needed to defend the truth of the Church! We remember when Basil the Great responded to the threat of the Emperor's officer.
The emissary had been sent to convince Basil to consent to the heresy of Arius. Seeing that he was faced with a “mountain” of a believer and not a simple mortal, he began to threaten to take away all his property, to send him into exile, and even torture and death. Remember how the great hierarch responded? He smiled, and said, “You can threaten me with anything, but you won't scare me! Take away my property? I don't have any, so you can't take anything away; you threaten exile, but it is the Lord's land and His Will, and I am a servant of the Lord, all the land belongs to God. I will feel at home wherever I am. Torturing my feeble body will not last long, maybe only the first strike will be yours, and death for me will be a blessing, for it will take me to God for Whom I live, for Whom I labor, Whom I hurry to approach, and for Whom I am already half-dead.” His questioner was stunned by his boldness.
Gregory the Theologian was threatened with being driven away from Constantinople. But the bishop replied, “If you exile me from the Jerusalem of Heaven, that I would fear. But your threats put wind in my sails and sprinkle me with refreshing water. That is how I view this exile.”
The third Great Hierarch was John Chrysostom. The church properly preserved his name, “Golden Mouth,” which one believing woman once exclaimed after hearing his words. There could not be a preacher and orator equal to John Chrysostom. We know that when he was still a priest, a certain bishop who loved him, St. Flavian, asked him after divine services in his own church to come to a different church to read a sermon. Those who had prayed with him in the first church then rushed after him to hear his words again. Applause would often break out in church, for the temperament of the Greeks is not restrained, and they applauded the remarkable beauty and power of his words. He also died for the truth.
What wealth he left us all! Maybe more than any other figure in the Church! The mass of his sermons, inspired, magnificent works, his Liturgy and also a great many other prayers. When the day of his death arrived, we read about what a great spirit he had. As he was being taken into exile, it was pure torture for him. They saw that he was faltering and could not continue, so they stopped at one point and placed him in a house of ill repute. One could imagine that this would bring anyone to grumble, but Chrysostom remained quiet in spirit. Hieromartyr Basilisk, who had also suffered there, appeared to him, and with brotherly love consoled him with the words, “Brother John, be bold, tomorrow we will be together!” And as he died in that environment, amid the filth, his final words were not of despair, but the words he always uttered under both joyous and sorrowful circumstances: “Glory to God for all things!” He died upon uttering those last of his great words.
The Church glorifies these Three Great Hierarchs for all this. In our sorrowful times, in our time of tribulations, in our days of great temptations! But do not think that this is something new. Maybe in contemporary life, evil has become so widespread and open, like never before. There were times of trouble in the past; we recently recalled the life of Gregory the Theologian, who wrote to his friend, “Good is dying, evil is in the open, the Church is without pastors. We must swim through crashing waves, and there is not a lighthouse to be seen—it is as though Christ were asleep.” In such expressive terms he described the difficulty of those times, as did other holy hierarchs, during their service. We turn to them now in prayer for their intercession, so that the Lord might heed their powerful prayers and strengthens us of little faith in these troubled times. What thunderous denunciations would boom forth from these three Hierarchs if they lived in our time of weakness, feebleness of faith and apostasy. But they now stand triumphant at the Altar of God, and they heed our prayers as we must firmly believe, and by their holy prayers, may the All-Merciful Lord strengthen us weaklings so that we not only would be called Christians, but BE Christians. Amen.