New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Theologians know Saint Basil the Great best for two things—namely, that he originated Eastern Christine coenobitic monasticism, and that he was instrumental in helping to defeat the Arian heresy, which denied or downplayed the belief that Christ was fully God, despite the heresy’s support by the emperor of his time. Highly educated, Basil was an example of the educated ascetic.
Who was Basil of Caesarea? If his biographical facts were written in contemporary form they might read: Basil of Caesarea 329-379, Greek bishop of Caesarea in the Roman province of Cappadocia, Asia Minor. Parents: Basil, Emmelia. Influential in the development of monasticism in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Played a role in the Arian controversy. Wrote “Saint Basil’s Liturgy”. Books: Address to Young Men on Greek Literature. Patronage: Cappadocia, Monk, Education.
Basil was born in Caesarea, in Cappadocia, to a family renowned for their learning and holiness. His mother Emmelia (commemorated July 19 and May 30) and his grandmother Macrina (January 14) are Saints of the Church, together with all his brothers and sisters: Macrina, his elder sister (July 19), Gregory of Nyssa (January 10), Peter of Sebastia (January 9), and Naucratius. It is said that his grandfather was martyred for not denying his faith in Jesus Christ, a story of courage told to him and his siblings by his grandmother Macrina to strengthen their faith.
After studying in his native Caesarea, and in Constantinople under the sophist Libanius, Basil went to Athens at the age of twenty-two to study Greek literature, rhetoric, and philosophy for five years. There he met Gregory of Nazianzus, a fellow student, also a Cappadocian.
After teaching rhetoric for a time in Caesarea, Basil decided to abandon his worldly career. It is said that the early death of his brother, Naucratios (at 27 years), who had warned Basil about pride, shocked Basil into thinking about what was important in life. He visited the monks in Egypt, in Palestine, in Syria, and in Mesopotamia, and upon returning to Caesarea, he departed to a hermitage on the Iris River in Pontus, not far from Annesi, where his mother and his sister Macrina were already treading the path of the ascetical life; here he also wrote his ascetical homilies.
Basil was the inaugurator in Asia Minor of coenobitic monasticism, monks living together under a shared rule of life, as opposed to hermits. Basil’s writings on monasticism are the single most important body of regulative documents in Eastern Orthodox monasticism.
Because of his leadership and learning, Basil was drawn away from monastic affairs into the wider life and conflicts of the Church. Between 359 and 370 two successive bishops of Caesarea summoned him to their service, the second of them ordaining him a priest when Basil was about 31. But Basil’s strong convictions resulted in strained relations with his superiors, and he often left Caesarea to work among his monasteries.
It is said that after an earthquake in Caesarea, Basil worked for days without sleep, digging through rubble with his own hands to save those trapped; he helped the injured and urged everyone to share their food with those who had none. Basil stood by the people and encouraged them throughout the catastrophe; he planted food in new areas and prevented the starvation of the people. After this, in 370, he was made Bishop of Caesarea. Basil was the first bishop to establish orphanages, hospitals and homes for the aged, schools and monasteries. Saint Basil organized the Philoptochos society.
Traditionally, in Orthodox countries Saint Basil’s feast was as important as Christmas, and was in fact the day when children received gifts, a custom now changing or perhaps abandoned.
The tradition of the Vasilopita, however, continues. The story of this custom is as follows: the emperor had imposed a tax on Basil’s diocese that it was not possible to pay. His many faithful followers gave money and jewels to help, a gesture that so amazed the tax-collector he did not accept them. Not knowing the origin of each donation, Basilhad many cakes baked with the coins and jewels inside them which he distributed to the poor. Traditionally, a Vasilopita, Basil’s cake or sweet bread, with a coin baked inside) is made in Orthodox households and brought to the church. There, the Vasilopita is blessed and cut by the priest; pieces are cut to honor Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, Saint Basil, the priest, the poor and others.
Saint Basil’s Liturgy is celebrated ten times a year; on the first five Sundays of the Great Lent before Easter, Holy Thursday, Holy Saturday, the day before Christmas and Epiphany (or Theophany– the day of Jesus’ Baptism) and of course on January 1, Saint Basil’s Feast day, the day his life is commemorated and celebrated.
On January 19, the Feast and commemoration of the Three Hierarchs,Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory the Theologian, and Saint John Chrysostom takes place. It is usually combined with a celebration of Greek Letters, with special events dedicated to the preservation and promulgation of the ideals of Orthodox Christianity and Hellenic education.