As we come to the close of the month of January, a month filled with feasts commemorating prominent Church Fathers of our faith, we complete it with the Feast of the Three Hierarchs. The Three Hierarchs are none other than: St Basil the Great, St John Chrysostom and St Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzus). Each of these great Fathers have their own feast day: St Basil on January 1, St John Chrysostom on November 13 and January 27 and St Gregory the Theologian on January 25. So why is there an additional feast commemorating all three? Well, in the 11th Century a dispute broke out in Constantinople on which one of the three was the greatest. Some preferred Basil the Great, they were known as Basilians; Johannites, as they were known preferred Chrysostom and Gregorians, Gregory. One day the Three Hierarchs miraculously appeared to Bishop John of Euchaita in Asia Minor and revealed to him that the glory they have at the throne of God is equal. The Three Hierarchs wanted to end this division and directed the bishop to compose a common feast day to honor all three of them. Bishop John chose January 30th as that day. He is also known for the composition of the Prayer to the Guardian Angel for man’s life. We read this prayer at Small Compline in the evening.
Despite the hundreds of great Fathers over the centuries, these three were chosen as the greatest. The main reason for this is the role they played in the 4th Century which was a watershed period in the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Faith was faced with the challenge of Arianism which many Patriarchs and emperors succumbed to. Arianism, led by Arius, believed that Jesus Christ was not divine. The claim was that he was begotten in time by the Father. A created being that was subordinate to the Father. Jehovah’s Witnesses are a derivative of this heresy. St Basil was a staunch opponent against Arianism but also against another heresy that arose at that time. This heresy was led by the Pneumatomachoi, “Spirit-Fighters,” better known as the Macedonians. Of course this does not refer to the region of Macedonia but rather the people who followed the heretic named Macedonius. The heresy was a spin-off of Arianism and was the belief that the Holy Spirit was not divine. In his treatise, Against Eunomius and On the Holy Spirit, Basil defended the divinity of the Holy Spirit, being One of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Although having died before the Second Ecumenical Council held in Constantinople (381), Basil’s works were very much contributory to the decisions of that Council which led to the addition of the second part of the Creed: In the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who together with the Father and Son is worshipped and glorified…. At this Council, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed was completed which we recite to this day. Basil also composed his own liturgy which we still celebrate today throughout the Orthodox Calendar.
Another author of a divine liturgy was St John Chrysostom, his liturgy being the more frequent liturgy we celebrate throughout the year. Chrysostom, the “golden mouth” holds that name for the fervor and value of his sermons. His works were pastoral in nature, for example his treatise Six Discourses on the Priesthood and On Marriage and Family Life. One popular pastoral homily is the one we hear at the Paschal Liturgy: if any has toiled from the first hour, let him receive his just debt. If any came after the third, let him gratefully celebrate. If any arrived after the sixth, let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss. If any have delayed to the ninth, let him come without hesitation. If any arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid by reason of his delay; for the Master is gracious and receives the last, even as the first. He is merciful to the one who delays, and nourishes the first. He gives also to the one, and to the other He is gracious. He accepts the works, as he greets the endeavor. He honors the deed, and the intent He commends. Let all of you then enter into the joy of our Lord. The first and second enjoy your reward. You rich and poor, rejoice together. You temperate and you heedless, honor the day. You who fasted, and you who did not, rejoice today. The Table is richly laden. All of you, fare sumptuously on it. The calf is a fatted one; let no one go away hungry. All of you enjoy the banquet of faith. All of you enjoy the riches of His goodness. Let no one grieve poverty; for the universal Kingdom has been revealed. His works were also hermeneutical which is analysis and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. He wrote many sermons and commentaries on both Old and New Testament books, such as: Genesis, the Psalms, the Gospels of Matthew and John and the Epistles of Saint Paul. Like Basil, Chrysostom was also an ascetic, yet Basil was a Cappadocian like St Gregory of Nazianzus and Chrysostom was from Antioch. Chrysostom was also Patriarch of Constantinople, as was St Gregory of Nazianzus.
St Gregory of Nazianzus, also known as St Gregory the Theologian, similarly to Basil, was a staunch opponent against Arianism. First, the term “theologian” is only granted to one other, the Apostle John. So this title is not only rare but very much revered. St Gregory rightly holds that title for his great works of that critical 4th Century. Saint Gregory wrote five theological orations against Eunomians for their blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. He was present at the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople where he was elected Patriarch. His works and strong arguments along with the works of Basil led to the composition of the full Creed as mentioned before. Some of his works include: On God and Man, On God and Christ and Festal Orations. In these works he discusses the Essence of God and how man has perception of It only when the mind and reason becomes godlike and divine. Thus, when the image ascends to its Archetype. The image being us since we are made in the image and likeness of God and God of course being the Archetype, the source of our creation.
Each of the Three Hierarchs were highly educated, especially in rhetoric and philosophy and were fluent in Greek. In fact, it was their staunch knowledge of philosophy which enabled them to use philosophical terms like ουσία (essence), φύσις (nature), ’ομοούσιον (of one essence) to refute the heretics. These philosophical terms became theological terms to define Orthodox doctrine. The heretics were well educated and indeed formidable opponents but it is by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit that the Church Fathers prevailed. The great efforts, works and influence of the Three Hierarchs laid the foundation for the Orthodox Faith to prevail against the future controversies and heresies it would face in the subsequent centuries.
We pray for their intercessions and enlightenment in our lives to direct us towards God’s Heavenly Kingdom.