Jesus taught us that we cannot serve both God and Mammon. In the case of today’s saints, this is certainly true, for today we remember St. Basil, sometimes called “the Great,” and St. Gregory Nazianzen, sometimes called “the Theologian,” both friends, both doctors of the Church, both defenders of the true faith, both humble servants of God.
They were born to wealthy, established families, so they were sent off to Caesarea (this one was in central, present-day Turkey) to study rhetoric, which is where the two friends first met. They parted according to their own interests. St. Basil went on to Athens to study philosophy whereas St. Gregory studied the law in Palestine, then Alexandria, and then to Athens. It was in Athens that the young men’s friendship bloomed. It was also there that they met a rather famous classmate named Julian, who would later become Emperor from 361-363. He attempted to destroy Christianity which he blamed for Rome's military failures. He died suddenly, leaving his project unfinished. He is known as Julian the Apostate.
The story of Julian is just one sign of the fact that Basil and Gregory lived during a tumultuous time in the Church. When they were born (they share the same birth year of 329AD) Christianity was legal in the Empire, but it was not yet the official religion. Over time, through the influence of the Emperor Constantine and his immediate successors, Christianity became the religion to which all the powerful and influential in the Empire adhered. In less than a generation, the faith founded by Jesus Christ had gone from a backward cult persecuted mercilessly to a religion of the rich, famous, and powerful.
So, with the favor of the government came the influence of the government. Emperors started to see Christianity and the bishops who led the Church as pawns in a game of power brokering. This inevitably resulted in Emperors getting involved in doctrinal disputes and in bishops getting caught up in the pomp, circumstance, and politics of the Emperors.
But Basil and Gregory were friends precisely because they shared three important traits. First, both came from deeply devout families who made it a point to pass on the faith through right teaching and good example. Second, both defended the teaching that Jesus was God, a teaching attacked by the Emperor and by many bishops at the time. And third, both desired to meet Jesus through living simple lives. In Basil’s case, he founded a monastery and is considered by Eastern Orthodox as the father of their monastic traditions. Later, when he was the assistant bishop in Caesarea, a famine broke out that resulted in the death and woe of many. Basil sold his own personal wealth – inherited from his family – to care for them and gave one of the most convicting homilies ever written. “The extra cloak in your closet,” he wrote, “belongs to the person who has none.” We have a moral obligation to help those around us, and our failure to do so endangers our souls. St. Basil served the poor himself and arranged for the building of a hospital at the city gate which was in use for centuries.
Gregory, for his part, joined Basil in that monstery for a time. Then later, he was made a priest, then a bishop, and was named a kind of bishop in Constantinople, which was at that time run by heretics who denied Jesus' divinity. So when he entered the great city dressed in a poor man’s clothing, he was jeered at by Catholics and heretics alike who were used to bishops in finer dress. Nevertheless, Gregory’s homilies in defense of the Trinity and so Jesus' divinity as well as his personal care for the poor, won their hearts. The fact that he didn’t flee when he was attacked and beat up by the heretics also won him praise.
One cannot serve both God and Mammon, and so one of the many lessons that can be drawn from the lives of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen is that wealth and power are not the signs of true fidelity to Christianity. A real Christian can be spotted according to what he or she believes and by the manner of his or her life. The former informs the latter. A real Christan chooses God.
So, as we all “recover” from the festivities of the holidays over the last six weeks or so and face the resolutions of a new year, may we consider how we might learn more about this God whom we love and then seek to live in greater service to our neighbor. By the way, one way to learn more about this beautiful God of ours is by taking the course with Dcn. Peter Kennedy on the Gospel of St. John, a favorite of both St. Basil and St. Gregory. See here for how to register.