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THREE HIERARCHS
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SERMON ON THE FEAST OF THE THREE HIERARCHS 2019
Today’s feast of the Three Hierarchs is an interesting one. It celebrates three important saints all together on a single day - Saint Basil The Great, Saint Gregory The Theologian And Saint John Chrysostom. Now each of these saints DO have their own individual feast days. St. Basil the Great is celebrated on January 1st; St. Gregory the Theologian on January 25th; and St. John Chrysostom on January 27th. According to the Prologue, this combined feast day, January 30, was instituted during the reign of Emperor Alexius Comnenus. St. Nikolai Velimirovich writes: “At one time a debate arose among the people concerning who of the three is the greatest? Some extolled Basil because of his purity and courage; others extolled Gregory for his unequaled depth and lofty mind in theology; still others extolled Chrysostom because of his eloquence and clarity in expounding the Faith. Thus some were called Basilians, others Gregorgians, and the third were called Johannites. This debate was settled by Divine Providence to the benefit of the Church and to an even greater glory of the three saints. Bishop John of Euchaita (June 14) had a vision in a dream: At first, all three of these saints appeared to him separately in great glory and indescribable beauty, and after that all three appeared together. They said to him, ‘As you see, we are one in God and there is nothing contradictory in us; neither is there a first or a second among us.’ The saints also advised Bishop John that he write a common service for them and to order a common feast day of celebration. Following this wonderful vision, the debate was settled in this manner: January 30 would be designated as the common feast of these three hierarchs.”
So there you have it, the official explanation or reason for this holy day. Division, factions. Isn’t it awful? Believe it or not, we see evidence of exactly this kind of division occurring even in the Bible! St. Paul in First Corinthians chastises the faithful there, writing: “Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as spiritual people, but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ.  I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not behaving like mere human beings?... So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Peter, all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God” (1 Corinthians 3: 1-4; 21-23).
However, there may be even more to it. In the Bible we also see examples of regional and ethnic division. In John 1:45-46 we read: “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Torah and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’”  What was wrong with Nazareth? According to recent archaeological and other evidence, Nazareth was a small village at the time of Christ. What made it distinct from other small towns and villages in Galilee, was that it was very sympathetic to and supportive of the religious teachings and traditions of the Judean/Jerusalem leadership – the Scribes, Pharisees, and the other hypocrites! Perhaps this is why Nazareth, His hometown, so thoroughly rejected Jesus and His message when He visited there with His disciples (See Matthew 13: 53-57). That’s why Philip, a true Galilean, says “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
So in the Bible we see rivalries and sometimes even hatred among the various peoples and locations in Palestine: Galilee vs Judea; Jews vs Samaritans, there were Zealots and Essenes, and many more. So what about Basil, Gregory, and John? All of them were the favorite saints of the locations in which they lived or presided, and all of them within the borders of modern Turkey, ancient Asia Minor. For St John Chrysostom he has two places of “favorite son” status: Antioch (just barely south of the Asia Minor border), and Constantinople; for St Basil – Caesarea in Cappadocia I; and for Gregory, the town of Nazianzus in Cappadocia II. (Cappadocia was divided into two administrative sections, 1 & 2). Regional, sectional, and even ethnic rivalries existed even way back in ancient times. This divisive bickering behavior concerning the Three Hierarchs was still raging in Asia Minor even as late as the mid 11th century. How do we know that? We know that because that’s when St. John, Bishop of Euchaita presided. He’s the one who was visited by the Three Hierarchs themselves in order to put an end to the divisions!
I think that there is an important lesson to be learned here today for the Orthodox world. I am speaking, of course, about the situation in Ukraine, but the lesson applies everywhere. We would all do well to remember that in Christ there is no difference: Jew or Greek; slave or free; male or female; Paul, Apollos or Peter; Basil, Gregory or John; Constantinople, Caesarea or Nazianzus. Regional, sectional, political, ethnic, racial, or any other kind of divisions that rear their ugly heads in the Church of Christ are anathema! They rip apart the garment of the unity of Christ’s body, and fulfill the fondest wishes of the Devil, whose very name means “the Divider!” Ethnic and nationalistic notions should not figure into the establishment of autocephalous churches at all. In fact, the Holy pan-Orthodox Synod held in Constantinople on 10th September 1872, condemned ethno-phyletism as a modern ecclesial heresy, saying that “the Church should not be confused with the destiny of any single nation or any single race.” Alas, “it is a consummation devoutly to be wished,” as Shakespeare has Prince Hamlet say. Well, we can do more than wish; we can pray. We can pray to the Three Holy Hierarchs, Basil, Gregory and John, that they intercede fervently on behalf of our church to the Merciful God; and perhaps we might even dare to pray that they would appear once again, to bring about the healing of all ethno-phyletistic divisions that have so recently infected some parts of the Orthodox Church. Amen.