In the year 360, the Emperor Constantius II convened a council of Bishops from the Eastern and Western churches of Rome to settle an ongoing dispute about the relationship between Jesus Christ and God the Father. Thirty five years earlier, the Catholic faith in the Trinity had been asserted at the first Council of Nicea, but since then the Arian denial of Christ’s fully divine nature was still held by some prominent and vocal Christian leaders, both secular and ecclesiastical. Twenty years old and having only been baptized three years before this council, Basil was in the process of awakening to his faith and discerning God’s calling for his life when he attended this controversial council. He began the council as a semi-Arian, holding with his companions a diminished understanding of Christ’s divinity, but by the end of the debates of bishops and priests became convinced that Christ was truly the second person of the Trinity. This foundational experience would ultimately shape Basil’s entire life.
Basil was ordained a deacon two years after his commitment to Nicene Christianity, and only three years later was made the presbyter of the Church in Caesaria. During his time as presbyter, Basil successfully debated Arians time and again, patiently but firmly elucidating both Christ’s divinity and God’s Trinitarian nature. One of his most important theological tracts was in fact On the Holy Spirit, wherein Basil defended the Scriptural status of the Holy Spirit as the third and fully divine member of the Trinity. Underscoring how important the Holy Spirit is to knowing the God we worship, Basil wrote,
“And His operations, what are they? For majesty ineffable, and for numbers innumerable. How shall we form a conception of what extends beyond the ages? What were His operations before that creation whereof we can conceive? How great the grace which He conferred on creation? What the power exercised by Him over the ages to come? He existed; He pre-existed; He co-existed with the Father and the Son before the ages. It follows that, even if you can conceive of anything beyond the ages, you will find the Spirit yet further above and beyond. And if you think of creation, the powers of the heavens were established by the Spirit, the establishment being understood to refer to disability to fall away from good. For it is from the Spirit that the powers derive their close relationship to God, their inability to change to evil, and their continuance in blessedness. Is it Christ’s advent? The Spirit is forerunner. Is there the incarnate presence? The Spirit is inseparable. Working of miracles, and gifts of healing are through the Holy Spirit. Demons were driven out by the Spirit of God. The devil was brought to naught by the presence of the Spirit. Remission of sins was by the gift of the Spirit, for “ye were washed, ye were sanctified,…in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the holy Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). There is close relationship with God through the Spirit, for “God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6).” (Basil, On the Holy Spirit 19.49)
This excerpt serves only to gesture at the eloquence and care with which Basil read and interpreted Scripture, throughout both this tract and a multitude of sermons and letters.
His theological and pastoral reputation resulted in Basil being consecrated Bishop in the year 370 on June 14th, his feast day in the Anglican liturgical calendar. He was promoted again to Archbishop soon after, and in that office Basil expanded his ministry, opening a soup kitchen for families stricken by drought, giving away his own inheritance from his wealthy family to aid the poor, and continuing efforts to spread the teachings of Nicene Christianity and demonstrate the unscriptural nature of Arianism. During these efforts, the Emperor Valens repeatedly sent a representative to first request, then demand, and finally to threaten Basil to compromise with Arian beliefs. The Emperor, an Arian himself, even banished Basil numerous times, but Basil simply continued in his duties as Archbishop. When the Emperor’s representative, Modestus, expressed surprise at Basil’s stalwart defiance, Basil replied, “Perhaps you have never dealt with a bishop.” Finally, Emperor Valens attended Basil’s celebration of the Divine Liturgy himself, and was so moved by Basil’s devotion to worshipping God that he donated land for the building of a cathedral for the Archbishop.
Basil maintained a warm and affectionate relationship with his Christian brothers and sisters, showing kindness and holding profound friendship even with those priests and bishops whom he had debated theology so rigorously. Sadly, he spent the last few years of his life ill, and at fifty years of age lay on his death bed reciting sermons and even ordaining priests. Crowds of people visited asking for prayers and advice from their dying Bishop, mourning over him while he continued to preach the faith. Then, it is said that he prayed, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit,” and passed away in peace. Reports are that his funeral was attended by Jews and Pagans as well as Christians, and in their grief the crowd overwhelmed the hymns being sung in his honor. They sought what they believed Basil had obtained – the peace which passes all understanding, which cannot be found in this life. Basil himself wrote in one of his famous epistles:
“I had wasted much time on follies and spent nearly all of my youth in vain labors, and devotion to the teachings of a wisdom that God had made foolish. Suddenly, I awoke as out of a deep sleep. I beheld the wonderful light of the Gospel truth, and I recognized the nothingness of the wisdom of the princes of this world.”
Having turned from this vanity, Basil focused his attention instead on worshipping the Lord in spirit and truth, such that he worked on proper formulas of liturgy that would eventually become the Liturgy of St. Basil, which would profoundly influence liturgical practices and versions of which are still observed in the Byzantine Rite and the Coptic Church. A moving prayer from a modern version of the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great reads this way:
“Shine within our hearts, loving Master, the pure light of Your divine knowledge and open the eyes of our minds that we may comprehend the message of Your Gospel. Instill in us, also, reverence for Your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all those things that are pleasing to You. For You, Christ our God, are the light of our souls and bodies, and to You we give glory together with Your Father who is without beginning and Your all holy, good, and life giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.”
By Anthony G. Cirilla