Our local parish in Decatur, IL is blessed to be close to one of the few parishes in the United States to be named after the Three Hierarchs (Champaign, IL). Their feast day is January 30th and it came about because there was a time within the history of the Church that there was an argument over who was best: St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom or St. Gregory the Theologian. Of course it is pointless to argue who is better, because all are made holy by God and not by their own deeds.
However, especially here in the United States, we have fallen into a era of great ignorance about these three men. Whereas we might very well celebrate the liturgy on January 30th in remembrance, I doubt very much if the average Orthodox Christian (let alone the average Joe on the street) has the knowledge to even begin to make an argument as to whose accomplishments are greater. I must confess that, despite my own studies, I would be hard pressed to take part in such a debate, even if I had any desire to (which I don’t).
Of these three men, Orthodox Christians are probably most familiar with St. John Chrysostom, if, for no other reason, that we are familiar with his words that we use during the Divine Liturgy named for him that we celebrate most of the year. In addition, we have more extant texts of his than any other ancient Church Father. His exegesis of the Gospels according to Matthew and John as well as the letters of St. Paul loom large over how we engage and understand these writings. Indeed, he was my primary source for my study of the NT in seminary.
Next would probably be St. Basil. Again, we are familiar with his words because we do the Liturgy of St. Basil during Great Lent and several other days over the course of the year. His feast on January 1 is widely celebrated, despite the fact that it is primarily the day we remember the circumcision of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. Also very popular is the Vasilopita (literally Basil pie or cake) and the story behind the miracle worked through St. Basil that we remember when we bake a coin into the cake.
Ironically, of the Three Hierarchs we are most likely to be least familiar with is St. Gregory the Theologian. Ironic because he is one of only three men in the entire history of the Church to be given that title: Theologian.
It is for this reason that I will endeavor to read and meditate upon St. Gregory’s Oration 38, which has as its subject the Nativity. I wish to become more familiar with this great man.
He was born in 329 in a village not far from Nazianzus in Cappadocia, which is in the central part of modern-day Turkey. St. Gregory is sometimes called Nazianzus, but this title more properly belongs to his father, who was bishop there and is also a saint (commemorated on January 1). His mother (Nonna, commemorated August 5), his brother (Caesarius, commemorated March 9) and his sister (Gorgonia, commemorated February 23) are all celebrated as saints in the Orthodox Church.
St. Gregory studied in Caesaria of Palestine, in Alexandria and finally in Athens. He was a life-long friend of St. Basil, who was a fellow student at Athens. Both entered a life of asceticism at the hermitage of Pontus. He was ordained as a presbyter by his father and then as bishop of Sasima by St. Basil (though this was a point of contention between the two friends).
He later came to Constantinople where he became one of the greatest defenders of the faith against Arianism. When he arrived in 379, he was forced to preach in a house church because the Arians had control of the rest of the city. By the time he left two years later, not one church remained in the hands of the Arians and the Nicene Creed as we know it today was declared to be Orthodox at the Second Ecumenical Council held in Constantinople in 381.
Of particular interest to me, (and one of the reasons, I am sure, he is called Theologian) is the fact that St. Gregory is the first Father of the Church to explicitly call the Holy Spirit God.
I pray that through reading and meditating upon the words of this great saint we may all become more familiar with the man who once was so well-known and admired by Christians around the world that they once argued over whether his accomplishments were greater than either St. Basil the Great or St. John Chrysostom.