Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Homily for Wednesday, January 2, Memorial of Saints Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus

St. Basil the Great, from
In the first reading, the Apostle John warns us against falling for any of the big lies about Jesus not being the Messiah, or about the Son's relationship with the Father.  Indeed, the faith which the Apostles handed down, and which is still preached and handed down in the Church today, is this: Jesus is the one, true Christ; he is truly God and truly man; and he really lived among us as one of us - was truly born, lived and died, and rose to life again.  This is the foundation of the Gospel and of the Church.

But this faith also contains the great mysteries.  As we continue in this Christmas season, we are face to face with the deepest mysteries of the Incarnation and of the Trinity.  These two great mysteries are at the heart of our faith, and they always seem to give the greatest opportunity for falling into error.

In the fourth century, the biggest crisis in the Church was the crisis of Arianism.  Now the Arians, you'll remember, claimed that God the Son was not God in the same way that God the Father is God; that he was basically a creature.  Every time we say in the Creed that Jesus Christ is "consubstantial" with the Father, we're saying that the Son and the Father share the very same divine essence, that they are both divine in the very same way.  We're rebuking the ideas of the Arians.

The two saints whose memorial we celebrate today, Basil and Gregory, did so much in the fourth century to defend the faith of the Apostles.  As bishops and preachers and theologians, Basil and Gregory taught with great power and compassion the true meanings of these mysteries of the Incarnation and the Trinity.  They rejected the ideas of the Arians, and they both suffered for it, at a time when political authorities were choosing sides in the theological debates of the Church.

Let me offer just one example of how they taught.  St. Basil wrote a treatise called "On the Holy Spirit," a powerful, influential work.  (If you just think for a moment of the differences between the Nicene Creed's paragraph on the Holy Spirit, and the Apostles' Creed, all of what's added about the Holy Spirit, what the Church believes and knows about Him, is clearly stated in this little book.)  But his treatise was also an argument against the Arians, and his basic argument went like this:

When we think about the relationship of the Son to the Father, our thinking is muddied by the fact of the Incarnation, of Jesus's humanity.  So let's look at it in terms of the Holy Spirit.  Does it make any sense, in terms of the apostolic faith, or in terms of Scripture, to say about the Holy Spirit what the Arians say about the Son, that he's not of the same substance as the Father?  No, it doesn't.  How can we say that the Holy Spirit is Lord and Giver of Life, if he is not fully and equally divine with the Father?  But if that's true of the Holy Spirit, it must be true of the Son also, or else there's no Trinity.

St. Gregory Nazianzen, from
This was not the only point against Arianism that needed to be made, but this was, and still is, a very convincing argument about the Trinity.  St. Basil and St. Gregory are still relevant to us in this way.  We live in a culture that tries to claim that the faith is irrational, that we believe things only because the Church tells us to believe.  Certainly we respect the authority of the Church in matters of the faith, but we also believe because we can think through and understand to some extent even the great mysteries.  St. Basil's argument shows an example of this.  Though our reason is finite and the mysteries are greater than what we can understand, still, what we do understand is true.  And so the things that we believe, we not only believe, but also know as true.

[I can't remember how I said it, but I finished with a very brief and positive exhortation to hold and believe the fullness of the apostolic, Catholic faith - it is, after all, the Year of Faith (though I neglected to mention it this time).]

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