In the top drawer of my desk resides a stained chromolithograph icon of the Three Hierarchs. This was given to me by my grandmother when I was studying for my first exam in year seven. Informed that it belonged to my father and was the sole reason that my father was able to complete his studies, I secreted same in my breast pocket and have, ever since, kept it upon my person, not only during exams but also whenever receiving advance notice of any impending challenge or trial in which the blessing, intercession and intellectual prowess of the Three Hierarchs was particularly required.
Honoured in the Catholic Church as ‘the Doctors of the Church’ (the Church of the East also has a feast commemorating the Greek Doctors of the Church, but these, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsouestia and Nestorius are considered heretics in the Orthodox Church), the Three Hierarchs, Saint Basil of Caesearia, Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Gregory the Theologian, are considered so important to the Orthodox liturgical tradition that they are invariably depicted in the apse behind the altar of every Orthodox church. This is fitting since two of these saints, St Basil and St John, were responsible for writing liturgies that are still in use in the Orthodox Church today, as well as, in the case of St Basil, in the Coptic Church. Furthermore, because of their intellectual prowess, they are the patron saints of all Orthodox schoolchildren, which is why the 30th of January, their feast day, is a school holiday in Greece.
The Three Hierarchs all enjoy their own specific feast days and the sole reason for the celebration of a joint feast comes from the pervasive influence each of the three saints had within the church. Such was the importance of their theological writings that they came to represent distinct spheres of thought within the Orthodox tradition, their followers arguing with each other as to which saint had theological pre-eminence. In a Byzantine Empire often more interested in abstruse points of the theology than anything else, such theological conflicts also brought about political and social conflict as well.
Such disputes reached a climax in the eleventh century, in Constantinople. Fervent proponents of the virtues of St Basil argued that he was superior to the other two saints because of his explanations of Christian faith and monastic example. This is because, quite apart from his immense charitable and welfare activity (he was responsible for the creation of hospitals and rest homes as well as petitioning the Emperor successfully for tax relief for the poor – feats which in the popular conscience made him the first Father Christmas figure), St Basil established such guidelines for monastic life which focus on community life, liturgical prayer, and manual labour that he is remembered as a father of communal monasticism in Eastern Christianity.
Furthermore, he was a famous preacher, and many of his homilies, including a series of Lenten lectures on the Six Days of Creation, and an exposition of the psalter, have been preserved. Some, like that against usury and that on the famine in 368, are valuable for the history of morals, while others illustrate the honour paid to martyrs and relics.
Most significantly, his address to young men on the study of classical literature shows that St Basil was lastingly influenced by his own education, which taught him to appreciate the propaedeutic importance of the classics. His theological writings earned him the epithet of ‘ουρανοφάντωρ’, or revealer of the heavenly mysteries.
Supporters of St John Chrysostom countered that the outspoken Archbishop of Constantinople, known as the ‘Golden Mouthed’ was unmatched in both eloquence and in bringing sinners to repentance. Saint John’s fiery sermons, much like the sermons of Protestant pastors during the Reformation, argued for social reform and offered a devastating critique of the ruling class’s policies and greed, at the expense of ordinary people. Echoing themes found in the Gospel of Matthew, and in a much more direct manner than the Occupy Wall Street protests, he called upon the rich to lay aside materialism in favour of helping the poor, often employing all of his rhetorical skills to shame wealthy people to abandon conspicuous consumption, asking questions such as: “Do you pay such honour to your excrements as to receive them into a silver chamber-pot when another man made in the image of God is perishing in the cold?”
St John was also an opponent of materialism and excessive luxury within the church and its practices, at a time when poverty was widespread:
“Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same who said: ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food’, and ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me’… What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.”
As a sworn opponent of the arrogance of power, he denounced the erection of a silver statue of the profligate empress Eudoxia near his cathedral, exclaiming: “Again Herodias raves; again she is troubled; she dances again; and again desires to receive John’s head in a charger.” He was banished to the Caucasus in Abkhazia, where he eventually died. His writings, liturgy and homilies have been so influential to the development of Christianity as a whole, that he is also honoured by the Anglican, Lutheran and Coptic traditions.
Supporters of St Gregory the Theologian insisted that as a close friend of St Basil, he was preferred to the others due to the majesty, purity and profundity of his homilies and his defence of the faith from the Arian heresy. Further, a humble man, he was willing to resign as Archbishop of Constantinople, in order to heal rifts within the church, stating: “Let me be as the Prophet Jonah! I was responsible for the storm, but I would sacrifice myself for the salvation of the ship. Seize me and throw me … I was not happy when I ascended the throne, and gladly would I descend it.”
A conflicted figure, throughout his life Gregory faced stark choices. Should he pursue studies as a rhetorician or philosopher? Would a monastic life be more appropriate than public ministry? Was it better to blaze his own path or follow the course of being a bishop, as was expected of him by his father and mentor St Basil? St Gregory’s writings illuminate the conflicts which both tormented and motivated him, so much so that it is easy to suggest that it was this dialectic which defined him, forged his character and inspired his search for meaning and truth.
As the conflict between the supporters of each saint intensified, Church tradition holds that the three hierarchs appeared together in a vision to Saint John Mauropous, bishop of Euchaita, in Pontus in the year 1084, and said that they were equal before God: “There are no divisions among us, and no opposition to one another.”
As a result, the 30th of January feast day commemorating all three in common was instituted around 1100 under the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos.
While the conflict between the supporters of the Three Hierarchs has long since vanished from popular memory, the importance of the Thee Hierarchs to eastern culture and the Orthodox faith cannot be over-emphasized. It is for this reason that the troparion to the Saints, sung every 30th January, states: “Let all who love their words come together and honour with hymns the three luminaries of the light-creating Trinity: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and renowned John of golden speech, who have enlightened the world with the rays of their divine doctrines, and are mellifluous rivers of wisdom who have watered all creation with streams of divine knowledge; they ever intercede with the Trinity for us.”