Exploring the Liturgy of Saint Basil

Exploring the Liturgy of Saint Basil

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Throughout the year, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is the customary Liturgy of the Byzantine Church. However, during the Nativity and Theophany seasons, the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is celebrated three times—on the Nativity, the Theophany, and on the feast of St. Basil himself, January 1. In total, it is celebrated 10 times throughout the liturgical year.

As we approach the celebration of January 1, the feast of St. Basil, I thought it useful to reflect with you on his Liturgy, its history, and its spiritual/theological meaning. The more you understand the liturgical prayer of the Church, the greater will be your participation in it and the more you will derive spiritual reward from it.

St. Basil actually reformed an existing Liturgy of the Church rather than pen a completely new Service. It is not known precisely just what the nature of St. Basil’s reform was, nor what liturgy served as the basis of his work. His motivation was to shorten the Liturgy. According to St. Proclus, Archbishop of Constantinople (434-446), it is stated that “when St. Basil noticed the slothfulness and degeneracy of men, how they were wearied by the length of the liturgy, he shortened it in order to cure their laziness.” St. Basil’s Liturgy is older than either the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or the Presanctified Liturgy and is mentioned under the name of St. Basil in ancient times as if it were then the normative Liturgy. In all likelihood, St. Basil added newly-written prayers for his own Diocese—Caesarea in Cappadocia.

As it spread in use over time, St. Basil added prayerful elements that reflected the current theological struggles and conflicts of his day, for example the conflicts surrounding the Orthodox teaching on the nature and person of Christ (“true God and true Man”). The crown of St. Basil’s Liturgy is the prayer of the Anaphora (ἀναφορά). This is the long narrative prayer that begins just prior to the “Holy, Holy, Holy”, through the consecration of the bread and wine, to the Lord’s Prayer.

Without doubt, these prayers written by St. Basil are powerful, inspirational, and of great depth. For this reason, the late theologian, Fr. Thomas Hopko, urged that every Priest “ought always to say these prayers out loud so that all might hear and be deeply touched by the wealth of grace they convey.” The prayers of the Anaphora that St. Basil wrote reflect Saint Basil’s intense preoccupation with the Church’s Trinitarian faith—that we worship the One God as the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; the Son and the Holy Spirit being of one essence with the Father as to their divine nature, and thus co-enthroned and co-glorified with the Father from all eternity. I suggest that there are three principal spiritual/theological elements of St. Basil’s Liturgy. It is personal, it is providential, and it is pastoral.

The Personal Nature of the Liturgy

St. Basil’s Liturgy is intensely personal. It speaks directly to the human situation, not in abstractions, but in concrete terms, from the creation of the cosmos to the fashioning of the human person, our origin from the earth, our rootedness to it. “When You created man and had fashioned him from the dust of the earth and had honored him as your own image, O God, You set him in the midst of a bountiful paradise, promising him life eternal and the enjoyment of everlasting good things by keeping your commandments.” (Anaphora)

The Liturgy depicts human persons as vulnerable to sin but never beyond hope of redemption. It extols the fact that Christ lived in this world, and human nature would not ultimately be known for its mistakes but for the image of God within our persons that ultimately defined who we are as believing people.

“He lived in this world and gave us commandments for salvation. He released us from the delusions of idolatry and brought us to the knowledge of You, true God and Father. He procured us for Himself as a chosen people, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation.” (Anaphora) This counterpoint between sin and grace, hope and despair, redemption, and darkness reflects the dynamics of the human heart and may be said to be the foundation of St. Basil’s own spirituality.

The Providential Nature of the Service

St. Basil’s Liturgy is providential. The entire Liturgy, including most especially the Anaphora, communicates a major truth: God is always at work among His people. He is involved, active, never remote—forever near. It is the providence of Grace. “For You did not turn Yourself away forever from your creation whom You had made, O Good One, nor did You forget the work of your hands, but You visited him in different ways. Through the tender compassion of your mercy, You sent forth prophets. You performed great works by the Saints who in every generation were well-pleasing to You.

You spoke to us through the mouths of your servants the Prophets who foretold to us the salvation which was to come. You gave us the Law to aid us. You appointed angels to guard us. And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us through your Son Himself, through whom You had created time.” (Anaphora)

God is always engaged with the world and the person in it. If one thing doesn’t work, He tries another. If He encounters deafness and resistance, He enters by another way. If he discerns indifference, He will get our attention in ways that won’t always be comfortable. St. Basil’s Liturgy underscores, in prayerful phrases, that God is relentless in staying involved in our lives.

A Pastoral Offering

St. Basil’s Liturgy is Pastoral. Perhaps the outstanding feature of the Liturgy is its pastoral orientation. This reflects the life and experience of St. Basil himself.

In the Anaphora he mentions and prays for: the dead, the poor, those who live in deserts, mountains, and caves, those who live in chastity, government officials, the married, the young and old, those who are faint-hearted, separated from others, those who have committed errors of faith, sailors, travelers, widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick. Mindful of his own weakness, St, Basil adds: “Remember, O Lord, the priesthood, the diaconate in Christ and every clerical order. Let none of us who stand about your holy Altar be put to shame.” (Anaphora)

This was the life of St. Basil—reaching out to Christ’s poor brothers and sisters. He turned the Gospel into a weapon to combat apathy and spiritual sluggishness. He described the Church in therapeutic terms (“spiritual hospital”) rather than in legal terms. As did the Apostle and Evangelist St. Luke, St. Basil consistently and persistently sided with the poor, reminding us, for example, that “the extra clothes in your closet are what you steal from the poor.”

That deep sensitivity found its way into his Liturgy. The theologian was ever the pastor, the pious ideals were preludes to action, the thinker’s heart was ever the heart of the Shepherd. What a rich treasure is the Liturgy of St. Basil. I have included the complete Anaphora below. Make time to read it prayerfully over these holy days. Let it sink in, inspire you, and even change you. Let us always remember and take to heart St. Basil’s famous phrase: “Though exercised upon the earth, the Liturgy ranks among the things of Heaven.”

O holy Father and Hierarch Basil, fervent monastic and boast of Cappadocia, pray to God for us!

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Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas

Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.