Saint Macrina the Elder: Bridge of Theology
She’s called “Confessor of the Faith”. Her family contains so many saints she’s known as the mother and grandmother of saints. She should be given another title – Bridge of Theology – for her invisible contributions to the understanding of our faith, and its expression in the world.
Born about 270 AD, Saint Macrina the Elder grew up a pagan. Most of the city she lived in was pagan, until St. Gregory Thaumaturgis arrived. St. Gregory had studied under Origen, a man who by turns was strikingly orthodox and breathtakingly heretical, and undoubtedly brilliant. After Gregory’s studies, he became bishop in the city of Neoceasarea, in the region of Pontus, located south of the Black Sea in what are now the regions of Amayra and Tokat in Turkey.
St. Macrina lived almost half her life under some of the worst persecutions of the early Christian era. St. Gregory Nazianzen describes the last persecution under Maximian and Diocletian in the early fourth century as “the most frightful and severe of all.” Spared the fate of the martyrs, St. Macrina nevertheless suffered for her beliefs. She and her household escaped to the forests surrounding their city, and hid for seven years. Once the persecution had died down, Macrina and her family returned to Neocaesarea. A short time later, the Roman authorities stripped them of everything they owned and turned them out into the streets where they lived however they could until the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity, was proclaimed in 312 AD.
Her son, St. Basil the Elder, who grew to manhood under the persecutions, became a lawyer and teacher of rhetoric. He married St. Emmelia, a beautiful and devout Christian. Their household, including Macrina, “was notable for many reasons, especially for generosity to the poor, for hospitality, for purity of soul as the result of self-discipline, for the dedication to God of a portion of their property,” throughout “. . . Pontus and Cappadocia . . .” St. Gregory the Theologian tells us.
St. Basil and St. Emmelia’s children, St. Macrina’s grandchildren, nine of whom survived to adulthood, were raised in an intensely Christian atmosphere. St. Basil the Great credits his grandmother with raising him, and he wrote of her that: “ . . . the concept of God which in childhood I received from my blessed mother and from grandmother Macrina . . . I have held within me, for, on arriving at full reason I did not exchange one teaching for another, but confirmed those principles which they had handed over to me.” She undoubtedly had an enormous influence on the other older children as well: Macrina, Nacrautius and Gregory. All the children were taught to read from the Psalms and thoroughly immersed in a Christian manner of living.
Today we recognize St. Basil and St. Gregory as two-thirds of the Cappadocian Fathers and their elder sister, Macrina, as a dedicated and devout monastic.
St. Basil, and St. Gregory, along with their close friend, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, are famous for, among other things, of their stalwart and courageous defense of the Orthodox faith against the Arian and quasi-Arian heresies that flourished and threatened the church during their lifetimes. Additionally, St. Basil was famed for his writings on the monastic life and St. Gregory developed and extended Origen’s ideas on the otherness of God, and our ability to adequately explore His nature. He also stood for the faith against the Arian heresy, most notably at the Council of Constantinople in 381, where his, St. Basil’s and St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ contributions would make a lasting impact on the Christian understanding of the Trinity. (St. Basil’s contribution to the council was posthumous, since he had died several years before the Council was called, but his views were ably represented by his brother and his closest friend.) It is in large part due to these men that the final version of the creed, the one we say today, was accepted at the Council in 381 AD.
St. Macrina the Elder died in approximately 340 AD, when her eldest grandchild was only twelve. She never lived to see her grandchildren’s successes, or their spirited defense of our faith.
She made no new insights into our understanding of the faith. She left no letters, homilies or books. But by simply living what she believed, by simply being a mother and a grandmother, by teaching her children and grandchildren by word and example, by telling her children stories of her spiritual father and through her steadfast faith, St. Macrina the Elder became a bridge of theology, passing on the Tradition entrusted to her, and enabling two brilliant men to take the next steps in theology.
You can read more about her life in our reference section.
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