Why We Celebrate Three Hierarchs

Why We Celebrate Three Hierarchs


St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom – the three Holy Hierarchs. We celebrate their feast day today, the 30th of January, but why? Each of them has their own day, when we celebrate their lives and contributions to our Orthodox faith. But what did they do that makes them so amazing we have to celebrate them together?

They lived in roughly the same time period – the fourth century. St. Basil and St. Gregory were born in approximately 329 or 330 AD, and St. John Chrysostom was born about 347 (Basil and Gregory would have been about eighteen years old). St. Basil and St. Gregory met when they were still in school in Caesarea, and then formed their famous friendship later, when they were both studying in Athens. As far as we know, the three never met, even though their life spans overlapped and even though they lived in the same general area – the area of the world we today know as Turkey. Certainly St. John knew of St. Basil and St. Gregory, since by the time John became a man, they were famous throughout the Christian world. It’s also probable that Gregory would have heard of St. John, since he began preaching around 386 and St. Gregory didn’t die until 391. Basil, unfortunately, was dead by then (he died in 379).

Some believe that Basil and John were best friends, but it’s likely that the Basil referred to in St. John’s writings was another man, given that those two were of an age and spent a great deal of time together, and St. John, who was living in Antioch, wrote of tricking his friend into being ordained a priest. We know during this period that Basil the Great was experimenting with monasticism on his family’s estate in the northern province of Pontus (not too far from the Black Sea) in what is now Turkey, and working in Caesarea in centrally located Cappadocia with the bishop, Eusebius. As St. John’s Basil was ordained in Antioch which is located near the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, and Basil the Great was ordained in Caesarea, it’s unlikely the two were the same man.

St. Basil is revered for the defence of the Nicene understanding of God against all the various expressions of Arianism. He, along with his sister Macrina were responsible for standardizing the monastic rule in Asia Minor so well that even today, monastics world-wide use St. Basil’s Greater and Lesser Rules to live by. His dearest friend, St. Gregory the Theologian, was famed for both for his defence of the Nicene understanding of God (that God is three equal persons in one nature, and God the Son is as uncreated and eternal as God the Father), but also for his understanding of, and expounding of theology – knowledge of God – as John Behr noted. “Gregory, whose words express true theology, who alone has been known, from the Council of Chalcedon onwards, as ‘the Theologian,’ a title he shares only with John the Evangelist.” St. John Chrysostom’s surname means “Golden Mouth” and he is famous for his clear and concise sermons, his way of explaining the faith and the Bible so that everyone could understand and apply the knowledge to their own lives.

All three men lived exemplary lives, living the words they preached, exhorting those who had fallen away or were living a worldly, sinful life to come back to the faith, and be cleansed. They stood up against attacks, and held their ground, not only in the things they said and wrote, but in the way they conducted themselves.

Their fame, obviously, outlived them. Their words were read, copied and discussed in the centuries after their deaths, they were recognized as saints and their feast days were celebrated throughout Christendom. In the eleventh century a dispute arose as to which of the three had been the best, truest example of a living Christian faith, and the most eloquent and able of the three in their writings on the faith. It became a cause celebré, with the arguments and divisions spreading far and wide. It got so bad that schisms were forming and threatening to split the Church, which was ironic, to say the least, since the three men had spent the greater portion of their lives fighting for an orthodox, catholic (and above all, unified) Church.

Enter St. John Mauropus, the Metropolitan of Euchaita, known for his virtue and his powerful eloquence. One night, he dreamed that the three appeared before him, and assured him, both separately and speaking together in unison, that before God they were all equal, and that no discord or rivalry divided them. They asked the Metropolitan to tell those causing the disputes to cease their arguing and to stop creating divisions in the Church where none needed to be, especially since they had all worked for that exact unity during their lives. They suggested that a commemoration be established, to honour all three of them on the single day. Then they departed, talking amongst themselves with all amity and friendship.

When John woke, he called an assembly and announced his dream to his people. Word spread, and amazingly enough, the divisions ceased when the feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs was set on the last day of January to honour, as the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America website says: “These three luminaries of the Church [who] have shed the light of the true Faith all over the world, scorning dangers and persecutions, and they have left us, their descendants, this sacred inheritance by which we too can attain to utmost blessedness and everlasting life in the presence of God and of all the Saints.”


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About author

Bev Cooke

Bev. Cooke has been writing for publication since 1989. Her first love is writing for young adults, and she has three YA books on the market: Keeper of the Light, a historical fiction about St. Macrina the Elder in 2006. Royal Monastic, a biography of Mother Alexander (Princess Ileana of Romania), also published by Conciliar came out in 2008. Feral, an edgy mainstream novel was released by Orca Book Publishers in 2008. Her latest publication is a departure from her regular work - an Akathist to St. Mary of Egypt, published by Alexander Press in 2010, which was written partly as a response to the seventy missing women from downtown Vancouver's east side, and as a plea to St. Mary of Egypt to pray for those women, and the men and women who live on the streets.

Bev. and her husband live in Victoria, BC where they enjoy two seasons: wet and road construction. They have two adult children, two cats and attend All Saints of Alaska parish.

Bev's very out of date webpage is bevcooke.ca and her blog is http://bevnalabbeyscriptorium.wordpress.com/. It's a little more up to date than the webpage. Bev is planning to blog more and update her webpage very soon, so keep checking back to them and be sure to "Like" her FB page: Bev. Cooke, writer.