Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen

Today’s readings

St. Basil the Great was born in Caesarea in Cappadocia in the year 330.  He was known for his learning and virtue, and his fight against the Arian heresy.  He also wrote many wonderful works, the most revered of which is his monastic rule.  He is known as the father of Eastern monasticism.  Gregory Nazianzen was born in the same year.  He too pursued learning and was eventually elected bishop of Constantinople.  Basil and Gregory were friends, and Gregory reflected on their friendship in a sermon, of which I’d like to share some excerpts this morning.

“Basil and I were both in Athens. We had come, like streams of a river, from the same source in our native land, had separated from each other in pursuit of learning, and were now united again as if by plan, for God so arranged it.

“I was not alone at that time in my regard for my friend, the great Basil. I knew his irreproachable conduct, and the maturity and wisdom of his conversation. I sought to persuade others, to whom he was less well known, to have the same regard for him. Many fell immediately under his spell, for they had already heard of him by reputation and hearsay.

“Such was the prelude to our friendship, the kindling of that flame that was to bind us together. In this way we began to feel affection for each other. When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.

“Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it. With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions. We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong.

“Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians.”

Like John the Baptist in our Gospel today, Basil and Gregory sought to point the way to Jesus, the one among us whom people do not recognize.  It was their goal to help all to come to know him rightly, to make straight the way of the Lord.

Mary, the Mother of God

Today’s readings

Today, on the Octave day of Christmas, we have an opportunity on this Christmas Day to pause and celebrate Mary, the mother of God. This solemnity is a special one for us as Catholics because people for a long time argued over whether Mary, a human being, could possibly be the mother of God. Eventually, the Holy Spirit led the Church to realize that downplaying Mary’s role in all of this really downplays Jesus’ divinity, so denying that Mary was the Mother of God was a substantial part of the heresy of Nestorianism. To say that Mary is not the Mother of God is, in some way, to say that Jesus is not God, and that of course, is not what we believe. So, for centuries the Church has taught that “Mary is the Mother of God the Word according to his human nature.”

Sister Sarah made me memorize that line in my second year of seminary, and I’ll never forget it. Basically, there are two parts. Mary is the Mother of God the Word: Mary, chosen from all eternity to be a virgin inviolate and a fit Mother for God, is blessed by conceiving the only Son of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Calling Jesus “God the Word” in this definition takes us to the opening verses of the Gospel of John which tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The Word is traditionally believed to be the second person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

The second part of the definition asserts that Mary is his mother according to his human nature. We know that Jesus was both human and divine, and both natures coexisted in Jesus Christ without any diminishment of either nature at the expense of the other. We also know that only God himself could beget God the Word, but it would have to take a human woman, a very special human woman, to be the mother of his human nature. Jesus is consubstantial, of the same substance, with the Father, as we pray in the Creed, but in a very real sense, he is also consubstantial with us through Mary, in his human nature.

St. Paul tells us today that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons and daughters.” Today we rejoice in Mary’s faith that God’s promises to the human race would be fulfilled through her. It is because of her faithfulness that God was born into our world in the person of Jesus Christ and became one of us, walking our walk, living our life, dying our death, and leading us to new life that lasts forever. If not for Mary’s fiat – her “yes” to God’s will for her – salvation history might have gone rather poorly. Thankfully, because of her great faith, we have adoption as sons and daughters of God.

Did Mary understand all of this when she said yes to God’s will when Gabriel came to announce the birth of Christ in her? I don’t know; maybe, maybe not. But she, as our Gospel tells us today, “kept all these things and reflected on them in her heart.” She was able to study the Gospel before it had ever been written, by reflecting on all the events surrounding the birth and life and death of her Son. And because of Mary, we can reflect on it all too, and rejoice that we are sons and daughters of God.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.