Saint Basil (ca. 330 - January 1, 379), also called Basil the Great, was bishop of Caesarea, a leading churchman in the 4th century. The Eastern Orthodox Church considers him a saint and one of the Three Holy Hierarchs, together with Gregory Nazianzenus and John Chrysostom. Basil, Gregory Nazianzenus, and Basil's brother Gregory of Nyssa are called the Cappadocian Fathers. The Roman Catholic Church considers him a saint and a Doctor of the Church.
In Greek tradition, he is supposed to visit children and give presents every January 1 (when Basil's memory is celebrated), unlike other traditions where this person is Saint Nicolas and comes every Christmas.
Another tradition in Greece, especially among those of Anatolian ancestry, is the "Basil-pie" (Vasilopitta) which is cut on January 1. The pie (actually a sweet bread) is baked with a coin. When the pie is cut and distributed among the members of the household, the person who gets the slice with the coin will have good luck for the new year.
This tradition originates from a legend that citizens once contributed gold to their emperor to buy off invading forces about to besiege Constantinople. When the siege did not take place, the emperor was at a loss as to how to redistribute the gold back to his people. Saint Basil then stepped up and suggested that the royal bakeries should make pies with coins in them and then sell (or donate) them to the common people. Thus, the gold was redistributed.
Basil was born about 330 at Caesarea in Cappadocia. He came from a wealthy and pious family which gave a number of saints, including his father, also named Basil, his mother Emmelia, grandmother Macrina the Elder, sister Macrina the Younger and brothers Gregory of Nyssa and Peter, who became Bishop of Sebaste. Some church historian presumed Theosebia was his youngest sister, who is also a saint among the Eastern Orthodox.
While still a child, the family moved to Pontus; but he soon returned to Cappadocia to live with his mother's relations, and seems to have been brought up by his grandmother Macrina. Eager to learn, he went to Constantinople and spent four or five years there and at Athens, where he had Gregory Nazianzenus for a fellow student and became friends with the future emperor Julian. Both men were deeply influenced by Origen.
It was at Athens that he seriously began to think of religion, and resolved to seek out the most famous hermit saints in Syria and Arabia, in order to learn from them how to attain enthusiastic piety and how to keep his body under submission by asceticism.
After this we find him at the head of a convent near Arnesi in Pontus, in which his mother Emilia (Emmelia), now a widow, his sister Macrina and several other ladies, gave themselves to a pious life of prayer and charitable works. Eustathius of Sebaste had already labored in Pontus in behalf of the anchoretic life, and Basil revered him on that account, although they differed over dogmatic points, which gradually separated these two men. Siding from the beginning and at the Council of Constantinople in 360 with the Homoiousians, Basil went especially with those who overcame the aversion to the homoousios in common opposition to Arianism, thus drawing nearer to Athanasius of Alexandria. Like Athanasius, he was also opposed to the Macedonian heresy.
He also became a stranger to his bishop, Dianius of Caesarea, who had subscribed only to the Nicene form of agreement, and became reconciled to him only when the latter was about to die. He was ordained presbyter of the Church at Caesarea in 365, and his ordination was probably the result of the entreaties of his ecclesiastical superiors, who wished to use his talents against the Arians, who were numerous in that part of the country and were favoured by the Arian emperor, Valens, who then reigned in Constantinople.
In 370 Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, died, and Basil was chosen to succeed him. It was then that his great powers were called into action. Caesarea was an important diocese, and its bishop was, ex officio, exarch of the great diocese of Pontus. Hot-blooded and somewhat imperious, Basil was also generous and sympathetic. His zeal for orthodoxy did not blind him to what was good in an opponent; and for the sake of peace and charity he was content to waive the use of orthodox terminology when it could be surrendered without a sacrifice of truth. With all his might he resisted the emperor Valens, who strove to introduce Arianism into his diocese, and impressed the emperor so strongly that, although inclined to banish the intractable bishop, he left him unmolested.
To save the Church from Arianism, Basil entered into connections with the West, and with the help of Athanasius, he tried to overcome its distrustful attitude toward the Homoiousians. The difficulties had been enhanced by bringing in the question as to the essence of the Holy Spirit. Although Basil advocated objectively the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son, he belonged to those, who, faithful to Eastern tradition, would not allow the predicate homoousios to the former; for this he was reproached as early as 371 by the Orthodox zealots among the monks, and Athanasius defended him. His relations also with Eustathius were maintained in spite of dogmatic differences and caused suspicion. On the other hand, Basil was grievously offended by the extreme adherents of Homoousianism, who seemed to him to be reviving the Sabellian heresy.
He did not live to see the end of the unhappy factional disturbances and the complete success of his continued exertions in behalf of Rome and the East. He suffered from liver illness and his excessive asceticism seems to have hastened him to an early death. A lasting monument of his episcopal care for the poor was the great institute before the gates of Caesarea, which was used as poorhouse, hospital, and hospice.
The principal theological writings of Basil are his De Spiritu Sancto, a lucid and edifying appeal to Scripture and early Christian tradition (to prove the divinity of the Holy Spirit), and his Refutation of the Apology of the Impious Eunomius, written in 363 or 364, three books against Eunomius of Cyzicus, the chief exponent of Anomoian Arianism. The first three books of the Refutation are his work; the fourth and fifth books that are usually included to do not belong to Basil, or to Apollinaris of Laodicea, but probably to Didymus of Alexandria.
He was a famous preacher, and many of his homilies, including a series of Lenten lectures on the Hexaëmeron, 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; others illustrate the honor paid to martyrs and relics; the address to young men on the study of classical literature shows that Basil was lastingly influenced by his own education, which taught him to appreciate the propaedeutic importance of the classics.
His ascetic tendencies are exhibited in the Moralia and Regulae, ethical manuals for use in the world and the cloister respectively. Of the monastic rules traced to Basil, the shorter is the one most probably his work.
It is in the ethical manuals and moral sermons that the practical aspects of his theoretical theology are illustrated. So, for example, it is in his Sermon to the Lazicans that we find St. Basil explaining how it is our common nature that obliges us to treat our neighbor's natural needs (e.g., hunger, thirst) as our own, even though he is a separate individual. Later theologians explicitly explain this as an example of how the saints become an image of the one common nature of the persons of the Trinity.
His three hundred letters reveal a rich and observant nature, which, despite the troubles of ill-health and ecclesiastical unrest, remained optimistic, tender and even playful. His principal efforts as a reformer were directed towards the improvement of the liturgy, and the reformation of the monastic orders of the East.
Most of the liturgies bearing the name of Basil, in their present form, are not his work, but they nevertheless preserve the a recollection of Basil's activity in this field in formularizing liturgical prayers and promoting church-song. One liturgy that can be attributed to him is The Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, a liturgy that is somewhat longer than the more commonly used Divine Liturgy of John Chrysostom; it is still used on certain feast days in the Eastern Orthodox Church, such as every Sunday of Great Lent.
All his works, and a few spuriously attributed to him, are available in the Patrologia Graeca, which includes Latin translations of varying quality. No critical edition is yet available.
- Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Early Church Fathers, Series II, Vol. VIII contains the treatise on the Holy Spirit, the Hexaemeron, some of the homilies and the letters.
- The Orthodox Wikipedia has a slightly longer article on St. Basil.
- The Heritage of the Holy Fathers has a more complete collection of his homilies (and some other works, but only a few of his letters) is available in Russian.
- Excerpts from Basil the Great.