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Popular Bishop Basil the Great Died

Basil had an extraordinary impact on the church.

WHEN BASIL DIED on this day 1 January 379, he was about fifty years old, worn out with strict living, conflicts and labors. His leadership and his charity had raised him so high in the public eye that crowds from all faiths pressed near to touch his coffin in Caesarea, and several people were crushed to death in the surge. Who was the man that inspired such an extraordinary outpouring and became the only church father from the East to be nicknamed “the great?” 

Family and faith were early ingredients in his greatness. Basil was born in Cappadocia into a large, well-to-do Christian family. His maternal grandfather had died a martyr and his grandmother, Macrina the Elder, was considered a saint. Yet, he was worldly as a young man. But after an encounter with an ascetic bishop he realized he had “wasted much time on follies,” and returned to his childhood faith. He said he had wakened “as out of a deep sleep” to behold the wonderful light of the gospel. 

He set out to examine first-hand the practices of hermits and monks. “I called these men’s lives blessed, in that they did indeed show that they ‘bear about in their body the dying of Jesus,’” he said. But while he appreciated their desire for holiness, he preferred communal living to solitude and felt there was a good deal of insincerity among the monks he visited. He soon wrote instructions for a new type of monasticism and founded his own community with more emphasis on charity than on ascetic renunciation of the world and heroic practices. 

His charity was highlighted during the famine of 368. Basil sold some of his property to relieve starving Cappadocia. Later, as bishop of Caesarea, he extended charitable work in many directions, funding hostels, hospitals, and schools from his own pocket. He may not have invented soup kitchens but he operated them. He worked among the neglected, the poor, and outcast: children, slaves, strangers, the sick, prostitutes, and thieves. His reputation was also founded on courage. At considerable risk to himself, he scolded public officials who failed in their duties. 

During Basil’s life, the heretical Arians were ascendant at the emperor’s court. A staunch defender of Christ’s divinity, Basil wrote and preached orthodoxy and emphasized Christ in his teachings: “How long shall we put off our obedience to Christ, who has called us to his heavenly kingdom?” He defied the emperor Valens who attempted to impose Arianism on the church. Much of his reputation for greatness can be attributed to this readiness to defend Christ and the Holy Spirit. 

Hundreds of Basil’s letters, as well as many of his sermons and books, survived him. However, his most influential writings are his guidelines for monastics and a church liturgy used by millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians for centuries.

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