Metropolitan Tikhon's Homily: The Feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs

The Three Holy Hierarchs
Given on January 30, 2015
Three Hierarchs Chapel
Gospel: Matthew 5:14-19 Epistle: Hebrews 13:7-16

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Today we celebrate the patronal feast of this holy temple dedicated to the Three Hierarchs and Ecumenical Teachers, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom. Throughout the liturgical hymns devoted to these brilliant luminaries of the Church, we are offered many flowery words praising and extolling their virtues.

 

 

They are called:

the depths of wisdom,
the ocean currents of the Spirit,
fountains ever gushing forth cascades of living water,
lustrous pearls,
rudders of the Church,
trees bearing magnificent fruit,
stewards of grace,
mouthpieces of Christ,
and champions of the Trinity.

The liturgical superlatives ascribed to these pillars of the Church are almost overwhelming in their unrelenting reminder, to the rest of us mortal and fallen human beings, of the supreme perfection of life and brilliance of theology of these three exemplary saints. One might even be justified in thinking that it is exclusively to St. Basil, to St. John, and to St. Gregory, that the first words of today’s Gospel reading, Ye are the light of the world…are addressed. Their prominence in the life of the Church confirms that they indeed have been set on a lampstand for the whole world to see. And further, their light so shines before us – even today – that we never tire of beholding their good works and are thereby ourselves inspired to ceaselessly glorify our Father which is in heaven.

But, we might honestly look into our hearts and ask ourselves: are we so inspired?

Are we encouraged by the lives and the teachings of the three hierarchs to change our own lives and to acquire the knowledge of God?  Do we have any idea how to even begin attaining the perfection that has been commanded of us? Or are we sometimes overwhelmed by that very perfection? Do we sometimes get downcast when we measure our small and weak efforts to the strength, stability and holiness of great saints like those we commemorate today?

It might help if we turned to the words of the Lord further on in the chapter from which today’s reading is drawn, where He exhorts his disciples: You, therefore [He says] must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. We hear these words and then we look at our own lives and might become sorrowful, fearful or even depressed about our failure to even begin to attain this perfection.

It is good to notice, however that the verb used in this phrase be ye perfect is not, in fact an imperative command but rather a statement in the future tense; we are not so much ordered to “be this!” as we are encouraged that we “will be this.”  In other words, it is not so much the end result of perfection that is in question here, but the effort and the will that we exert in stepping out on the long path that leads to that perfection—and the ability to do this with the certainty that the grace of God will perfect what is lacking in our seemingly weak efforts.

We might also notice, if we return to the last half of today’s reading, that after Christ speaks about the light that is to illumine the world, He makes a shift to another subject and begins to speak about the law, saying that He is not come to destroy the law, or the prophets…but to fulfil them.  And to further emphasize this he adds: Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

Why does the Lord move from speaking about light and the glory of the Father to an emphasis on the Law? And how does this help us in our own life and struggle?

If we focus on these words from today’s reading: Whoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven, we will notice that it is those who break even one of the smallest commandments that He says will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven. So those of us who are constantly breaking those small commandments might fear for our salvation. We might, if not for the hope that is offered in the final words of today’s reading: But whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Whosoever shall do and teach them…. What is “them” referring to? It is not the fullness and the perfection of the commandments, but rather one of the least of the commandments. In other words, he is here addressing, not those who have already attained the glory of the Kingdom, but those of us who are struggling to attain it.

Gregory the Theologian, in speaking about pastoral direction says: “It is our practice not to lead by force, or by compulsion, but by good will…since that which is held in by force is likely, when opportunity offers, to strike for freedom. But freedom of will more than anything else is what holds together our—I will not call it rule, but—tutorship. For the mystery of godliness belongs to those who are willing, not to those who are overpowered.”

“The mystery of godliness belongs to those who are willing, not to those who are overpowered.”

How many of us have not felt overpowered and constrained by the high standards of the Gospel Commandments?

Be perfect as God is perfect!  
Be the light of the world!
Love your enemies!
Imitate the saints!

Living in a world where perfectionism is forced upon us, where impossible ideals of beauty and of body weight are extolled, where intellectual and artistic greatness are demanded, is it any wonder that we sometimes get discouraged when we hear the words of the Lord, when we are reminded of the supreme holiness of the saints?

“The mystery of godliness belongs to those who are willing, not to those who are overpowered.”

And so, in today’s Gospel reading, the Lord does not say: “You will be the light of the world” as if this is only something that will take place later, at the end of time.  Rather He says You are the light of the world. At this very moment, and in this very place, we are all the light of the world, we are all participants in the light of the resurrection.  Perhaps we don’t feel like we are participating in this light, perhaps our life is one of suffering and troubles, perhaps everything seems dark to us, rather than light.  Perhaps even the Church and her teachings seem heavy for us to bear, with all the rules and regulations that we are asked to follow.

Let us therefore remember that we too have the potential to become great saints of the Church and to focus on the fact that what is required is for us to let our light so shine before men that they may see our  good works and glorify our Father which is in heaven.

In the same way, we can enter into perfection, not the unhealthy perfectionism of the world, which leads to isolation and despair, but the healthy perfection of a small effort, a willingness to persevere without wavering. It is precisely the gentle, warm, and clear holiness and perfection of the Three Hierarchs that teach us, not oppressively but with peacefulness:

Not to give in to despair when we uncover the passions within our own hearts, but to slowly weed them out one by one;
Not to be discouraged because we don’t seem to have control over our children and their behavior, but rather continually strive to love them and pray for them and not judge ourselves to be failures;
Not to be overwhelmed when we find it difficult to live in a community, whether it is our family, our seminary or our parish, but to find hope in the examples of the great saints who give expression to true community.

May this be granted to all of us, to the measure that we fulfill the commandments of our Merciful God now in this life, so that we might partake of the light of the Resurrection both now in this life and in the age to come, when we shall behold the glory of our wondrous God, who is worshipped in three Persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, One light and Three lights, unto the ages of ages, Amen.