The Life and Works of Saint Basil the Great

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


Apolytikion (Dismissal) Hymn of the Saint. First Tone

Thy sound hath gone forth into all the earth, which hath received thy word. Thereby thou hast divinely taught the Faith; thou has made manifest the nature of all things that be; thou hast adorned the ways of man. O namesake of the royal priesthood, our righteous Father Basil, intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved.

Kontakion of the Saint. Fourth Tone.

For the Church art thou in truth a firm foundation, granting an inviolate lordship unto all mortal men and sealing it with what thou has taught, O righteous Basil, revealer of heavenly things.


Saint Basil the Great was born about the end of the year 329 AD in Caesarea of Cappadocia, to a family renowned for their learning and holiness. His parents' names were Basil and Emily. His mother Emily (commemorated July 19) and his grandmother Macrina (Jan. 14th) are Saints of the Church, together with all his brothers and sisters: Macrina, his elder sister (July 19th), Gregory of Nyssa (Jan. 10th), Peter of Sebastia (Jan. 9th), and Naucratius. Basil studied in Constantinople under the sophist Libanius, then in Athens, where also he formed a friendship with the young Gregory, a fellow Cappadocian, later called "the Theologian". Through the good influence of his sister Macrina, he chose to embrace the ascetical life, abandoning his worldly career. He visited the monks in Egypt, in Palestine, in Syria, and in Mesopotamia and upon returning to Caesarea, he departed to a hermitage on the Iris River in Pontus, not far from Annesi, where his mother and his sister Macrina were already treading the path of the ascetical life; here he also wrote his ascetical homilies.

About the year 370 AD, when the bishop of his country reposed, he was elected to succeed to his throne and was entrusted with the Church of Christ, which he tended for eight years, living in voluntary poverty and strict asceticism, having no other care than to defend Holy Orthodoxy as a worthy successor of the Holy Apostles. The Emperor Valens, and Modestos, the Eparch of the East, who were of one mind with the Arians, tried with threats of exile and of torments to bend the Saint to their own confession, because he was the bastion of Orthodoxy in all Cappadocia, and preserved it from heresy when Arianism was at its strongest. But he set all their malice at nought, and in his willingness to give himself up to every suffering for the sake of the Faith, showed himself to be a martyr by volition. Modestos, amazed at Basil's fearlessness in his presence, said that no one had ever spoken to him, "Perhaps," answered the Saint, "you have never met a bishop before." The Emperor Valens himself was almost won over by Basil's dignity and wisdom. When Valens' son fell gravely sick, he asked Saint Basil to pray for him. The Saint promised that his son would be restored if Valens agreed to have him baptized by the Orthodox; Valens agreed, Saint Basil prayed, the son was restored. But afterwards the Emperor had him baptized by Arians, and the child died soon after. Later, Valens, persuaded by his counselors, decided to send the Saint into exile because he would not accept the Arian heretics into communion; but his pen broke when he was signing the edict of banishment. He tried a second time and a third, but the same thing happened, so that the Emperor was filled with dread, and tore up the document, and Saint Basil was not banished. The truly great St. Basil, spent with extreme ascetical practices and continual labors at the helm of the Church, departed to the Lord on the 1st January, in 379 AD, at the age of forty-nine. Saint Amphilochius, Bishop of Iconium (Nov. 23rd), in his eulogy to St. Basil the Great, said: "It is neither without a reason nor by chance that Holy Basil has taken leave from the body and had repose from the world unto God on the day of the Circumcision of Jesus, celebrated between the day of the Nativity and the day of the Baptism of Christ. Therefore, this most blessed one, preaching and praising the Nativity and Baptism of Christ, extolling spiritual circumcision, himself forsaking the flesh, now ascends to Christ on the sacred day of remembrance of the Circumcision of Christ. Therefore, let it also be established on this present day annually to honor the memory of Basil the Great festively and with solemnity."

Saint Basil is also called "the revealer of heavenly mysteries" (Ouranophantor), a "renowned and bright star," and "the glory and beauty of the Church." His honorable head is in the Great Lavra on Mount Athos.

His writings are replete with wisdom and erudition, and with these gifts he set forth the doctrines concerning the mysteries both of the creation (see Hexaemeron) and of the Holy Trinity (see On the Holy Spirit). Because of the majesty and keenness of his eloquence, he is honored as "the revealer of heavenly things" and "the Great."

The principal theological writings of Saint Basil are his On the Holy Spirit, a lucid and edifying appeal to Holy Scripture and early Christian tradition (to prove the divinity of the Holy Spirit), and his Refutation of the Apology of the Impious Evnomius, written in 363 or 364, three books against Evnomius 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 do not belong to St. Basil, or to Apollinaris of Laodicea, but probably to Didymus "the Blind" of Alexandria.

He was a famous preacher, and many of his homilies, including a series of Lenten lectures on the Hexaemeron (the Six Days of Creation), and an exposition of the psalter, have been preserved. Some, like that against usury and that on the famine in 368 AD 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 St. 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 Asketika (sometimes mistranslated as Rules of St. Basil), ethical manuals for use in the world and the cloister, respectively. Of the two works known as the Greater Asketikon and the Lesser Asketikon, the shorter is the one most probably his work.

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 institutions of the East.

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 Saint John Chrysostom. The difference between the two is primarily in the silent prayers said by the priest, and in the use of the hymn to the Theotokos, All of Creation, instead of the Axion Estin of Saint John Chrysostom's Liturgy.

Saint Basil is remembered as one of the most influenced figures in the development of Christian Monasticism. Not only is St. Basil recognized as the father of Eastern Monasticism, historians recognized this when he wrote in the epilogue to his Rule that his monks, in addition to the Bible should read the confessions of the Fathers, and their institutes and their lives and the Rule of our Holy Father, Basil.

In their solitude (St. Basil and St. Gregory the Theologian) occupied themselves in an intense study of Holy Scripture. They were guided by the writings of the Fathers and commentators of the past, especially the good writings of Origen. From all these works they compiled an anthology called Philokalia. Also at this time, at the request of the monks, Saint Basil wrote down a collection of virtuous life. By his preaching and by his example St. Basil assisted in the spiritual perfection of Christians in Cappadocia and Pontus; and many indeed turned to him. Monasteries were organized for men and for women, in which places Basil sought to combine the cenobitic (koinos vios, or common) lifestyle with that of the solitary hermit.

Saint Basil was tall, thin, partly bald and had a long beard. He ate no more than was absolutely necessary for his survival; his food was of the poorest available-he never ate meat. He had only one worn undergarment and one overgarment. Saint Basil believed that we should at all times be in control of ourselves and have a blessed life of prayer. He said that prayer was seasoning our daily work with hymns as we season food with salt; that sacred and holy songs can only inspire us and give us joy and not grief. Saint Basil loved people and devoted his life to helping all those in need, he was also a righter for God's Truth. At the age of 28, St. Basil "left the world" and became a monk; at 35 a priest at 41, the Bishop of Caesarea.

"Philanthropia" is a Greek word meaning friend of people (philos + anthropos). Saint Basil had great wealth but this did not interest him. He sold all his possessions and built orphanages, hospitals, homes for the aged, schools and monasteries. Saint Basil was the first one to organize the Philoptochos Ladies Society of our Church (philo + ptochos, Greek for friend of the poor). These ladies gave help and compassion to the poor, sick and the needy. Saint Basil himself was full of love and compassion for others-e.g. he would plead for mercy and forgiveness from the emperor, for those who had made mistakes. Another time, after an earthquake, he worked for days without sleep to dig through rubble with his own hands to save those trapped; he helped the injured and urged everyone who share their food with those who had none. St. Basil stood by the people and encouraged them throughout the catastrophe; he planted food in new areas and prevented the starvation of the people. It was after this and the death of their bishop that Saint Basil was made Bishop of Caesarea.

Saint Basil the Great is also celebrated on January 30th (the Feast of the Holy Three Hierarchs) with Saint Gregory the Theologian and Saint John Chrysostom.

In some countries i.e., Greece, it is customary to sing special carols (Kalanta) on the January 1st in honor of Saint Basil. He is believed to visit homes of the faithful, and a place is set for him at the table. People visit the homes of friends and relatives, and the mistress of the house gives a small gift to the children. The words of the Kalanta (songs or carols sung by the children) stress the joy and excitement of the New Year which brings opportunities, the love of Christ, His miraculous Birth, His Baptism, and the compassion of the pious Saint Basil who brought so much joy and happiness to the world. They ask Saint Basil to stay a while at their home, to partake of their meal and fellowship, and to grant them "good cheer". A special bread (Vasilopita) is blessed and distributed after the Divine Liturgy. A silver coin is baked into the bread, and whoever receives the slice with the coin is said to receive the blessing of Saint Basil for the coming year.

Saint Basil the Great has the same significance in the Orthodox world as a lover of people, children and the poor as Saint Nicholas has in the West. Both of them however are Great Fathers and Saints of the Orthodox Church and who serve as true Christian examples to emulate. 

The tradition of the Vasilopita (Basil's bread): The emperor had tried to tax Saint Basil's diocese so much, that he would not be able to pay. However, the many faithful followers gave him money and jewels to help pay the taxes. The tax-collector was so amazed that he refused the money. Saint Basil had no way of knowing who to return the money and jewels to. So, he had many cakes baked and in them placed the coins and jewels; he then distributed these cakes to the poor. Traditionally, Vasilopites (Basil's cakes or sweet bread) is made in Orthodox Christian households and they are also brought to the church. There, the Vasilopita is blessed and cut by the priest are cut to honor Jesus Christ, the Mother of God (Theotokos), Saint Basil, the priest, the poor and others.

Another version of the Vasilopita: The age old tradition commenced in the 4th century, when Saint Basil the Great, who was a bishop, wanted to distribute money to the poor in his Diocese. He commissioned some women to bake sweetened bread, in which he arranged to place gold coins. Thus the families in cutting the bread to nourish themselves were pleasantly surprised to find the coins.

The sweetness of the Vasilopita symbolizes the hope that the New Year will be filled with the sweetness of life, liberty, health, and happiness for all who participate in the Vasilopita Observance.

Our Metropolis as well as all of them throughout the Archdiocese dedicate all the proceeds through our Philoptochos Chapters to the Saint Basil's Academy in New York which takes good care our children taught there.

Please note: The parish Vasilopita will take place on January 12th following the Divine Liturgy. All the heads of the parish ministries will be invited to receive a slice of the Vasilopita and to offer a donation to the children of Saint Basil's Academy. Then all of the faithful of our parish who are present at the Divine Liturgy will also receive a slice and make this same offering.

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George