Gregory and Basil: Recovering the Love of Manly Christian Friendship Today
On January 2nd in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, we remember Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, Bishops and Doctors of the undivided Christian Church of the fourth century.
I write this article for my Christian friends from across the confessional spectrum, not just Catholic and Orthodox Christians who intentionally keep the memory and meaning of the life and ministry of these two great Christian heroes alive by recounting their lives and studying their writings.
I am convinced that by exploring our early Christian patrimony, together, we can learn to grow in our love for the Lord and one another – as the Holy Spirit works on healing the wounds of division in the broken Body of Christ.
In a unique and special way, the witness of the undivided Christian Church of the first five centuries is both instructive and essential for our work together in this new missionary age.
The cultures into which our brothers and sisters in those early Christian centuries were called on mission, were beset with many of the same illusory ideologies and destructive patterns of life as we experience in our own.
Those cultures pretended to offer progress and liberation , just like the one in which we live, while they rejected the God who is the source of both. There is nothing new about error. They offered the libertine use of others, camouflaged as liberty, as a path to progress, when it leads to the degradation of the persons involved and the decay of the culture.
They promised progress while they trapped those who embraced the subterfuge in self-constructed chains. It is only the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – and the teaching of His Word and His Church – which offers the way to authentic human happiness, true human freedom and real progress, individual and social.
The reason why the Lord Jesus Christ sent our brethren into those cultures was to transform them from within as leaven and light. That is why He sends us into our own culture. He loves all men and women and wants us all to be free and happy. Christians are the true liberators of every age!
Today, I want to consider these two giants of our common Christian history from one perspective, their friendship with one another, in the Lord. Theirs was a friendship which began as children and lasted throughout their entire lifetime.
It is a testimony to the beauty of authentic, manly, Christian friendship. In an age which is relationally confused and has all but lost an understanding of the gift of friendship between men, it provides us with a reminder that friendship is a form of love.
As with all authentic human love, Christian friendship participates in the Love of the God from which it derives. Greek, the original language of the New Testament, differentiates between the forms of love. English is very limited in that regard. Friendship is a form of love.
Those who are baptized into Jesus Christ – and choose to live their lives in Him – are now His Friends. Friendship between men who bear the name Christian is a vibrant and inspiring witness to the eternal truth of the fullness of Love, revealed by God, in and through His Son Jesus.
The Apostle, Evangelist and Gospel writer John records this beautiful teaching of Jesus concerning friendship. It is a lengthy passage but one which needs to be read – and re-read – and then prayed through – by everyone who bears the name Christian in our age:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-dresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you.
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
“If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this – that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.
“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another”. (John 15: 1-17)
We are grafted into Jesus Christ. We are invited to abide – to live – make our home – in Jesus Christ. He chose us before we chose Him. He has a loving plan. He has been raised from the dead and he now lives His life in and through us.
He loves us the way the Father loves Him – and He promises us that we can live in His love, and learn to love in the same way, by cooperating with His grace as it given to us in and through Him. We are friends of Jesus Christ – the Friend – called into the world.
By grace, we are enabled, made capable, of building the kinds of friendships which reflect the fullness of the love of God in our own lives – and thereby bear witness to the truth of the Kingdom or Reign of God, as it continues to break into history.
In and through Jesus Christ the Friend, we can become friends with one another. Authentic Christian friendship participates in the love of God. It is NEVER a relationship of use. Rather, it is a call to love, lay our lives down for one another, and spur one another on in holiness and happiness, by turning to the Lord who is the source of both.
In my Morning Prayer, I pray the Liturgy of the Hours . This beautiful treasury of my own Christian tradition, as a Catholic Christian, offers a daily sequence of biblical readings, Old and New Testament, which provide a framework for personal prayer. They thereby help to inform a pattern for life.
Offered along with these biblical readings every day are excerpts from the sermons and reflections of great heroes of Christian history. This is called the Office of Readings . The passage in the Office of Readings today contained an account by St Gregory Nazianzen in which he addressed his true Christian friendship with Basil.
Here is a portion of this beautiful tribute to a friend:
“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.”
“The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of learning. This is an ambition especially subject to envy. Yet between us there was no envy. On the contrary, we made capital out of our rivalry. Our rivalry consisted, not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other’s success as his own.”
“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.”
I was struck by the true friendship between Gregory and Basil. It was rooted in Jesus Christ the friend. They spurred one another on to holiness, virtue and heroic living. They did so with the kind of manly character which this age needs so desperately to witness. They seemed to have a sort of manly competition in the pursuit of holiness.
They knew who they were as men – because they knew who Jesus was and is. Do we know who we are as men? Do we know who Jesus was and is? The two questions – and the answers which they invite – will determine the path of our own lives.
This age cries out for authentic Christian men who demonstrate the love of God. One way which we do that is through offering the witness of manly Christian friendship. We use an expression to refer to men who are comfortable in their skin and content with being men. We say of such a man “He is a man’s man“.
In the past I have reflected on the greatest example, next to Jesus Himself, of such a man. His name was Joseph. On this memorial we offered two more, Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen.
The Lord is still inviting Christian men to become all we can be in Jesus Christ and to spur one another on in holiness and heroic virtue. In an age desperately in need of men of courage and Christian conviction, we are given examples out of the pages of our own Christian history to emulate.
We need to follow their example by courageously, humbly and faithfully loving Jesus Christ and learning to be friends, in Him, and with one another.
Basil and Gregory Nazianzen, along with Basil’s younger brother Gregory of Nyssa, are collectively referred to as the Cappadocians because they came from the same hometown, a region in what is now Turkey.
They went on to become not only holy and heroic Christian men, but three of the finest theologians of the early Church. In fact, their reflections on what it means to live the Christian life are extraordinarily contemporary and profound. We would benefit more from reading them than many of the contemporary Christian books we seem to accumulate in our search for Christian maturity.
Gregory Nazianzen once proclaimed in his teaching on the implications of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, “ whatever was not assumed was not healed “. In that important theological insight we understand one aspect of the danger of the denial of the sacred humanity of Jesus.
Redemption would not be complete without Jesus, the New Adam, assuming the entirety of the human experience – and recreating it anew. (See, Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15).
As I often teach – and write – we are not only saved from, but saved for . Christians are freed from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2) in order to live our lives differently – beginning right now! Christianity is a way of life which begins now and opens into eternity.
Part of what was assumed and healed in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ was our capacity to love – in all of the beautiful expressions of that sublime word – including the love of human friendship. It was the beloved disciple John who made it all so clear in his first Letter, “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (Jn. 4:16)
The love of Christian friendship both reveals and participates in the Love of God made fully manifest in Jesus Christ who calls us friends. Let’s learn it and live it this new missionary age. It will shine a light of truth and liberation on an age enchained in encroaching error and darkness.
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