THE FIRST HALF OF JANUARY is centered on the celebration of the Great Feast of the Theophany (January 6). It begins with a fore-feast (January 2-5) and continues with an after-feast (January 7-13). But January also marks the commemoration of several great Church Fathers of the fourth century, particularly the Cappadocians – St Basil the Great (January 1), St Gregory of Nyssa (January 10) and St Gregory the Theologian (January 25) – as well as St John Chrysostom, the return of whose relics to Constantinople after his death in exile is recalled on January 27.
The Cappadocians were particularly instrumental in the defeat of Arianism in the Christian East. While this doctrine, that the Son was like the Father but not of the same essence, had been formally rejected at the First Council of Nicaea in 325, it became even more popular in the years that followed. Several emperors were partial to it as it seemed to be acceptable to a broader number of their Christian subjects. While Arianism survived in many places until the seventh century, it was all but eliminated in Cappadocia (Asia Minor) because of the influence of these Fathers.
St John Chrysostom, originally from Antioch, had been called to Constantinople in 397 to be its archbishop. This Father had little interest in or sympathy for the kind of politics inherent in being bishop of the imperial capital. Within five years his enemies has begun a successful campaign against him and he was exiled to the Caucasus where he died on September 14, 404.
The writings of these Fathers contributed significantly to the development of Byzantine theology and liturgy in the centuries that followed. Due largely to his treatises on the Trinity, St Gregory was accorded the title “Theologian” at the Council of Chalcedon (451). Only two others have been given that distinction in the East: the first being St John the Apostle and the third St Simeon the New Theologian.
As Archbishop of Caesarea, St Basil had devoted his energies to ordering the Liturgy. His Liturgy would become the usual rite of Constantinople. When St John Chrysostom became Archbishop of Constantinople he too provided an order for the Liturgy. Over the next few centuries their arrangements would spread throughout the Greek-speaking Churches and in the Slavic world. We still use their prayers in the Byzantine Churches and remembered these Fathers at every Liturgy today.
Who Is the Greatest?
When the Lord’s apostles disagreed over which of them was the greatest, He diffused their squabble by setting a child in the place of honor. Something similar happened in the case of these “January Fathers.”
In the eleventh century monks and teachers in the imperial capital, Constantinople, were rowing about which of these Fathers was the greatest. Their partisans cited the various contributions of each Father to the theology, liturgy and monastic tradition of the Church. As the issue became more widely known, ordinary believers began taking sides as well. Some called themselves “Basilians,” others referred to themselves as “Johnites” and still others as “Gregorians.”
The question was finally resolved in 1084 with the establishment of a common feast for all three saints: the Synaxis of the Three Ecumenical Teachers and Holy Hierarchs. According to the Synaxarion, each of the saints appeared, first each separately and then all three together, to John Mavropos, a learned author and poet who served as the Metropolitan of Euchaïta (today’s Avkat).
The saints reportedly told Metropolitan John, “We three are one, as you see, close to God and nothing can separate us or make us contend… There is no first or second among us… Arise, therefore, and tell those who are quarrelling not to be divided into parties over us because in life and death we had no desire other than to bring peace and unity to everyone.” In response the metropolitan undertook the task of reconciling the conflicting groups.
As a symbol and expression of their unity, the saints also urged Metropolitan John to establish a common feast for all three. He established the feast on January 30 and composed a single service for all three. The metropolitan chose January as the most suitable month for this commemoration, because all three Fathers are celebrated in that month.
St John of Euchaïta
A native of Paphlagonia in Asia Minor, John had become a respected scholar and teacher in the capital and a member of the circle of intellectuals patronized by the Emperor, Constantine IX Monomakhos. In 1050, after two years as speaker of the court, he fell out of favor with the emperor and was sent to Euchaïta, some 265 mile from the capital, as its metropolitan, what we might call a “lateral promotion.”
The metropolitan called it an “honorable exile” and sought to be recalled to the capital. At some point he was apparently permitted to retire to the Agia Petra Monastery in Constantinople, sometime in the 1070s.
His collected works include numerous poems, essays, letters and homilies. His most beloved poem is the devotional canon to “the Most Sweet Jesus,” found in many popular Byzantine prayerbooks. He is also thought by some to have composed the small paraklitic canon to the Theotokos sung during the Dormition Fast in Byzantine Churches.
The Poetry of This Feast
In addition to the canons and hymns of Metropolitan John, the Church service for this feast also includes works by Neilos Xanthopoulos and Patriarch Germanos of Constantinople.
From the Service of the Feast
As is meet, let us glorify John and Basil, with Gregory: the three heralds of the great Trinity, the instruments of grace, the harps of the Spirit and right famous clarions of proclamation, awesome and clearly resonant, who thunder forth from the heights and declare to the ends of the earth the glory of God. (first sticheron of vespers, by John of Euchaïta)
As is meet, today let us praise together those spiritual initiates of the mysteries, the noetic clarions of God, the divine reflections: Basil the Great, the divine Gregory of fiery inspiration, and John, truly goldenmouthed, who pour forth upon us golden streams of doctrines. “Hail, trinity of Hierarchs!” (first apostichon by Nilos Xanthopoulos).
Rejoice, O trinity of Hierarchs, great bulwark of the Church, pillars of piety, confirmation of the faithful and downfall of heretics, who shepherded the people of Christ with divine teachings and nurtured them with diverse virtues – O manifest preachers of grace, who set forth laws for the fullness of Christ’s Church! O guides to the highest and gates of paradise, entreat Christ that He send down great mercy upon our souls! (first sticheron at the Ainos by Nilos Xanthopoulos)