I must say, today’s first reading is rather jarring in its tone and its timing.
Here we are, still celebrating the season of Christmas, our hearts are burning with the joys of family and holiday dinners, gifts and gift-giving.
We are observing one of the few times of the year when it seems the world tries to get along – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Atheist, Agnostic, Secularist … you name it, during this season, we all try to find and celebrate the common denominators of how our faiths are applied in this world.
With all that and glass of egg nog in hand … we read this from the First Letter of John:
“Beloved: Who is the liar? Whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Whoever denies the Father and the Son, this is the antichrist. Anyone who denies the Son does not have the Father, but whoever confesses the Son has the Father as well.”
Tough words for a joyous season.
But appropriate on a day when the Church observes the Memorial of Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen – both bishops and doctors of the Church who were known as great defenders of the faith.
Basil and Gregory lived in the fourth century, just a few hundred years after the extraordinary events of Christ. During this time when the Church was finally made legal, there were attempts to call into question some of the core beliefs held by the Catholic Church and one of those came from Arius, whose followers were known as Arians.
The basic teaching of the Arians was to deny that Christ and God the Father were one in the same. Jesus was somehow “less than” God, rather than God Himself, which the Catholic faith has always held to be true.
Simple men who for a time lived as hermits, playing a major role in writing “monastic rules” which inspired others, Basil and Gregory not only embraced these virtues of simplicity but they were also very well educated and eager to do battle against heresy.
In our first reading today, John is taking up a similar cause against those who had once been faithful, but had left and were now stirring up trouble and divisions among the Church. He reassures readers that by sticking to the simple truth of the Gospel, they can maintain their salvation.
The Gospel picks up this connection with Basil and Gregory with a snapshot of a confrontation involving John the Baptist, who more than anyone else in Scripture was the perfect role model for the future Desert Fathers and perhaps many of today’s monks.
“He said: I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
Basil and Gregory were also “voices in the desert” crying out against those, whose false theories and heretical challenges would threaten to weaken the faith of many.
These are the same struggles we face today. And we cannot face them alone.
Instead, let us look to Basil and Gregory, two men who shared the same faith and passion for theology and spirituality … constantly building each other up in such a way that both would become bishops, doctors of the Church and saints.
As Saint Gregory said in a sermon before his death in 389 or 340, writing about his bond with St. Basil …
“We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit … Our single object and ambition was virtue and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come.
“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.”