The Happy Exchange – Sermon for the Feast of Basil the Great

You recall that in the Christmas Eve sermon we spent a good amount of time considering how the incarnation matters for us, the chief article that separating us from those who don’t believe or confess “Jesus is Lord.” Incarnation celebrates God’s descent from heaven to live among us. We confess that in the creed weekly. It’s commonplace to us—almost to the point where it loses some of its oompf because we hear it so much. But opposite the incarnation stands something else entirely. I’m speaking of apotheosis, which literally, in its parts as a word, means “approaching divinity.” Perhaps you’ve never even heard of this word. If the incarnation celebrates how for us and for our salvation God in Christ Jesus comes down to earth, the opposite would be how for us and for our salvation elevates us up to heaven. Jesus’ incarnation among us as one of us doesn’t stop there. When we consider further all the incarnation means, we have to consider the opposite—in Christ we rise up from death to life again, and what’s more, to the highest heights of heaven. But in our day-to-day lives, this might seem grandiose or even whackadoodle. Life is hardly heavenly, and we regard anyone who tells us about their 90 minutes in heaven with a healthy bit of skepticism. So, what is this apotheosis, this approaching divinity, mean for us today. And what does it have to do, if anything, with a guy named Basil from the 4th century AD? How could something some guy some 1600 years ago who you probably never heard of before have any bearing whatsoever on your relationship with God? Good questions. Think about those today as we go into the sermon.

Would you pray with me? May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.

While you were reading this month’s Living Lutheran magazine, you came across a brief article called “What are the 12 days of Christmas?” Remember—there are twelve days of them. Our celebration begins with the Nativity of Our Lord on Christmas Eve and proceeds for another twelve days until Epiphany. The article goes on to explain that each of the twelve days of Christmas has some sort of religious significance. It’s not just about drummers drumming, lords a-leaping, golden rings, or even turtle doves—although the last is included in the story of Jesus’ presentation at the temple according to Luke’s gospel. The twelve days of Christmas have historical, religious significance. January 2 is reserved as a feast day for St. Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus. Today, we commemorate Basil in our worship. But who was this man whose name is easily confused with the basil in your tomato sauce or caprese salad?

Basil of Cæsarea, also called Saint Basil the Great, served as bishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia, which was in the greater region of Asia Minor, today constituting the country of Turkey. His most enduring contribution to the life of the church was his leadership against heresy at a time when it was still illegal for Christians to openly practice their faith. He staunchly defended the Nicene Creed—the reason why it was our anthem today—and opposed the false teachings prevalent in the early Christian church that would diminish the simultaneous divinity and humanity of Jesus. His maternal grandfather was a Christian martyr, and he was brought up by his grandmother, St. Macrina the Elder, along with his four siblings, who also are recognized as saints: Macrina the Younger, Naucratius, Peter of Sebaste, and Gregory of Nyssa.

Basil began his life practicing law and rhetoric, but later changed paths and was baptized at the age of 28. At this time in history, it was unusual for people to be baptized so young, people preferring to hold on the rigors of Christian discipleship until later in life. Basil, however, embraced the life of Christian living, and after a brief time living the monastic life, moved Cæsarea where he was ordained a deacon, then a priest, and upon the death of Eusebius in AD 370, bishop. He was 43 years old when he was elevated to bishop, and served until his death nine years later at the aged of 52. Today, with his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and his friend and mentor Gregory of Nazianius, Basil is remembered as one of the great Cappadocian Fathers—who helped solidify the accepted confession concerning the Trinity among other fundamental Christian doctrines.

During his time as bishop, Basil dedicated himself and encouraged the faithful of Cæsarea to dedicated themselves to the work of Christian virtues. Under his leadership, the Christians of Cæsarea established an institutional poorhouse, hospital, and hospice for the underprivileged, which a lasting testament of Basil’s bishoply care for the poor. Basil understood he was call to life as a disciple of Christ as one transformed by the cross—a life of sacrificial living for the sake of others. Forsaking the wealth of his family, he by his life embodied the words of Jesus in our gospel today—“None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions,” for “whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, the creature comforts of life or even your life itself, you can’t truly be a disciple of Jesus. As the hymnist writes, “when I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

Basil is sometimes referred to by the unofficial title “Ouranophantor” , which means, “revealer of heavenly mysteries.” The reason for this is his copious work on the liturgy, or worship, of the church. Basil taught what we have long held to be true about worship. Worship is not merely some ritual choreography where go through the motions of singing, praying, and contemplating, but rather is a real event that has a real impact on our lives. We believe this to be true. In worship, eternity comes down from heaven and breaks into our world confined by time. In worship, heaven descends to us and God is revealed to us, but what’s more, we participate in the foretaste of the unending feast to come. Worship is a thin space—a place where for a period time stands still, the holy comes down to the common, the divine comingles with the mortal, and limitless becomes limited. In worship, God reveals himself to us in all his glory, as for us and for our salvation, he comes down from heaven and is incarnated in our midst.

What Basil understood, though, that makes what we do here on Sunday mornings—or any other time we gather to worship—especially radical is not merely that God comes down from heaven. Such a notion is in its own right not completely unfounded. Just remember the countless recounting of Zeus’s misdeeds among mortals. How else did we get Hercules? No—Basil understood that God coming down in worship also meant something else terribly, awesomely profound.

When heaven comes down, earth goes up. When God comes down, we go up. And in that moment, when heaven descends and earth ascends, in that moment when things earthly become things heavenly—in that moment, a great exchange happens. The extraordinary becomes ordinary, and the ordinary becomes extraordinary. The incarnation irrupts in our lives, and we are changed. The mystery of heaven is revealed. When we sing “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,” we aren’t just going through the motions, but instead the heavens are rent asunder and the song of the angels becomes our own song as we join the unending heavenly chorus that the prophet Isaiah first saw in his vision in the throne room of God or the divine lays St. John describes in this apocalypse. When we hear proclaimed to us, “This is my body given for you,” and “This is my blood shed for you,” we hear spoken anew the promise before the ages—nothing can separate you from the of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God’s promise is as close to us as wine on our tongues and as real for us as bread in our bellies.

As we take God into ourselves, God takes us into himself and makes us one with the heavenly mysteries. In worship, God is revealed to us. In worship, God is revealed in us. By the power of the Holy Spirit descending from the heights of heaven to the commonality of our day-to-day lives, God’s body is shown forth in such mundane things as words, water, bread, and wine. And what’s more, those same mundane things enter into us that we might show forth the glory of God in every manner of living, that we might reveal the heavenly mysteries, the truth that God is with us, wherever we are, to whoever we encounter, whenever we are there—at all times and in all places. For our sake God made Christ to be ordinary who was the fullness of eternal glory, so that in him we might become extraordinary and live to the greater glory of God.

In worship, this great exchange happens. Basil not only knew this, but believed it, modelled his life on it—for indeed, worship is the center of our life together as Christians and at the center of our worship is our crucified and risen Lord, who bids us take up our cross and follow him if we would be his disciple. A life marked by the cross of Christ is a life rooted in the mystery, the revelation of God’s grace in worship. A life marked by the cross of Christ cannot be but for worship, for it’s in worship that the faithful gather as Christ’s collective body. It’s in worship that the faithful hear the promise of God proclaimed time and time again. It’s in worship that the faithful behold the body of Christ and the blood of Christ given for us. And it’s in worship that we are goaded by the Holy Spirit out into a world longing for renewal. In worship, heaven comes down and earth rises up, in a great exchange, that we might join in the holy work of God in Christ Jesus our Lord—using our hands, our voices, our feet, our hearts to tend the world God first made out of boundless love, a world he continues to love without an inkling of hemming or hawing.

Basil, the revealer of heavenly mysteries, reminds us that Jesus’ incarnation means something for us.

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, so that we might with ascend to the heights of divine glory as instruments of Christ’s earthly piece. In worship, through prayer, singing, and contemplation, Basil challenges us to embrace the mystery, the revelation of God’s grace, and to go out and show forth the glory of God, the glory of a father’s only Son, full of grace of truth. Basil challenges us to make of our whole lives a living sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, at all times and in all places, centered in worship whose cornerstone is the crucified and risen Christ.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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