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January 3, 2018

Homily on the Holy Martyr Gordius (St. Basil the Great)

Summary: Homily 18 of Saint Basil is on the martyr Gordius, who was a native of Caesarea, and was degraded from his rank of centurion when Licinius removed Christians from the army. Gordius retired into the wilderness, and led the life of an anchorite. One day there was a great festival at Caesarea in honor of Mars. There were to be races in the theater, and thither the whole population trooped. Not a Jew, not a heathen, was wanting. No small company of Christians had joined the crowd, men of careless life, sitting in the assembly of folly, and not shunning the counsel of the evil—doers, to see the speed of the horses and the skill of the charioteers. Masters had given their slaves a holiday. Even boys ran from their schools to the show. There was a multitude of common women of the lower ranks. The stadium was packed, and every one was gazing intently on the races. Then that noble man, great of heart and great of courage, came down from the uplands into the theater. He took no thought of the mob. He did not heed how many hostile hands he met. In a moment the whole theater turned to stare at the extraordinary sight.

The man looked wild and savage. From his long sojourn in the mountains his head was squalid, his beard long, his dress filthy. His body was like a skeleton. He carried a stick and a wallet, yet there was a certain grace about him, shining from the unseen all around him. He was recognized. A great shout arose. Those who shared his faith clapped for joy, but the enemies of the truth urged the magistrate to put in force the penalty he had incurred, and condemned him beforehand to die. Then an universal shouting arose all round. Nobody looked at the horses — nobody at the charioteers. The exhibition of the chariots was mere idle noise. Not an eye but was wholly occupied with looking at Gordius, not an ear wanted to hear anything but his words. Then a confused murmur, running like a wind through all the theater, sounded above the din of the course. Heralds were told to proclaim silence. The pipes were hushed, and all the band stopped in a moment. Gordius was being listened to; Gordius was the center of all eyes, and in a moment he was dragged before the magistrate who presided over the games.

With a mild and gentle voice the magistrate asked him his name, and whence he came. He told his country, his family, the rank he had held, the reason for his flight, and his return. "Here I am," he cried, "ready to testify by deed to the contempt in which I hold your orders, and my faith in the God in whom I have trusted. For I have heard that you are inferior to few in cruelty. This is why I have chosen this time in order to carry out my wishes." With these words he kindled the wrath of the governor like a fire, and roused all his fury against himself. The order was given, "Call the lictors; where are the plates of lead? Where are the scourges? Let him be stretched upon a wheel; let him be wrenched upon the rack; let the instruments of torture be brought in; make ready the beasts, the fire, the sword, the cross. What a good thing for the villain that he can die only once!" "Nay," replied Gordius, "what a bad thing for me that I cannot die for Christ again and again!"

All the town crowded to the spot where the martyrdom was to be consummated. Gordius uttered his last words. Death is the common lot of man. As we must all die, let us through death win life. Make the necessary voluntary. Exchange the earthly for the heavenly. He then crossed himself, he stepped forward for the fatal blow, without changing color or losing his cheerful mien. It seemed as though he were not going to meet an executioner, but to yield himself into the hands of angels.

Homily 18

On the Holy Martyr Gordius

By St. Basil the Great

Nature has prescribed this law unto the bees; never to quit the hive until their monarch shall have commenced his flight. Since then I behold the people of the Lord, for the first time going forth unto the celestial flowers, I mean the Martyrs; I enquire the name of their conductor. Who hath aroused this mighty swarm? who hath transformed the winter's dreariment, to the life and resplendence of spring? Now for the first time, the people streaming forth from the city, as from a hive, in one multitudinous assemblage have occupied the suburban glory, this fair and venerable stadium of the martyrs. Me also, forgetting mine infirmities, the admiration of the martyr hath awakened, and led forth. Let me also raise my voice, according to the measure of mine ability, and murmur around his glorious achievements, as bees around the flowers; at once discharging a debt of piety, and rendering a grateful service to the hearer.* For as we lately read in the sapient discourse of Solomon, "when a righteous man is made the subject of encomium, the people are gladdened." And truly I was doubting in myself, what could be the meaning of these enigmatical expressions. Do they mean, that when an orator or an historian, hath framed a discourse to excite the astonishment of the hearer, led captive by sounds melodious; the people are gladdened, admiring the invention and arrangement of ideas, and the grandeur of a diction that resounds with harmony? Would he have intended this; he who never indulged in such a species of composition? Would he have exhorted us to display the pomp of oratory in the encomiums of the saints; he who every where preferred simplicity of expression, and an unlabored style? What then saith he? That the people are exhilarated with a spiritual joy, at the bare commemoration of the achievements of the righteous; and are stimulated by the recital, to imitate their virtues. For the history of those who have wisely regulated their conduct, shine forth as a beacon to mankind, illuminating the path of their salvation. Wherefore, in the very instant that we hear the Spirit narrating the life, and the deeds of Moses, we are fired with emulation of his virtues; and the meekness of his disposition appears most enviable, and most blessed. The encomiums of worldly men are built up from the accumulated stores of human eloquence; but when we would panegyrize the saints, the mere recital of their achievements suffice to demonstrate the preeminence of their virtue. Thus, when we peruse the lives of those who have beamed resplendent in the hemisphere of virtue; we first glorify the Lord by means of his servants; and then, we applaud the righteous by attesting the truths we know, and we make glad the people, by the narration of their deeds. The life of Joseph allures us to a life of continence, and the exploits of Sampson impel us to acts of heroism. The divine school acknowledges not the law of earthly panegyric; but considered a simple commemoration the substitute for an encomium; at once sufficing to acclaim the righteous, and incite the hearer to virtuous deeds. It is the established mode of panegyric, to trace the country, to enquire the family, and to narrate the education of the person who is magnified; but the sacred encomiast, passing by all adventitious circumstances, filling up his portraiture with the immediate actions of the individual. Am I the more illustrious, because my country formerly sustained a laborious, a mighty war; and raised resplendent trophies of her victory? or because she is so favorably situate, as to be adapted both for a winter, and summer habitation? or because she is prolific in men, and cattle? What benefit accrues thence to me? But in her race of horses, she surpasses every country beneath the heavens!—And will this exalt me in the scale of human excellence? Should we celebrate the loftiness of an adjacent mountain; should we say that it soars above the clouds and invades the skies; we should deceive ourselves, if we imagined that by our praise of the mountain, we were perfecting our encomium of the man. If all the natural world be despised by the saints of God; it is surely most preposterous to consummate their praise, by a small portion of the very things which they contemn. A mere commemoration therefore, suffices as a benefit to the people. No extraneous appendages are requisite that the departed may be honored; but the history of their lives is necessary for imitation, unto us who are alive. As naturally as fire enlightens, and ointments diffuse their fragrance, a benefit resulting from the actions of the good.

It is a matter of no small importance, to acquire an exact knowledge of things which have happened formerly. A certain obscure narration hath been delivered to me, recording the martyr's heroism in the hour of his contestation. And in some measure, our art appears to resemble that of painters. For when they execute a copy of a picture, it falls far short, as we might expect, of the original production; and there is reason to apprehend that we also may obscure the truth, not painting in colors sufficiently glowing, the spectacle of his triumph. But since the day hath arrived, which brings the commemoration of a martyr, of one who nobly combated in the cause of Christ; let me relate what things I know. He was a native of our city; and hence we are the more attached to him, inasmuch as he is our peculiar ornament. For as a tree which bears delicious fruit, to its own country commends the delightful produce; so he, having grown up in our native soil, and attained the very height of glory, bestows on her who bore and nurtured him, the fruits of his own piety. Excellent do we account the fruits even of a foreign country, provided they are both sweet and fitted for our food. But far sweeter is the fruit which grows in our own, our native land; for in addition to the enjoyment, we can boast that it is our own. He was raised to a considerable rank, for he was entrusted with the command of a hundred soldiers; and he was conspicuous among the warriors, both for corporeal strength, and undaunted hardiment. But when the reigning monarch gave such unbounded license to his fell, inhuman spirit, as even to war against the church; when he raised against religion, his God-defying arm; when the mandate was everywhere promulgated and in every forum and every conspicuous place, the imperial edicts were unrolled, commanding that Jesus should not be adored, or that death should be the penalty of such an adoration; when it was ordained that all men should bend to idols and to stones, and should account wooden images as gods, or that the disobedient should suffer woes intolerable; when uproar and confusion reveled through the city; when rapine triumphed in the habitations of the righteous; when their goods were seized; when the bodies of Christians were lacerated with stripes; when women were dragged through all the city; when no compassion was felt for youth, and no reverence was shown to age; but they who had in nought offended, endured the punishment of transgressors; when crowded were the prisons, and desolate the mansions of the rich; when the lonely desert was filled with fugitives; and piety was the accusation brought against the sufferers; when the parent betrayed the child, and the son exposed his father, and brothers warred with one another; when slaves rebelled against their lords, and a murky night encompassed human life; for men were ignorant of each other, with so dire a charm did Satan enchant their souls: when houses of prayer were cast down; when altars were overturned, and there was no oblation, and no incense, and the Christian votary was unable to make his offering; for dejection and despair, louring as a cloud, enveloped all: when the worshipers of God were driven from their ruined sanctuary; when every assembly of the pious, was thrilled with dread; and daemons spreading around the defilement of their sacrifices, in hellish chorus rioted through the city—then, this noble combatant, anticipating the judgment of the tribunal, cast off his zone, and became an exile. Despising the pomp of power, despising glory, accumulated wealth, consanguinity, friends, domestics, the enjoyments of life; despising whatever men most earnestly desire, he fled into the bosom of the deepest, and most sequestered solitudes.

For he deemed that to commune with the beasts of the desert, was less barbarous and savage, than communion with the worshipers of idols. He felt, as felt Elijah, who fled to the mountains of Horeb, when he perceived that idolatry was triumphant through Sidonia; and tarried in a cave seeking God; seeking until he found Him whom his soul desired, and as far as a mortal could, beheld Him. Such was Gordius. Fleeing the tumult of the city, the distraction of the town, the pride of power, the tribunals, the informers, the buyers, and the sellers; those who were forsworn, and those who were deceived; the base extortions, the shiftings of character, and those multifarious corruptions,, which like skiffs towed by a mighty vessel, populous cities draw in their train; making pure his ears, rendering pure his eyes, but above all, purified in his heart, that he might see his God, and become blessed; he beheld Him in revelations, he was instructed in the mysteries, "not from man nor by man," but having the Spirit for his mighty teacher. Entering from hence on the contemplation of human life; considering how vain it is, how unproductive, how much emptier than a shadow and a dream; he was more vehemently inflamed with the desire of the heavenly calling. And esteeming himself, as a champion, duly trained and anointed for the combat, by fasting, by watching, by praying, by weeping, by unremitted meditation on the book divine; he waited for the day, on which, holding the festival of their war-loving deity, the inhabitants of the city go forth to witness a public spectacle, an equestrian contest. Now, the whole people were collected above the hippodrome, and not a Gentile or a Jew was absent. No small portion of the Christians was mingled with them, who guarded not their lives from sin, but sat in the assemblies of vanity, shunning not the communion of evil doers, but flocking there, to witness the swiftness of the horses, and the skill of the charioteers. Even slaves were permitted to be present; children released from school ran to behold the spectacle; and women of the lower order, thronged the place. The stadium at length was crowded, and everyone was intent on witnessing the contention of the horses.

Then, the illustrious champion, mighty in soul, sublime in resolution, descended from the mountains upon the theatre. He trembled not at the collected multitudes: he reckoned not into how many hostile hands he was about to consign his life; but with undaunted courage, passing those who were seated round the stadium, as if they had been closely-wedged rocks, or interwoven trees, he placed himself in the midst: confirming those words of Solomon, "The just man is confident as a lion." So intrepid, so unappalled his spirit, that standing where all might view him, with voice grandisonous he pronounced that spiritual saying, which was heard by some who are still alive. "I am found by those who do not seek me. I am made manifest unto those who do not enquire for me." Thus it was apparent, that he was not forced into the midst of dangers, but voluntarily exposed himself to the conflict; imitating his Lord, who being unrecognized through the darkness of the night, revealed himself to the Jews. The eyes of the whole theatre were instantaneously fixed on the unwonted prodigy. They beheld a man of aspect wild, and savage, through his long abiding in the mountains: his hair was matted, his beard bushy, his garments squalid, his whole body parched and shriveled: he bore in his hand a staff; a wallet was suspended by his side; and beaming around him from an unknown source, a certain grace ineffable threw a charm upon the whole. As soon as he was recognized, a loud and commingled shout was raised by all; those who were allied to him in faith, crying out for joy; and those who were enemies to the truth, exciting the judge to murder him, and before his trial, condemning him to death. All now was tumultuous clamor; the horses were unheeded; the charioteers were unregarded; and the rolling thunder of the chariots was an empty sound! No eye had leisure to survey aught but Gordius; and no ear could tolerate aught, save only the accents of his tongue. For a while a certain undistinguished murmur, like a rushing wind, pervaded all the theatre, and resounded above the hippodrome. But when the heralds had enjoined silence; hushed was the warbling of the flutes, and stilled the various instruments of melody. Nothing was heard but Gordius, and nothing but Gordius was seen. Being immediately apprehended, he was dragged before the governor, who sat in the theatre, and directed the contention of the chariots. At first, he addressed the prisoner in a gentle, and benignant tone, enquiring who he was, and whence he came. But when he named his country, his family, and his military rank; the reason of his flight, and his return; when he said, I am present here, by deeds to attest at once, my disregard of thine imperial mandate, and my faith in that God upon whom my hopes repose. Having heard that thou art eminent in harshness and severity, I have chosen this, as the fittest season for accomplishing my desire. When he thus spake, his words lighted up the fury of the ruler, and drew upon himself his accumulated rage. Call the Lictors hither. Where are the leaden weights? Where are the scourges? Let him be stretched on the wheel; let his limbs be racked: let all modes of punishment be prepared: the wild beasts; the fire; the sword; the cross; the pit. For if the wretch die but once, it will be a kind of benefit to him. It will be a kind of loss, interrupted Gordius, if I cannot die a thousand deaths for the sake of Christ! But he, by nature fierce, became yet more infuriate, when he regarded the dignity of Gordius; considering that the ardor and elevation of his soul, reflected disgrace upon himself. In proportion as he saw that the prisoner's heart was unappalled, he was the more exasperated, and became yet more desirous to subdue his resolution, by the prospect of threatened ills.

While the tyrant thus felt, and purposed, the saint, looking unto God, was weaving round his heart, the enchantment of a holy psalm. "The Lord," he exclaimed, "is my helper. I will not be frightened at what man shall do unto me. I will not be frightened at evil things, for thou art with me." Other passages akin to these, and inspiring courage, he repeated; such as ye may imagine him to have been deeply imbued with; him, who was so far from trembling at the threatened evils, that he even provoked and challenged them. "Wherefore do you linger?" he exclaimed. "Wherefore do you stand inactive? Let my body be torn: let my limbs be racked: torture them as much as you desire: do not envy me the blessed hope I cherish; for in proportion as you extend my sufferings, you acquire for me a brighter retribution. The Lord will recompense me with a blessed exchange. Instead of the bloody marks, which may now appear upon my body, in the day of the resurrection, I shall wear a vesture of light, blossoming with immortality. Dishonor will be exchanged for glory; a dungeon, for Paradise; the death of malefactors, for the life of angels. Sow plenteously in me the seeds of torment, that I may reap a harvest of joys, too numerous to be reckoned."

When they found that they could not move him by setting in terrible array, the threatened tortures; when they saw that it was altogether hopeless; they changed their method, and strove to lure him to compliance. Such are the means employed by Satan. The timid he frightens, the bold he enervates. Of this nature were the artifices, which the ruler then employed. When he perceived that Gordius was uninfluenced by threats; he endeavored to inveigle him by insidious allurements, and promised gifts. Some he actually presented to him, and he pledged himself that the king would send him others; that he would bestow on him, military advancement, an increase of wealth; in short, whatever he might desire. But when he failed in his attempt; for that blessed man, hearing the promises, ridiculed his folly in accounting any earthly good an equivalent for the heavenly kingdom; his wrath became unbounded. He bared his sword: he commanded the lictors to stand before him; and both by words and actions, condemned a saint to a murderer's death.

The scene now was changed, and this very spot was chosen for the tragic exhibition. As many of the people as formerly remained in the city, were now poured out before the walls; to witness that most august of spectacles—a Christian's warfare! admirable in the eyes of Angels, and of all this fair creation; grievous unto Satan; appalling to his daemons! The city was emptied of its inhabitants, who like a mighty ocean, rolled over the plain! and with their tumultuous waves encircled the place we stand on. Not a woman endured to be absent from the sight: not a man, of lowly or exalted rank, estranged himself; houses were deserted by those who guarded them; workshops were unbarred; articles for sale were heaped together in the market-place; and their only security was this, that all the people had gone out together, and not one evil-doer lingered in the city. Slaves no longer waited on their masters; and every native, and every stranger, was present here. Even the virgin, shrinking not from the gaze of man; even the aged, and infirm, regarding not their weakness, passed beyond the walls.

And now, his relatives encircling the saintly man already rushing forward unto life by the path of death; addressed him with imploring words, embraced him with a last embrace; and raining warm tears upon him, besought him not to yield himself to the fire; not to throw away his youth; not to abandon that blessed sun. Others labored to prevent him by evasive counsels. Make your recantation in words alone; but in your heart, retain what faith you please. Assuredly, God regards not the words, but the real sentiments of the speaker. For thus it will be completely in your power, both to soften the judge, and to propitiate God.

Thus they reasoned: but Gordius remained inflexible, and unconquered. Ye might have compared his unagitated mind to the house of the prudent man, which neither the wind's resistless force, nor the rushing water breaking from the cloud, nor yawning earthquakes, could overturn; because it was founded on a rock. Such was he in that moment. He preserved with unshaken firmness, his faith in Christ; for, with spiritual eyes, he beheld Satan running too and fro; moving this man to weep, and urging that man to try persuasion.—Unto those who wept, he said, pour not your tears for me; but rather weep over these adversaries of God, who perpetrate such deeds against the righteous, and, by the fire for me enkindled, treasure up for themselves, the flames of hell! Cease then to weep, and to enervate my heart. For the name of the Lord Jesus, I would die not once alone, but ten thousand times, if ten thousand deaths were possible! —To those who counseled him, with his tongue to deny the truth, he answered; Can the tongue, which was formed by Christ, endure to speak against its maker? "With the heart, we believe unto righteousness; and with the mouth, we confess unto salvation." Do ye think that ye should despair of a man's salvation, because he is a soldier? Was no Centurion ever pious? I remember the first Centurion, who standing near the cross of Christ, was convinced by the wonders which were wrought; and though the fury of the Jews still blazed, trembled not at their rage, nor hesitated to proclaim the truth; but acknowledged that he was the Son of God. I have read of another Centurion, who while Jesus yet dwelt in the flesh, perceived that he was God, and king of the celestial powers; that by his command alone, through the agency of ministering spirits, he could send forth succor unto them who needed it. His faith, the Lord pronounced greater than that of universal Israel. Was not Cornelius, being also a Centurion, judged worthy of an angelic vision? and at last, did he not attain salvation by means of Peter? for his charitable deeds, and his petitions, were heard, and accepted by his God. I would be their disciple. How then shall I abjure that God, whom from a child, I have adored? Will not the heavens tremble from above? Will not the stars be darkened when they behold me? Will not the earth recede beneath my feet? "Do not err. God is not derided. From our mouth He judges us, from our words, lies justify us, from our words, He condemns us."

Have you not read that fearful threat? "Whosoever shall deny me before men; him will I deny, before my Father who is in the heavens." And for what, do you advise me thus to counterfeit? Is it that I may acquire aught unto myself by such an artifice? That I may gain a few days respite? But I shall thereby suffer an eternal loss. That I may escape corporeal pain? But then, I shall not behold the retribution of the just. It would be utter madness to die in the practice of deceit; by fraud and stratagem, to labor for an eternal punishment. And now let vie counsel you. If your thoughts be evil, repent and seek the paths of holiness. But if ye have accommodated to the occasion; casting off the deceit, proclaim the truth. Declare, that "Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father! This declaration shall every tongue repeat, when "in the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of the inhabitants celestial, terrestrial, and subterranean." All men are mortals, but few are martyrs. Let us not await the death of nature; but from life, let us ascend to life. Can ye be satisfied with that death which comes spontaneous? It is unfruitful: it yields no profit: it is common to man, and to the brute. Him, who by natural generation enters upon life; either time brings to an end, or disease bows to the grave, or some dire accident destroys. Since then it is appointed to us to die; let it be our studious endeavor to gain life by death. Let that which is an unavoidable event, be the object of your choice. Be not tenacious of that existence, to whose bereavement ye must submit. If terrestrial objects had e'en an eternal duration; we should be eager to exchange them for things celestial. If they endure for a season only; if they be devoid of all that is great, and dignified; awful indeed our infatuation, should we for their sake be severed from that beatitude, which is enshrined in hope.

He spake: he signed himself with the symbol of the cross, and went forward to receive the blow. No fear blanched the hue of his complexion, or dimmed the glory of his countenance. He seemed, not as if he were delivering himself unto the Lictors, but as if consigning himself to the hands of angels; those angels, who in the moment of his liberation, wafted him to the blessed life, as once they wafted Lazarus. But oh! who can describe the terrific shout, which arose from the assembled multitude? What thunder, pealing from the clouds, ever transmitted such a sound to earth, as then thundered from earth to heaven? This is the very stadium in which he was enwreathed. This very day beheld that wondrous spectacle; whose impression, no time can obliterate; no familiarity can weaken; no future achievements can surpass. For as we ever behold the sun, and ever admire his brightness; even so, will the memory of the Martyr be ever blooming and efflorescent. "The just man is for an everlasting memorial;" a memorial with the inhabitants of earth, as long as the earth endures; a memorial with the Saints in Heaven; a memorial with the all-righteous Judge; unto whom be ascribed glory, and dominion, through eternity. Amen.