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On that which is according to the Image

by: St. Basil the Great

In this homily, Basil balances human dignity with the lowliness of being created from the dust, and he avoids calling human beings “the image of God” because he believes that this title belongs only to Christ. Nevertheless, human beings can still share in the divine image in and through Christ. Perhaps, most importantly, St Basil the Great was not content to write foundational works that shaped Christian theology for centuries, he was greatly concerned with applying his theology to shape social justice and personal morality. A modern reader might be surprised to hear a fourth century thinker depart from the classical hierarchy and claim that women have a nature of equal honor, virtue, and judgement, but that is exactly what Basil says because that is where Genesis 1 leads him.

1 I HAVE COME TO MAKE FULL PAYMENT OF AN OLD DEBT whose repayment I have postponed, not through a preference for unkindness but through bodily illness, a debt most necessary and obligatory for your hearing. For indeed it would have been unjust if having been taught about wild beasts and fishes, domestic animals and birds, heaven and things concerning heaven, about earth and things on earth, we were not illumined from the divinely inspired Scripture about our own origin. For just as our eyes see external things but do not see themselves except where they encounter something smooth and hard, then the image reflected as if by reflux makes them see things that are behind them; so also our mind does not see itself otherwise than by examining the Scriptures. For the light reflected there becomes the cause of vision for each of us. Since we are without understanding, we do not scrutinize our own structure; we are ignorant of what we are and why we are. For we are settled in the greatest indifference to ourselves, not possessing things within reach of our knowledge, a knowledge of the smallest aspects of what is in us.

2 Effort has been spent in much diligent study of the human body that belongs to all of us. If you study medicine, you will find how many things it describes to us, how many hidden vessels it has discovered in our internal structure through anatomical dissection, tunnels in the invisible, a single confluence from the body, the channels of breath, the pipelines of blood, the drawing of breath, the dwelling of a hearth of heat by the heart, the continuous movement of breath around the heart. There are thousands of observations concerning these things with which not one of us is acquainted, for nobody has the leisure to take on this field of research, neither does each know himself as he is. For we are satisfied to know the sky rather than ourselves. Do not despise the wonder that is in you. For you are small in your own reckoning, but the Word will disclose that you are great. Because of this wise David, examining and seeing himself exactly, says, “Wonderful is your knowledge from me” (Ps 138.6), I have discovered in wonder knowledge concerning you.

Why “from me”?

“Wonderful is your knowledge from me,” and the craftsmanship that is in me, understanding by what wisdom my body is structured. From this small work of construction, I understand the great Fashioner.

3 “Let us make the human being according to our image and likeness” (Gen 1.26). Recently Scripture showed in passing and showed sufficiently what this word is and to whom this word is addressed. The church has proof concerning these things; it has faith more sure than proof. “Let us make the human being.” Begin to understand yourself henceforth. This saying is not written concerning any other things that were fashioned. Light came to be, and there was a simple command; God said, “Let there be light” (Gen 1.3). Heaven came to be without deliberation concerning heaven. The stars came to be, and there was no deliberation beforehand about the stars. Sea and boundless ocean—by a command they were brought into being. Fish of all kinds were ordered to come into being. Wild beasts and domestic animals, swimming and flying creatures—he spoke, and they came to be. Here, the human being does not yet exist, and there is deliberation concerning the human. He did not say, as with the others, “Let there be a human being.” Learn well your own dignity. He did not cast forth your origin by a commandment, but there was counsel in God to consider how to bring the dignified living creature into life. “Let us make.” The wise one deliberates, the Craftsman ponders. So did he lose his skill, and did he deliberate in anxiety as he created in his masterpiece completion and perfection and exactitude? Or rather did he intend to show you that you are perfect before God?

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St. Basil the Great

Basil, born in 329 or 330, is one of the three Cappadocian fathers, who were the major Greek Christian figures in the fourth century. He is known in the Orthodox world as St Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. The Cappadocian fathers were steeped in classical Greek literature and philosophy, and sought to appropriate the best of these classic texts in their teaching and writing as pastors.

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