Thursday, December 31, 2015

The origin of Vasilopita

Many people know about Vasilopita (the bread baked by Orthodox Christians on St. Basil's feast day), but the reason we bake it is not nearly so widely known.

Your voice resounded throughout the world that received your word by which, in godly manner, you taught dogma, clarified the nature of beings, and set in order the character of people. Venerable father, Royal Priesthood, intercede to Christ God to grant us great mercy.

- Apolytikion of St. Basil (First Tone)

(Orthodox Heritage) - In the years when Julian the apostate wished to revive idolatry—as some try to do in our days (neo-idolatry)—and to build again the Temple of Solomon (in his attempt terrible flames poured forth from that place and he was unable to complete his task), he stopped near Caesarea on his way to Persia [for war].

St. Basil the Great knew Julian from Athens; the two of them studied together, however each took a different road. The Metropolitan of the city [St. Basil] therefore went out to meet the emperor and he brought three loaves of bread from those that the Saint ate. The Saint ate barley bread and it is from those loaves that he offered to Julian.

Julian accepted the gift and ordered St. Basil to be rewarded grass from the surrounding fields!

The Saint, seeing this scorn, said: “We, O emperor, from that which we eat offered to you, just as you requested. And your kingdom, as is appropriate, returned the gift from that which you eat.”

As soon as the emperor heard these words, he was greatly angered and abruptly told the Saint:

“For now accept this “gift of grass.” And when I return from Persia a victor, then I will burn your city and I will remove your infantile people and enslave them, because you dishonor the gods which I worship, and you will thus receive the appropriate reward [i.e., punishment].”

And when he finished these terrible threats, the emperor Julian headed for Persia.

The Saint returned to Caesarea and called all of the people. When he told them the threats of the king to destroy the city and enslave them, he advised them to consider gathering a great gift of moneys and gold for the emperor; he thus instructed them to gather whatever they had in one place and when the king would return, they would throw their treasures in the streets, and being avaricious, he would be appeased and would not do any evil upon them.

The Christians obediently went and gathered an uncountable treasure: gold, silver, and precious stones! The Saint placed it in the treasury, writing the name of each to keep them, until he learned of Julian’s return.

Some time later, when he learned that he was returning, St. Basil gathered the Christians and told them all to fast for three days. Then they all ascended the mountain of Caesarea called Didymos (“Twin”), because it had two peaks.

On that mountain was a Church of the Most-Holy Theotokos, where all the Christians, when they reached it, began with contrite heart to entreat the merciful Christ and His Most-Pure Mother, that the decision of the impious emperor be changed. Then as they were continuing in prayer, St. Basil saw a multitude of heavenly armies circle the mountain and among them was a woman sitting on a throne with much glory, who said to the Angels that were around:

“Call Mercurius to me, that he go and put to death the enemy of my Son, Julian!”

Then the Archbishop of Caesarea observed that the Holy Martyr Mercurius arrived, armed with his weapon, and having received the command from that woman who was the Most-Holy Theotokos, he immediately disappeared! At that very moment, Julian the Apostate, as he was on his Persian campaign, was wounded by the spear of an unknown soldier, who immediately disappeared. The mortally wounded Julian, as he lay dying, cried out, “Thou hast conquered, O Galilean!”

Then, the Queen of all Angels, Panagia, called St. Basil and gave to him a book which contained the details of Creation and the manner by which man fallen from God. In the beginning of the book was an epigraph which exclaimed, “He said,” while prior to the end of the book (which talked of the fall of man) was written the word “End.” This meant that the Saint would author a hermeneutical book on the Six Days of Creation of Moses (and on the creation of the World in general), titled “The Hexaimeron.” However, the chapter on the creation of man by God would not be completed by him; and as prophesied by the Holy Mother, it was actually completed after his repose, by his brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa.

The Saint “awoke” from the vision right away and with some of the clergy descended immediately to the city of Caesarea, where the Church of the St. Mercurius was located; therein he found St. Mercurius’ relics and his weapons. (The saint was martyred at that same location a hundred years prior).

St. Basil entered this church and (not seeing the relics or the weapons), he asked the protector of the relics of the Church what occurred. He of course did not know anything. Then the Great Basil understood that it was a true vision and that the most impious Julian would be killed that night.

Immediately, the Holy Metropolitan again ascended the mountain and told the Christians:

“Rejoice and be glad today, my brethren. Our prayer was heard, because the infamous king suffers the appropriate punishment. Therefore giving thanks to God, let us return to the city that each may receive the money that he gave.”

As soon as the Christians heard these, they all said with a loud voice:

“We were planning to give to the impious king to preserve our lives. Now should we not offer them to the King of Heaven and earth, who granted us life?”

The Saint therefore praised their willingness and ordered a third be given back to each from whom it was given, and the rest to be given to build homes for the poor, homes for strangers, hospitals, orphanages, etc. (all of these later comprised the wondrous Christian, philanthropic complex called Basiliad).

Another version of the above story informs us that the Saint did not separate the gold and coins given by each of the faithful. Thus, after the death of the emperor, St. Basil asked some of his people to bake loaves of bread within which he hid their coins, jewelry, etc., and handed the bread out to his flock. Miraculously, each loaf contained precisely what each person had given. It is thus that the tradition of “vasilopita” started and continues all the way to our days. Vasilopita (Greek: Βασιλόπιτα, Vasilópita, literally: “St. Basil’s pie”) is a traditional New Year’s Day bread or cake (January 1st is also the Feast day of St. Basil). This custom exists in Greece and many other areas in eastern Europe and the Balkans; the cake often contains a hidden coin or trinket which gives new year “blessings” to the receiver.

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