Macrina is a tradent of the faith, communicating God’s Word and sharing communion in it. To her brothers she is “the teacher,” while Gregory makes her contribution visible to the church, revealing the story behind the story with her voice.
One of the fruits produced by the Trinity Debate of 2016 is renewed focus on the teaching of the Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th century: Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus. Their theological works are pivotal in upholding an orthodox confession of the church, particularly in their work on the Trinity which led to the revised version of the Nicene Creed finalized at the First Council of Constantinople in 381. Interestingly, Gregory of Nyssa wrote two books on his and Basil’s older sister, Macrina, giving us a bit of the story behind the story of their contribution to the church. As Lynn Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes point out, there is much theological work underneath these theological books, creedal statements, and councils. We see some of that in what Gregory shares about his sister. The Life of St. Macrina is his tribute to his sister after her death, and On the Soul and the Resurrection takes artistic liberty in writing about their conversation at her deathbed in philosophical, Socratic style. In this deep metaphysical and theological conversation on the nature of the soul, virtue, the resurrection, and beatific vision, Gregory is the pupil asking provocative questions, and Macrina is “the Teacher” imparting her great wisdom. In this genre of writing, the reader isn’t expected to believe this was the literal account of their conversation. But Gregory is sharing something about the impact and teaching in which his sister shaped his own life and theology.
Possibly the oldest of ten siblings, four of which are well-known, Macrina devoted herself to the Lord in a life of celibacy and to her family and community. Although content to modestly serve the Lord within the ascetic community she established, Gregory wanted the world to know about her great character, love of God’s Word, and teaching which really affected the future of Christ’s church. She was the backbone of the family. He shares instances in their adult lives where his older sister separately rebukes Basil for his pride and Gregory for his ingratitude, showing how they heeded her warnings and were the better for it. He portrays her as a philosopher on the level of Socrates. He compares her to the legendary Christian virgin, ascetic, martyr Thecla who was a follower of the apostle Paul. He explains that rather than live according to the wealthy lifestyle her family was accustomed, she persuaded her mother to join her in “put[ting] herself on equal footing with…and to share common life with all her maids, making them sisters and equals instead of slaves and servants” (26-27). When their father died around the same time their last brother was born, Gregory tells us that “she became everything for that child, father, teacher, guide, mother, counselor in every good,” raising him with a rigorous philosophical education. He describes Macrina as the clear-headed leader through grief when the family lost their godly brother Naucratis, having a “firm, unflinching spirit.” Not only that, when their beloved Basil died, Gregory says “she stood her ground like an undefeated athlete, who does not cringe at any point before the onslaught of misfortune.” He portrays her as a spiritual guide and teacher to their family and community, “to the highest limit of human virtue.” She’s self-sacrificing, loving, strong, learned, wise, and always seeking the face of Christ. Her service is not only domestic, but deeply intellectual and theological.