27 - Second Sunday of Great Lent, February 28, 2010

Hebrews 1:10 – 2:3

Mark 2:1-12

These first Sundays of Great Lent commemorate three triumphs of Orthodoxy: the first Sunday commemorates the restoration of icons in the 8th and 9th centuries. This the second Sunday of Great Lent commemorates the triumph in the mid 14th century of St Gregory Palamas’ teaching over the heretical teaching of Barlaam of Calabria. Next Sunday, the third Sunday of the Cross, commemorates the triumph of Christ over death and hell by His death and Resurrection. Each of these triumphs affirms the Gospel proclamation of the Incarnation and the destiny that is natural to man: to become like God and to partake of the divine nature as communicants of Life eternal.

The triumphs of Orthodoxy, which we commemorate these first two Sundays of Great Lent, are like two branches that grow from the Cross; and the Lenten fast is a flower of heaven that blossoms from the Cross.[1] When we take up the fast in the prayer of the Church, we lay hold of the Cross of Christ and we enter into the triumph of Orthodoxy.

Through the fast, we detach ourselves from the darkness of hell that covers the world in its rejection of God. Through prayer, we attach ourselves to Christ in His death to become sharers in the victory of His resurrection. This is why the faithful take up the fast with joy. Through the fast we are uniting ourselves to Christ in His Holy Pascha. We are stepping onto the better and changeless path that ascends to God and raises us up into Paradise.

In the triumphs of Orthodoxy commemorate on these first three Sundays of Great Lent, the Church is opening to us the vision of God’s grace the prophets sought to know, and which the angels longed to look into.[2] Especially in the story of St Gregory Palamas can we lift up our eyes and look on that vision of God that is given to those who love Christ.

We read in the Synaxarion for Great Lent that St Gregory Palamas was known for his virtue, his meekness, his quietness and his humility. He was born in 1296 of aristocratic and pious parents who taught him and his brothers and sisters the Sacred Scriptures and the divine virtues of the Christian life. His parents also saw to it that their children were schooled in the secular sciences. In his youth, St Gregory devoted the energy of his keen mind to the joy of learning. In a short time, he became thoroughly acquainted with every branch of philosophy. But his heart burned for the highest knowledge of all: the knowledge of God. And so he entered the monastic life on Mt Athos with his brothers. Under the guidance of St Nicodemus, his spiritual father, he advanced in the divine virtues. Because of this, the Virgin Theotokos deigned to appear to him, receiving him under her protection and promising to be his mediatress.

On the death of his spiritual father, St Gregory retreated into the wilderness and led a life of severe asceticism, inspired by his burning desire for God. “Thus,” we read in the Synaxarion, “he succeeded in prevailing over all the devices of the demons, and was vouchsafed divine revelations. God bestowed upon him the gift of healing the soul and bodies of the infirm and of working miracles.” He was called “God-bearer”, “exorcist of demons”, “he who brings forth fruit from barren trees,” and “the holy prophet.”

St Gregory lived at a time when the Byzantine Empire was undergoing an internal intellectual crisis. A secular Hellenism was challenging the theological vision of the Church’s inner spiritual life. In its essentials, this crisis was not unlike the intellectual and moral crises of our own day. I would describe both like this: enthralled by the wisdom of his own opinions, man in his spiritual hubris dares to judge the Divine Wisdom proclaimed by the Church as an antiquated and unscientific belief system spun from the worn out filaments of human religious imagination, and on that basis dismisses the Orthodox Church herself as authoritarian and her faith as superstition. The testimony of the Christian Faith – “That which we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears and touched and handled with our hands, that which was from the beginning, the Word of Life that was made manifest and which we have seen and which we bear witness and proclaim to you” – is denied and the Word of Life that is the principle, the arch, of the world and was from the beginning, the arch, and was made manifest in the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ is replaced by the mind and spirit of the Renaissance that has devolved down to our own day into a secular humanism, an atheistic scientism, a cynical agnosticism. In all of its many forms, this humanistic mind wedded to the scientific method unscientifically denies, on the basis of faith in its own a priori suppositions, the eye-witness testimony of the holy prophets and apostles and saints who proclaimed that which they had seen with their eyes, heard with their ears and handled with their hands, viz., the Word of Life that was from the beginning and who in these last days became flesh and dwelt among us in order to raise us up to the destiny for which we were created: to become communicants of life eternal, partakers of the divine nature. The secularism of our own day, instead, thinks it a comfort to believe in an impersonal principle, arch, of the world, and to hope in a destiny of oblivion, each of us dissolving into an impersonal essence, whether it be an impersonal Mind or a mindless energy.

St Gregory Palamas was called upon to defend the Church’s living experience of God against these secularizing forces seeping into Byzantine society. Three councils were convened, called the Palamite councils, in 1341, 1347 and 1351, to expose the error of the secular Hellenism seeking to draw Byzantine society away from the Orthodox Faith, and to define in positive terms what the theological life of the Church was and how it is attained. This is the point I want to emphasize this morning from out of the literary corpus of St Gregory Palamas.

The life of the Church is the living experience of God in the mystery of Christ’s Holy Pascha. But only the pure in heart can see God; only the pure in heart can see the inner identity of Jesus as God the Word incarnate. And, purity of heart is achieved not by the lights of human wisdom, but through prayer and fasting by which the mind is united to the heart, and the heart is made alive in the Spirit of God. For prayer and fasting are the Cross that Christ calls those who would follow Him to take up in order to lose their lives, i.e., their worldly lives enslaved to their own reasonings, for the sake of Christ, the Wisdom of God and the only Lover of Mankind. Prayer and fasting are the flower of the Cross. They are the means by which we descend into our soul to where we are spiritually dead that we may receive in the tomb of our heart the body and blood of the crucified God Himself, by whose death our heart is made flesh again as Jeremiah the prophet foretold, raised up to life in the Spirit of God, as the holy angels roll away the stone that covers our heart to reveal it now enlarged, as St Paul writes: i.e., opened onto the uncreated God in the mystery of Christ’s Holy Resurrection.

In St Gregory Palamas, the Church found another holy witness to the Good News of her holy Gospel: the God of the Orthodox Church is not of this world. Jesus was no philosopher like Socrates. He is the Wisdom of God whom Socrates wanted to know. He is the Son of God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father by whom all things were made. In His Light we see Light. In Him we see God. In Him, we come to know the principles, the inner essences of the world. In Him, we come to know ourselves, for we were created in God’s Image who is Christ. In Him, we become partakers of God and communicants of life eternal.

Commemorating this Second Triumph of Orthodoxy, again we affirm our rejection of the spirit of the world that has rejected God so that we can be liberated from the slavery of our own reasonings and become servants of the true Wisdom of God, Christ Our Lord, the Only Lover of mankind. This second triumph of Orthodoxy encourages and exhorts us to take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church as the Cross, and to submit ourselves to Christ’s Holy Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who is all in all, so that under her guidance, we can become partakers of God, sharers of His eternity, communicants of Life Eternal in the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Love of God the Father, and in the communion of the Holy Spirit. “What Euclid, what Marinos, what Ptolemy could understand?” writes St Gregory Palamas. “What Empedocleans, Socratics, Aristotelians or Platonists with their logical methods and mathematical proofs? For almost as the irrational animals are related to the wisdom of those men, just so are these philosophers to the true and most excellent wisdom and teaching of the Spirit.” O Holy Lord Jesus Christ, through the prayers of our holy father among the saints, Gregory Palamas, have mercy on us and enlighten us. Amen.

[1] From the Lenten Triodion

[2] I Pt 1:12