29 - Second Sunday of Great Lent, March 13, 2011

St Gregory Palamas

Second Sunday of Great Lent

Last Sunday, the first Sunday of Great Lent, commemorating the restoration of icons as essential elements of Christian worship, the Church proclaimed the Incarnation of Christ, God becoming man. This Sunday, the second Sunday of Great Lent, commemorating the triumph of St Gregory Palamas’ triumph over the philosophical rationalists of his day in the 14th century, the Church proclaims the deification of man, man becoming god in the mystery of Christ. The Incarnation of God and the deification of man together form the essence of the Christian Faith. That God became man so that man can become god is the Good News of the Gospel.

But in St Gregory Palamas’ day, as there have been in every age, even in our own, these fundamental truths of the Gospel were denied by an influential school of Christian thinkers. Led by a certain Barlaam and Akindynus, this school of thought taught that God and man cannot become one because God is uncreated and man is a creature. Therefore, God communicates with man indirectly by a grace that He creates for the moment. This teaching implies that Christ is a creature; that He is not God, which means that there was no Incarnation. Therefore, when Christ says, “The pure in heart shall see God” and “that they may be one as we are one” He is not speaking the truth, which therefore means that He is not the Truth whose word is true.

Barlaam and Akindynus focused on the Transfiguration of Christ on Mt Tabor. They argued that the light that shone from Christ was a created light. This meant that the disciples were not beholding God but a creature.

It is hard to understand how Christians can set up a religious teaching that directly contradicts the teaching of the Scriptures they claim to be authoritative. But they do so, even today. They do so from the same assumptions that governed Barlaam and Akindynus: that the bible is not the record of eyewitnesses to the glory of God but a collection of religious ideas that were conditioned by their age, and which therefore need to be updated by the more sophisticated and learned philosophical and scientific insights of our day. This is how we now have Christians promoting things that the bible explicitly condemns.

But we read the bible as the record of those who saw God. St John the Theologian writes: “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and what our hands handled concerning the Word of Life that was from the beginning and who was with the Father.” And St Peter, writing in his second epistle of his experience on Mt Tabor, writes: “We were eyewitnesses of His majesty, when He received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to Him by the majestic glory: ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.’”

Jesus Himself says to His disciples, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” This means that Jesus is, in the words of the Nicene Creed, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made.” This proclamation of the Church is good news because it is telling us that to be united to Christ is to be united to God.

Perhaps it would be easy for us, too, blinded as we are by the empirical rationalism of our own dark age, to find the speculative wisdom of the wise ones of the world credible and to dismiss as they do the eyewitness testimony of the prophets and the apostles as some kind of hallucination or religious metaphor or the relic of a rustic age long ago – were it not for the fact that we have in the Church even today eyewitness accounts of those who have seen holy men and women transfigured as was Christ on Mt Tabor and who, in His Name, perform even today mighty works of healing, calming storms, walking on water, taming the animals.

Perhaps the best known to us are the accounts of St Seraphim of Sarov, the Russian saint of the 19th century transfigured before his disciple, when his face shone more brightly than the sun; or even of our own St Herman of Alaska. But in the Tradition of the Church, St Seraphim of Sarov and St Herman are not at all exceptional. I have been reading from Archimandrite Cherubim’s Contemporary Ascetics of Mount Athos. In this particular volume, Archimandrite Cherubim records what monks living on Mt Athos today remember of the holy elders Sabbas, Philaret, Codratus, and Gerasim, who lived earlier in the 20th century. These holy elders were great ascetics, and their disciples, many of whom are still living today, remember seeing their faces aglow with a holy glory, shining like the moon while serving Divine Liturgy and elevated several feet above the ground while praying. This, of course, recalls for us the story of St Mary of Egypt, whom we will commemorate on the fifth Sunday of Great Lent. The Elder St Zosimas watched her walk across the water as though it were solid ground. This took place centuries ago, and so it might be dismissed by our skeptics of today as legend; except that we possess in the Church eyewitness accounts of the same thing happening with other holy men and women even today. They die and their bodies become holy relics, emitting a sweet fragrance, gushing with sweet-smelling myrrh or oil, continuing to effect miracles. One thinks back to the Acts of the Apostles, how people sought to touch the handkerchief of St Peter, or simply to put themselves where his shadow would pass over them, so that they could be healed. The world dismisses such biblical testimony as legend or as metaphor. In the Church, we are taught from the many similar incidents we hear of even today to receive such biblical testimony as real.

The Russian “Contemporary Paterikon” records the account of those who witnessed the death of Fr Augustine in 1965. “His countenance suddenly became like the sun and they were all filled with fear…then there was a flash of lightning and all the house was filled with a sweet fragrance. When Father Augustine finally passed away, his face suddenly lit up, blindingly, three times.”[1] 

From the desert fathers, there comes this: “The Abba Lot went to see the Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him: ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’”[2]

The glory that is experienced and witnessed in these holy men and women is not a created glory. It is the uncreated glory of God. This was the substance of St Gregory Palamas’ doctrine, which the Church affirmed in a series of synods in the late 14th century in Thessaloniki where St Gregory had served as archbishop. That’s why this glory seen in the saints heals and even raises the dead to life as Christ raised Lazarus. No created glory could accomplish such miracles. More than that; it is the uncreated glory of God that clothed Adam and Eve in the Garden, and that shone from the face of Moses, and filled the temple of Solomon which the prophet Isaiah saw, and which was seen departing from the temple by Ezekiel. It is the same glory promised in the last days to the righteous by the prophet Daniel. It is the uncreated glory of God that the apostles heard with their ears and saw with their eyes and handled with their hands, the uncreated glory of the only-begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, full of grace and truth. It is the glory of the Word of Life that was in the beginning, which the Church proclaims to us so that we, too, might have fellowship with the apostles in the communion of God the Father and Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit, and be clothed in His uncreated glory as He clothed Himself with us in His incarnation. To be clothed with the glory of God, with the Robe of Immortality as Adam and Eve were clothed in the beginning – this is what the Church’s Gospel doctrine of deification is proclaiming to us and calling us to. It is the Good News of the Gospel: in Christ, we can be clothed with God so that it is no longer death living in us, but Christ who is living in us.

I bring all of this to bear on this one point: this uncreated glory of God is the fire that burns in the Church. When we take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church, we taking up our cross and we are clothing ourselves in Christ, in His uncreated glory, His Robe of Light. As we die to ourselves in Christ, we are dying to death and the stench of corruption and we are rising to life in the sweet fragrance of the Holy Spirit. Believe this not as a metaphor but as a sacred reality from the testimony of the Church to all the holy men and women who have been transfigured and deified in this glory. With such proof as this, take up the fast as your cross in obedience to the commandment of Christ to repent, knowing that in following Him, you are walking in the uncreated light of the uncreated glory of Christ into the Kingdom of Heaven with all the saints. Amen.

[1] Living Witness of the Holy Mountain, p. 53.

[2] Ibid, p. 52.