SERMON ON THE SECOND SUNDAY OF GREAT LENT
Commemoration of St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica
By His Eminence Archbishop Tikhon
First Hierarch of the Russian True Orthodox Church
2021, Omsk, Siberia
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
During the second week of Great Lent, we remember St. Gregory, Archbishop of Thessalonica, glorified by our Orthodox Church, after the name of the city in which this great hierarch performed his archpastoral service. Saint Gregory Palamas protected the patristic teaching in difficult times from heretical errors, arbitrariness, and the distortions of Western Christianity.
Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359); the greatest Orthodox theologian of his day and the great Father of the Orthodox Church. St Gregory studied theology in the only true theological school – on the path of asceticism and repentance. St Gregory Palamas became a theologian in a cenobitic monastery. The source of his theology was not academic and scientific knowledge, but life in the Holy Spirit. It was precisely this background that made him the successor of the prophets, apostles and fathers of the Church – a true theologian of Tradition. In view of his many miracles – a confirmation that he had become “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19) – the Church glorified him as a saint in 1368.
And so, it must be said that the Church places at a great height those men who have expounded the doctrine of the spiritual life, because things that deal with the inner spiritual life are difficult to articulate: Our language has no words to express these subjects, so we have to resort to allegories and parables. Only by experiencing these things can a person properly understand what is behind this, feel the divine energies, and see the Light of Tabor. Great Lent is a time of prayer, repentance and spiritual works. That is why on the second week of Great Lent, the Church established to celebrate the memory of St. Gregory Palamas, who expounded the doctrine of mental work and uncreated divine energies that are turned to the world and are accessible to human perception.
Describing the life of Moses the Lawgiver in his work of the same name, St. Gregory of Nyssa explains the threefold nature of Moses’ life: He spent 40 years in Pharaoh’s court, 40 years tending his father-in-law’s sheep, and 40 years leading Israel. These three equal periods correspond, according to St. Gregory, to a) the comprehension of secular wisdom, b) active purification of the soul and asceticism, and c) seeing the secret, and comprehending the hidden. The same necessary stages can be traced in the lives of the Church Fathers, allowed by God to comprehend and explain the dogmas, whose works are part of the Tradition of the Church.
So, first of all, you have to grow up and mature, and start thinking not like an infant, but like a mature person (ref. I Cor. 13:11). Then one has to enter into the labor of active ascent to God. It is the way of the “desert,” of inner effort, prayer, and ascetic labors. If one walks this path correctly, if the soul undergoes the necessary changes – the mind is purified, passions fade, experience is gained, the mind penetrates deep into faith and no longer slips on its surface, etc. – then God can lead a person into something greater, unpredictable and difficult to describe. There, in the third phase of ascent, knowledge becomes authority, and in the being of man, as in the tabernacle, the Divine dwells. God grant that we all, with God’s help, will be able to walk this path to the best of our ability for this desirable inner encounter with God.
Last Sunday, which is called the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the Gospel told about the great revelation that the Savior revealed to man through Nathanael. Both Philip and Nathanael wanted to believe correctly, to praise God correctly, that is, to be Orthodox. And so, after the Savior said, “Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee,” Nathanael’s response was this: “Rabbi, thou art the Son of God” (John 1:48, 49) – that is, he glorified Christ correctly, and thus became the first Orthodox man because Christ touched his heart. The triumph of Orthodoxy always begins in the heart of man and then manifests itself externally. And the external reason for establishing the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy was the expulsion of the iconoclastic heretics by Emperor Michael, and we celebrated on this day the victory over the heretics, whom the truth “made fearful runaways,” as it says in the anathema – it made them fearful fugitives.
Sometimes the question is asked – should heretics, who may sincerely believe they are right, be treated so harshly? The answer to this, according to the tradition of the Orthodox Church, is that one should never idealize heretics; one must always remember that their deviation from the truth is based not on any Christian virtue, but on passions and sins of pride, stubbornness, envy and anger. The harsh treatment of heretics is useful not only for protecting the flock from their influence, but also for their own sake. Therefore, after a hundred years of struggle against iconoclasts, which yielded very few results, the Church decided to establish their anathema, which means their excommunication, i.e. their expulsion from the Church, and this rite, adapted to our conditions, is celebrated in our parishes on the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. Nowadays this rite of anathematization is rarely carried out, and this is not for the better, but for the worse; because it makes it more difficult to draw a clear and understandable line between the Church and heresy. Knowing this line makes it easier not to cross it, and having crossed it, it is easier to realize it, repent and return to the enclosure of the Church.
Today, on the second Sunday of Great Lent, our Orthodox Church glorifies Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica, as I said above – named after the city in which this great hierarch performed his archpastoral ministry. He especially immortalized his name by the theological struggle he waged at that time against the Barlamites; followers of the Calabrian monk-scientist Barlaam, who, being mistaken on a purely theological question, insisted on spreading this mistaken belief, which led to the dispute about the Light of Tabor. St. Gregory had a long struggle with these heretics, distorters of the truth, who claimed that when the Lord Jesus Christ was transformed on Mount Tabor and shone there like the sun, this wonderful light was the ordinary light that we constantly see in the sun and other sources of light — light of the ordinary order, created light.
St. Gregory Palamas, objecting to this, taught that it was a completely different order of light, pointing to the apostolic words “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5). And every time we repeat in our prayers the Creed we say these words about the Son of God, about our Lord Jesus Christ, that He is “Light of Light, true God of true God.” And about ordinary light, the Bible says that it is not inherent in God, as an eternal property of His very Nature, but created by Him in time: “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). In the end, this purely Orthodox viewpoint, which was defended by St. Gregory Palamas, triumphed and the opponents of the saint were shamed. The Councils of Constantinople in 1341 and 1351 proclaimed the Orthodoxy of the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas that God, incomprehensible in His essence, is known in his uncreated energies, and the teaching of Barlaam was anathematized as heresy.
In our time, few people are interested in this theological topic, which is said to be abstract and detached from life. For our contemporaries, even for those who consider themselves Orthodox Christians, it seems obvious that the basic theological, dogmatic truths of our faith, even if they are confessed and recognized, in any case do not affect us at all in our lives. They are usually interested in quite different questions — the organization of a prosperous earthly life, and as for the truths of Divine existence, spiritual truths relating to what is invisible and what is eternal, then, unfortunately, this is currently not interesting for most people. Even the faithful children of the Orthodox Church very often have the most confused and incorrect ideas about the basic truths of Orthodoxy, or even have no idea at all.
To see this, it is enough, for example, to ask such Orthodox Christians a question: Name the three main dogmas of our Orthodox faith (these are the dogma of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God, and Redemption). How many people will be able to do this?
And as a consequence of this, we now often meet with a situation where some active people with heated blood and reason, little versed in the truths of the faith, who suddenly imagine themselves to know everything – undertake to talk about theology, and about Church life, about how the Church should live, and how the Church should be managed, and since they know everything and understand everything, they can teach and instruct everyone. Moreover, they say this very confidently, and the less they understand in this matter, the more self-confidence they have. This is the cause of various disturbances and disagreements within the enclosure of the Church. Such people themselves do not know what they are talking about. These words belong to the holy Apostle Paul, who said that people want to be teachers, but do not understand what they are talking about, and what they are saying. And when the voice of truth sounds, trying to reason with them, they do not pay enough attention to it, or even simply do not want to hear it.
Things were different in the time of St Gregory Palamas. At that time, everything that related to the truth of Orthodoxy was of great interest to people — it was close to their soul and heart, it filled their lives, and therefore for them these were not abstract disputes, as they now seem to modern people. But you and I must always remember that the Lord Jesus Christ alone is the source of the pure, true teaching that the Holy Church preserves. He said Himself: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), He is Truth incarnate Himself. Only Pilate and others like him cannot, in their hardheartedness, in their indifference, see and accept this truth. But he who has eyes open to see, and ears open to hear, knows and feels with his soul that the truth is Christ. We must firmly know that any compromise with errors and distortions in matters of faith has always been alien to the entire history of the Orthodox Church, to its essence. Such a compromise will never lead to a unanimous confession of the truth, but can only lead to the illusory external unity that exists in ecumenism. Let us not allow such treason against Orthodoxy, and let us not allow this treason to penetrate into our midst.
Therefore, let us thank St. Gregory of Thessalonica for his efforts to preserve the purity of Orthodoxy, and if we consider ourselves Orthodox Christians, then when we meet with any teaching, we must always test it with the truth of Christ.
That which leads us to Christ – we accept, because it is true and blessed, and that which leads us away from Christ, Orthodoxy, and His Holy Church – we reject, because it is only a ruinous deception, no matter how attractively it may be clothed, and no matter how beautifully it is spoken. So once and for all we will say to ourselves; I do not accept any teaching but that of Christ, and I do not know any teacher but Christ the Saviour – I do not know, and I do not want to know.
Let us remember that the light of Christ shines, and will always shine, for our Lord Jesus Christ is “the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). If during His life He was the Light that enlightened every man, He still enlightens every man who does not close his eyes, but walks towards this light. And if you and I accept this Light of Christ, then the words of the gospel will come true for us: “While ye have light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light” (John 12:36).