Why St. Gregory?

Homily 536 – 2GL
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
March 12, 2023
Epistle:  (304) – Hebrews 1:10-2:3 and (318) – Hebrews 7:26-8:2
Gospel:  (7) – Mark 2:1-12 and (36) – John 10:9-16

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

St. Gregory Palamas, who we remember and celebrate this day, tells us something very important.  It sounds silly to say that – we have a day remembering him throughout the worldwide Church.

Of course he tells us something important, right?

We all know what that important thing is off the top of our head, right?

I think I’d be safe in saying that of all the Sundays of Lent, and of the Sundays between Pascha and Pentecost, St. Gregory’s message is likely the most obscure message of the group.

We can read his life, we know he debated with a learned scholarly monk named Barlaam about some theological point, and if we’ve been to seminary, or read a lot, we may even know that the debate was about something called hesychasm, or stillness.

In modern terms, we may see this Sunday as a word cloud of some sort – the words that pop out are hesychasm, Jesus Prayer, uncreated light.

And, over the time I’ve been Orthodox, I’ve heard sermons and had lessons on each of those topics – a lot.

But that still really doesn’t explain why the Church deemed St. Gregory’s debate so important as to be a Sunday experienced each and every Great Lent.

It’s almost like the Church wants it to be a secret.  But that’s not true.  It isn’t the Church that wants to keep the significance of St. Gregory a secret.  In my view, it is the evil one who wants it to be a secret.

Because, beloved, what the evil one knows, and doesn’t want us to know, is that the God who created us, the God who loves us – that God can be experienced.

That was and is the entire debate that St. Gregory was involved with.  Barlaam and those who opposed St. Gregory and the monks were basically saying that humanity was so bad, so fallen, so far from God, that we could never, ever experience God.

St. Gregory and the monks understood things differently.

Why?  Because they had experienced God themselves.  What the monks learned, following St. Simeon the New Theologian, was that if they were successful in denying themselves, if they were successful in killing their own ego, and focus 100% of their being on Christ, with no distractions, they too experienced God.

They experienced God the same way the three Apostles experienced God on Mt. Tabor at the Transfiguration – they experienced the Uncreated Light.  They experienced the same thing that Moses experienced on Mt. Sinai.

It was a light, a brightness – but nothing like the physical light produced by a candle or the sun or any other part of creation.  It was uncreated.  It was the glory of God.

Now, let’s take a moment to explore this on a bit of a sidebar.  Glory, as used in the scripture, has a couple of different meanings.  The first, most common usage, is the praise that humans offer to the Creator.  We give glory, we glorify.

But sometimes, the scriptures speak of God showing his “Glory”.  The shepherds at the Nativity saw the Angelic Host in the midst of God’s Glory – “the Glory of the Lord shone round about them” – and the Angelic Host sang praises to God – they glorified the Glory of God, so to speak.

This Glory is the revelation of God to us – it is very real, very “tangible” so to speak.  It is something humans experience with their senses.

This is what St. Gregory is speaking about.  That Glory, that revelation, of God to us.

The theological scholars will tell you there is a difference between the essence of the Divine Nature, which we cannot experience, and the energies or expressions of God, which we can experience.  And that is absolutely true.

But it isn’t necessary for most of us, on the path of our salvation, to make that distinction.  The energies and expression of God is still God!  If you and I, as humans, are engaged in conversation and communion with one another, we experience each other’s energies, not each other’s essence.

Even in the most intimate settings, we don’t experience the essence of another human.  So, making the distinction seems to confuse the issue more than clarify it.  It’s a philosopher’s argument.

The important aspect of all of this is that we can experience God, just as Moses experienced God, just as the Apostles experienced God, just as the monks experienced God.

Ultimately, that is the reason we have this Sunday every Great Lent.

By any measure, experiencing God is life-altering.  Everything about life changes when we experience God.

We do experience God every time the Eucharist is offered.  And, like at the Transfiguration, God’s presence is revealed to each of us as far as we can bear it.

How do we enhance our ability to experience God?

The same way that Moses, the Apostles, and the monks did.

Get rid of our ego.  Deny ourselves.  That is our cross – to sacrifice the thing that is most sacred to us, most loved by us.  Ourselves.  Our ego.

Our desires, our will, our dreams.  All of it.  We abstain from these, just as we abstain from certain foods during Great Lent.

When we get rid of self, then we are free to experience God.  And we are made whole.  We are made complete.  We are made holy.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God.