Knowing God - Sunday of Saint Gregory Palamas

When I grow up, I want to have a Sunday of Lent named after me!  #ThingsSaintGregoryPalamasNeverSaid

And yet here we are, approaching the Second Sunday of Great Lent, which is aptly named after the revered saint, “the Star of Orthodoxy,” St. Gregory Palamas. Of the five Lenten Sundays, the Church deemed it fitting that this one, the second Sunday of the Fast, should be named after him.

St. Gregory was an ardent defender of the hesychast tradition in monasticism. Hesychasts practiced what is known as “the prayer of the heart” and taught that God could be known and experienced directly through his Energies, such as His grace, healing, and forgiveness.

This idea of knowing God directly was unacceptable, however, to an Italian scholar and monastic named Barlaam, who taught that God was altogether unknowable. For Barlaam, God’s utter transcendence keeps human beings from ever truly knowing God, especially since Barlaam approached God with a much more intellectualist bent.

Essentially, the controversy was this: “Palamas accepts that there is an immediate and personal communion between God and man, while Barlaam sets God beyond the world and rejects the possibility of there being any direct personal relationship or communion between Him and finite man.”1 

Well, to make a long story short (which is something Orthodoxy is notoriously bad at), Palamas was right, Barlaam became Roman Catholic, and everybody lived happily ever after.

For Palamas, God is known sort of like the sun is known.  We see the sun’s light and sense its heat. And though we may not be able to stand on the surface of the sun without melting, or be joined to its essence without disintegrating, we can nevertheless experience its energy. 

So, too, God desires to be experienced. He wants to be in communion with human beings. He wants to be seen. He wants to be touched.

In the Gospel reading this coming Sunday, we see a paralyzed man who is brought to Christ by his friends – and by “brought,” I mean lowered through a roof. For this man and his friends, seeing Jesus Christ was the long-awaited solution to a chronic problem: this man needs to walk.

But the healing of the man’s body is not what immediately happens. Rather, Christ looks upon the paralyzed man and says, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mk. 2:5). 

For the Jews, this was unacceptable. Since only God is capable of forgiving sins, they reasoned, Christ was a blasphemer. In their hearts, they believed Christ to be out of His mind, having claimed to be the unknowable and unapproachable God, whose name the Jews were afraid even to speak. Knowing their reasoning, Christ asks, “Which is easier to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk?’” (Mk. 2:9)

To answer this question, I’ll turn things over to St. Gregory Palamas, who preached on this very Gospel on the Second Sunday of Lent (before it was named after him). He writes:

It seemed to the scribes that the Lord was unable to heal the paralyzed man, so He had resorted to something obscure, forgiving his sins. Just to pronounce words of forgiveness, especially in such an authoritative and commanding way, was blasphemy; but it was also something easy that anyone could do.

That is why the Lord said to them, “If I wanted to utter empty words without any practical outcome, it would be just as easy to declare that the paralyzed man should rise from his bed as that his sins were forgiven, both statements being of no effect.

But so that you may know that my word is not ineffectual, and that I did not resort to forgiving sins because I was incapable of granting him healing of his illness, but that I have divine power on earth as the Son Who is of one substance with the Father in heaven, although, according to the flesh, I have become of one substance with your ungrateful selves,” He then says to the paralyzed man, “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home. And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them,” (Mk. 2:11-12).2  

For Palamas and for Christ, the healing of the paralyzed man’s body is a sign, a promise of God’s saving action.  It is a sign that His grace, His uncreated Energy, has acted within the paralyzed man to grant him forgiveness of sins, affecting both the healing of his soul and of body. For the now ex-paralytic, coming to know Christ as God was not something that he understood with his mind, but something he knew in his bones. 

So I guess Barlaam was right, at least in a sense. God cannot be known; or rather, God is entirely unpredictable! That this man, Jesus Christ, is the same God who alone has authority to forgive sins is the last thing that anyone could imagine or expect. 

For who could ever anticipate that God would become a human being? Who could ever imagine that God would clothe Himself in mortality, and heal those stricken in soul and body? To observe Jesus Christ is to see God act in the flesh. To encounter Him is to feel him in our guts, and it is truly enough to leave us amazed, glorifying God, and saying “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mk. 2:12). 

We must, therefore, ask ourselves: what in us is paralyzed? What in us demands that we be lowered (humbled?) before the Lord in order to receive forgiveness and healing? 

In this sense, Barlaam was very, very wrong. It is possible to know God in a profoundly intimate and mysterious way, and thank God for this gift: for it is only by experiencing His healing that we can come to know Christ as the Physician of both soul and body.

The commemoration of St. Gregory’s life, theology, and victory over Barlaam should be counted as a second celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy (which we celebrated only last week), for it is only by encountering the living Christ in His forgiving and healing Energies that Christ’s true and living icons are formed. May we also open our hearts to receive Christ who wishes to heal us in our innermost hearts that we may experience the warmth and energy of the Son. 

-Christian Gonzalez 

1 Georgios I. Mantzaridis, The Deification of Man (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood: 1984), p. 99. 

2 St. Gregory Palamas, ed. Christopher Veniamin, The Homilies of Saint Gregory Palamas, Volume One (St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, South Canaan: 2002), p. 107, partially paraphrased. 

Christian is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, and occasional CrossFitter. He works full-time as a child and adolescent therapist, and in his off-time likes to devote his mental energy to the Church and the Church's ministry in and to the world. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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For more...

For more on the Gospel reading for the Sunday of St Gregory Palamas, please see our annotations of the passage at our annotated Gospel project, ExeGenius.

For more on our experience of and connection with God, rather than an over-intellectualized view of Christianity, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

How to Make Outreach Part of Your Family's Lenten Journey

A major challenge for Orthodox Christians today is to leverage the strengths of technology while understanding that our faith places a high value on external and personal relationships.  Fulfilling Christ’s commandments to love God completely and to love and serve our neighbors typically takes personal interaction.  It would be hard to worship properly online (even though streaming the Liturgy is a sometimes useful innovation) and participating in any sacrament through an app will never be an option.  Similarly, it can be difficult to build rich and meaningful online experiences that serve those in need -- the hungry, the naked, the stranger, the sick and imprisoned.  At some point, if we are going to live up to Christ’s commandments and stand on His right side at Judgment, we must put the tech down, go out and meet people where they are. 

But who has the time to go out and help others?  Life is busy – plain and simple.  I’m the first to admit that my wife and I struggle to keep a balance among Church, work, school, Greek school, baseball, Greek dance, modern dance, Girl Scouts, family vacations, gymnastics, swim team, soccer, house chores, and homework.  With all of these activities, it’s fair to say that there is no balance in life.  Many of us suffer from the fleeting desire to give our children every material opportunity to prosper in life while we fail to give them the peace, calmness of home and dedicated time that is necessary to grow together as a family and to work together, family-as-church, towards our salvation.  

Keeping Christ and His Church at the center of our families’ Lenten journey starts with parents leading by example -- allowing our children to see us actively praying, fasting, attending church regularly and participating in acts of service to others.  As faithful parents a we must root our Faith deep into our homes and then take that faith back out into the world, building it into the routines and habits of our children through actions, not words. 

A key component of Lent that can often be overlooked is acts of mercy and outreach to those in need.  Whether it’s sponsoring a parish food or clothing drive, visiting the elderly or shut-ins, helping a neighbor take care of their home or working with homeless families and children we should all seek opportunities to engage in outreach activities and make service to others part of our weekly routine.

Working together as a family on outreach projects is not only a wonderful way to instill the teachings of Christ into our children, but it strengthens family togetherness, helps children learn, and empowers them to understand that they can help others.  Serving others benefits a child's psychological, social and intellectual development. It increases self-esteem, responsibility and helps children develop new social skills. The time that you spend together as a family helping others will be rewarding and more memorable than almost any other family activity this year. 

This Lent, make outreach a habit.  It will take time for your children to be comfortable at a nursing home or serving meals at a soup kitchen.  Don’t expect them to feel comfortable on their first volunteer experience.  But know that with each time they volunteer, they are building an inner strength that will help them throughout their lives and on your family’s journey to salvation. 

What can your family do to serve others?

  • Start at home: Read the daily readings, watch Be the Bee, and have a conversation with your kids about the topic covered. Teaching your children to focus on others and be aware of people’s needs is an important step in raising compassionate children. 
  • Sponsor a food drive at your parish or youth group and let your children be involved.  Let your younger children color a poster or flyer advertising the drive.  Bring your older children to the food bank or shelter when you drop off the collected items.   Local food banks are incredibly strained this year and there is always a need for non-perishable grocery items
  • Make greeting cards for children who are hospitalized with chronic illnesses
  • Visit the elderly and shut-ins, visit parishioners in their assisted living.  Bring them a small gift – a flower, plant, small icon, greeting card.
  • Invite FOCUS to your parish or youth group for a “family day” of service.  FOCUS will lead a day-long outreach into your community to help people in need while helping you learn and experience the root causes of poverty and understanding what you can do to help. email: info@focusna.org 
  • Listen to your kids – ask them for ideas of how you can help someone in need. 
  • Shovel the driveway or rake leaves for an elderly neighbor.  Lead by example.  It won’t do to tell your kids, “go rake Mrs. Pappas’ leaves!”  But if you get a few rakes, put them in the hands of your kids and lead them over to her house, you will find that it is wonderful to work together. 
  • Help FOCUS cook and serve meals to hungry children when they don’t have access to free/reduced meals at school.  Contact FOCUS for info on how your parish can help. www.focusnorthamerica.org or info@focusna.org 

 

 

 

 

Icons of the Icon - Sunday of Orthodoxy

It happens every year, but it never comes as a surprise. Indeed, the Church does such a good job of preparing us for Lent that by the time Forgiveness Sunday rolls around, we’ve learned all about our spiritual life. We’ve desired the Lord with Zacchaeus. We’ve fallen before God with the Publican. We’ve returned to the Father with the Prodigal, and we’ve stood before the King with the sheep…or goats (but hopefully not the goats). 

The Church knows that without preparation for Lent, we would not be ready to experience Lent, and without Lent, we would not be ready to experience the life-giving Passion, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord. It seems that the Lord and His Church are on to something about being human: we need to be prepared. 

This coming Sunday is the First Sunday of Lent: the Triumph of Orthodoxy. It is the day that we take icons in our hands and proudly confess, “This is the faith of the apostles. This is the faith of the fathers. This is the faith of Orthodox.” 

I always love that part.

But it also the day that we will hear these words in the Gospel reading:

Philip found Nathanael, and he said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him and said of him, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

In this reading, we see that God’s people, the Israelites, had also undergone a great deal of preparation, waiting to encounter “him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth.” The entire Old Testament, we learn from this, points to Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all that God has been seeking to do from the beginning.

In the beginning, Moses tells us, God sets out to complete a work, namely, to create a human being in His own image, after His own likeness (Gen. 1:26). This work of God begun in Genesis is ultimately and only completed in Christ, who is Himself “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Or, as Christ says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9). Or, to put it another way, “Jesus’ human face is the face of God.” 

The invisible, immaterial, unlimited Son of God (God Himself!) was pleased to take on flesh and become incarnate.   Jesus Christ’s human face is the face of the Son of God, the face of divinity. Moreover, we who share in the same humanity that Christ Himself bore (and continues to bear), who become truly human by being incorporated into Christ as members of His Body, also share in that same image of God, the Image that Jesus Christ Himself is. As St. Athanasius writes, “The Word of God came in His own person, because it was He alone, the Image [Icon] of the Father, Who could recreate man after the Image [of God].”2  

We are his icons, as He is the Icon, the perfect Image and Likeness of God the Father. 

In Jesus Christ, the thousands of years of preparation that God’s people had been given through Moses and the Prophets reach their fulfillment. And it is in us that the work of God, that is, the formation of human beings in His own image, the creation of His new icons, continues today. And so this Sunday, we rightly celebrate the use and veneration of icons of Jesus Christ and his Saints, his completed icons, and this is truly the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

But most especially, it is Christ Himself who is the Triumph of Orthodoxy, for it is He Himself who is truly the fulfillment of all that was written in Moses and the prophets. For it is in Him, the perfect Icon of the Father, that we see everything that it is to be a human being in God’s very image, and it is in Him that we, too, become truly human as we share in God’s own image. So let us bear this in mind as we, icons of the Icon, bear icons in our hands, proudly confessing that this is truly the “faith that has established the universe.” 

-Christian Gonzalez 

1 Andrew Root, The Relational Pastor: Sharing in Christ by Sharing Ourselves (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove: 2013), p. 157. 

2 St Athanasius, On the Incarnation (St. Vladimir Seminary Press, Crestwood: 1993), p. 41.

Christian is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, and occasional CrossFitter. He works full-time as a child and adolescent therapist, and in his off-time likes to devote his mental energy to the Church and the Church's ministry in and to the world. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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For more...

For more on the Gospel reading for the Sunday of Orthodoxy, please see our annotations of the passage at our annotated Gospel project, ExeGenius.

 

Racism Condemned as Heresy in 1872

We censure, condemn, and declare contrary to the teachings of the Gospel and the sacred canons of the holy Fathers the doctrine of phyletism, or the difference of races and national diversity in the bosom of the Church of Christ. – Article I of the Decree of the 1872 Council of Constantinople.

With those words, the pan-Orthodox council of bishops assembled in Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey) in 1872 condemned racial segregation in the Orthodox Church.

The trouble came about a few years earlier. At the time, the Ottoman Empire encompassed a vast territory that included modern-day Bulgaria. The Bulgarian Orthodox Christians in the Empire were under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (that is, the Church of Constantinople). The Bulgarians, unhappy with the Ecumenical Patriarchate (for pretty justifiable reasons, I might add) successfully lobbied the Ottoman government to create an independent Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

This, by itself, was not necessarily a problem – new Orthodox Churches had been carved out of the territory of the Ecumenical Patriarchate before (most notably the Churches of Russia and Greece). But the Bulgarians went further than that: they convinced the Ottomans that, if two-thirds of a given diocese was ethnically Bulgarian, the diocese would be transferred from the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the Bulgarian Church. This was a revolutionary, and disturbing, new development. 

And there was more: the Bulgarian Church had a parish in the city of Constantinople, which was clearly within the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Bulgarian bishops exercised jurisdiction over this parish because it was ethnically Bulgarian, despite the fact that it was not in their territory.

Bottom line, then, the Bulgarian Church was pushing for ethnic (or racial) segregation in the Church. As you might expect, the Ecumenical Patriarchate would have none of this and called a pan-Orthodox council in 1872. This council issued a decree that condemned “the difference of races and national diversity” in the Church. Underlying that decree is the principle that we are all one in Christ – that there is neither Bulgarian nor Greek nor Russian, but all are united as members of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. The division of the Church based on ethnicity or race is tantamount to heresy because it divides the Body of Christ.

To this day, the Orthodox Church struggles with the notion of ethnicity. This is particularly true in America, where multiple Orthodox jurisdictions, divided mostly along ethnic lines, overlap in the same territory. But the 1872 Council of Constantinople articulated a principle that goes back to the earliest days of Christianity – that the Church embraces all people and cannot be divided along racial or ethnic lines.

Thoughts on the Role of Orthodox Laity in Christian Unity

A week ago here in Wisconsin, the Sunday liturgy was cancelled at our local Greek Orthodox parish. Typically, we would have driven the hour and a half to an OCA parish in Milwaukee that we sometimes attend but it was below zero and my wife and I didn’t want to test the iciness of the highways. Instead, we finally visited a nearby Byzantine monastery, which is about half the distance to Milwaukee. I had wanted to go there since we moved to Wisconsin last fall but this finally seemed like a kairos moment. Yet, I had my doubts about how we would be received. This hesitation was not from a lack of experience with Byzantine monasteries. I am no stranger to those. Instead, it was due to the fact that the monastery was not only Byzantine, but Byzantine Catholic. I had been to Eastern Catholic churches before but never a monastery. I knew the liturgy would be the basically the same but would the community be otherwise ‘weird’? Admittedly, this is a strange thought coming from an American-born Orthodox from the Deep South where Orthodoxy doesn’t even register as Christian for many. I wondered how the monks would react when I told them I was Eastern Orthodox. Would it be awkward? Would I have to find the right words as to not offend or confuse? These and other worries crossed through my mind before making the decision to go.

It turns out that my petty insecurities were unfounded. I was surprised and impressed by this bastion of Eastern Christian spirituality hidden among endless acres of farmland in a town with a population of 783. It had a thriving lay presence on Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. Many families trickled in during the service and I watched as they lit their candles and looked for a place to stand in the tiny chapel. The sermon was powerful, direct, and deeply rooted in the Eastern Fathers. It is certainly not a coincidence that the brotherhood choose to settle in a town named after St. Gregory the Theologian. My wife and I were on our way out after the service when a young monk ran up to meet us. After a friendly chat with him, I was told it would be fine to take a photograph in the chapel (which is not always a given). We then met the abbot, who was equally kind and put to rest any initial hesitations about our reception. Most importantly, from my short conversations with the monks and from some pamphlets they have for visitors, I got the impression that there was a clear recognition of the tragic reality of ecclesial disunity between Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but a determination to work towards its healing. In other words, there was neither a naïve ‘well, we’re all the same anyhow!’ nor a fatalistic ‘our differences cannot be overcome’. This encounter left me with thoughts on the role of Orthodox laity in ecclesial unity among Christians.

It seems a given that our rifts will never be healed without the work of the entire church community. There must be a role for the laity in the process, which is also, dare I say, a prerogative. This mending will never occur if clergy and laity continue to point to canons forbidding prayer with separated brethren (while ignoring many other canons) to justify avoiding ever attending a church or even associating with other Christians outside of work. I don’t buy the argument that going into a church is akin to an act of treason that somehow validates the group as supreme and repudiates one’s own allegiances. Neither does it lead to a weakened faith, though it may reveal an already weak faith. Perhaps the hard truth is that many secretly don’t want unity despite grudgingly giving it obligatory lip-service. It can be hard to define yourself when you no longer have a foil to which you can favorably compare yourself and point out their every flaw. But this is not a path to unity and will lead nowhere but increasing sectarianism and ghettoization. The informed laity cannot simply leave it up to the theological authorities and bishops to solve this issue, but must show their interest and investment by making this clear in their words and actions and by getting involved in events that show mutual Christian affection and respect that goes beyond their own communities.

Of course, many will see a danger in this. What if some people get the idea that real differences and divisions are superficial and can be ignored or flouted? This is a legitimate concern and I do not wish to diminish its importance. But note that I earlier specified ‘informed’ laity. I submit that there is a need for committed and spiritually-rooted Orthodox Christians to meet and even worship with other Christians, not to proselytize or engage in apologetics but to come together in love, honesty, and the hope of future reconciliation, which must be built on love. At the very least, this will help us know the ‘other’ not in theological caricature but as concrete persons we are called to love, forgive, and ask forgiveness of before offering ourselves as a living sacrifice at the Holy Table.

I want to be clear that I am not advocating full sacramental participation prior to actual ecclesial unity. I don’t think this issue can be solved by disingenuously pretending there is no division. In fact, I think that the inability to fully participate serves as a painful but necessary reminder of our disunity. Similarly, I do not suggest neglecting one’s own liturgical services to attend others, since various Christian services often occur at the same time. I am simply calling for laity to take advantage of, and even make, opportunities to fellowship with other Christians and express their solidarity and desire for union. This is the single most important step in overcoming centuries of animosity, mistrust, and spiritual stereotyping. If the laity mobilize to show that this is a pressing issue for them, it is much more likely that something will be done about it by the Church as a whole. Ironically, this influence can be most famously seen in the popular mobilization against the failed Council of Ferrara-Florence. Today we need to apply the same force to the cause of ecclesial unity in accordance to Christ’s prayer that ‘they might be one’, regardless of whether we think it is likely or even feasible.

Despite the notorious bad blood between Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics in lands where there has been sheep-stealing and internecine (or should I say ‘inter-Nicene’) violence, I believe Eastern Catholics will play an important role in future Christian rapprochement. They can be viewed as the test case for other Orthodox churches. Can the Catholic Church reverse centuries of centralization to rediscover and accommodate a robust diversity of autonomous and autocephalous churches? Can the Orthodox Church accept a spirituality and liturgy that does not have its roots in Byzantium and rediscover a meaningful place for the Pope of Rome as the first among equals? While it is still too soon to know, in the last few decades leaders in the Catholic Church have begun to seriously address many of the historic grievances of the Orthodox faithful such as local diocesan autonomy and the possibility of married priesthood. These are signs of goodwill and Orthodox should publically recognize them as such and reciprocate in kind with similar gestures that indicate a willingness to work towards unity.

This is not a formal theological proposal. It is my own theologoumena, if you will. Or perhaps, even less, it a simple personal reflection on these matters since I am not trained as a professional theologian or canon law authority. Yet, I can find no good reason that an informed laity should not take up the call to be more involved in the mandate of promoting Christian unity to whatever degree it is possible, and even whenever it is not. I can confidently say that I plan on returning to the aforementioned Byzantine Catholic monastery this Lent whenever I cannot attend locally or when there are additional services that are not offered at most parishes. Yes, I know I’m an optimist but that won’t stop me from hoping, praying, and acting for Christian unity, adopting the following slogan until I, God willing, reach the age of seventy-four: “De-Schism 2054.” We all have a role to play.

Dr. Christopher D.L. Johnson is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac.

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