Sunday, April 24, 2016

Homily for Palm Sunday (St. Gregory Palamas)


The sermon below (Homily 15) was delivered by St. Gregory Palamas on Palm Sunday of a year between 1347 and 1359, in a church in the city of Thessaloniki.

“In an acceptable time have I heard thee, and in a day of salvation have I helped thee,” said God through Isaiah (Isaiah 49.8). It is good today to speak these words of the apostle to your charity: “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6.2). “Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us work the works of light. Let us walk honestly as in the day” (Romans 13.12-13). The commemoration of Christ’s saving passion is at hand, and the new, great spiritual Passover, which is the reward for dispassion and the prelude of the world to come. Lazarus proclaims it in advance by coming back from the depths of Hades and rising from the dead on the fourth day just by the voice and command of God, who has power over life and death (John 11.1-45). By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, children and simple people sing praises in advance to the Redeemer from death, who brings souls up from Hades and gives souls and bodies eternal life.

“What man is he that desireth life and to see good days? Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips that they speak no guile: depart from evil and do good” (Psalm 34.12-14; compare 1 Peter 3.10-11). Evil means gluttony, drunkenness and dissolute living. Evil means love of money, being greedy for gain, and injustice. Evil means vainglory, arrogance and pride. Let everyone turn aside from such vices and do those things which are good. What are they? Self-control, fasting, chastity, righteousness, almsgiving, forbearance, love, humility. That by so doing we may worthily partake of the Lamb of God who was sacrificed for our sake, and so receive the earnest of incorruption, and keep it as an assurance of the inheritance promised to us in heaven. Is it hard to do what is good, and are the virtues more difficult than the vices? That is certainly not how I see it. The drunken, self-indulgent person subjects himself because of this to more sufferings than someone who restrains himself; the licentious person suffers more than someone chaste; someone striving to become rich more than someone who lives in contentment with what he has; the person seeking to surround himself with glory than someone who passes life in obscurity. Since, however, the virtues seem more difficult to us because of our love of comfort, let us force ourselves. “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence,” it says, “and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11.12).

All of us, eminent and lowly, governors and governed, rich and poor, need diligence and attention to drive these evil passions away from our souls, and introduce the whole range of virtues in their stead. Farmers, shoemakers, builders, tailors, weavers, and in general all those who earn their living by their own effort and the work of their hands, provided they throw out of their souls the desire for riches, glory and pleasure, are truly blessed. These are the poor to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs. It was on their account that the Lord said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5.3). The poor in spirit are those whose spirits, or souls, are free from boasting, love of glory and fondness for pleasure, and therefore either choose to be poor in external things as well or else courageously bear involuntary poverty. Those who are rich and comfortable, and enjoy fleeting glory, and in general all who long to be like them, will yield to more harmful passions and fall into other worse traps of the devil, which are more difficult to deal with. When someone becomes rich, he does not lay aside his desire for riches, but increases it, grasping at more than he did before. In the same way, pleasure lovers, power seekers, the dissolute and the debauched increase their desires rather than renouncing them. Rulers and eminent men increase their power so as to commit greater injustices and sin.

That is why it is difficult for a ruler to be saved or for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. “How can you believe,” it says, “who receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?” (John 5.44). But if any of you are well off, or eminent or rulers, do not be dismayed. You can, if you wish, seek the glory of God and exert force on yourselves to stop the impetus towards becoming worse, to practice great virtues and to drive away great evils, not just from yourselves, but from many other people, even against their will. Not only can you act honestly and chastely yourselves, but there are many ways in which you can prevent those who want to be unjust and licentious from doing so. Not only can you show yourselves obedient to Christ’s Gospel and His teachings, but you can also bring those who are minded to disobey into subjection to Christ’s Church and its leaders according to Christ. This you are able to do, not just by means of the power and authority allotted to you by God, but by becoming an example of all that is good to those below you. For subjects become like their rulers.

Everyone needs diligence, force and attention, but not to the same extent. Those exalted in honour, wealth and power, and those who concern themselves with words and the acquisition of wisdom by means of them, even if they wish to be saved, are in need of greater force and diligence, since they are less obedient by nature. Exactly this can be clearly seen in the reading from Christ’s Gospel yesterday and today. The miracle performed on Lazarus openly proved the one who did it to be God. But whereas the people were convinced and believed, the rulers at that time, that is to say, the Scribes and Pharisees, were so far from being persuaded that they raged against Him even more, and resolved in their madness to hand Him over to death, although everything He had said and done plainly declared Him to be the Lord of life and death. No one can say that the fact that the Lord lifted up His eyes at that time and said, “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me,” was an obstacle to their regarding Him as equal to the Father, since He went on to say, “I know that Thou hearest Me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they might believe that Thou hast sent Me” (John 11.41-42). So that they might know He was God and came from the Father, and also that He did not work miracles in opposition to God, but in accordance with God’s purpose, He lifted up His eyes to God in front of everybody and spoke to Him in words which make it clear that He who was speaking on earth was equal to the heavenly Father on high. In the beginning when man was to be formed, there was a Counsel beforehand. So now also, in the case of Lazarus, when a man was to be formed anew, there was a Counsel first. When man was to be created the Father said to the Son, “Let us make man” (Genesis 1.26), the Son listened to the Father, and man was brought into being. Now, by contrast, the Father listened to the Son speaking, and Lazarus was brought to life.

Notice that the Father and the Son are of equal honour and have the same will. The words are in the form of a prayer for the sake of the crowd standing by, but they are not the words of prayer but of lordship and absolute authority. “Lazarus come forth” (John 11.43). And at one the man who had been dead four days stood before Him alive. Did this come about by the command of the life-givier or His prayer? He cried with a loud voice, again on account of the bystanders, since He could have raised him not only by using His normal voice, but just by His will alone. In the same way, He could have done it from afar and with the stone in place. But instead He came to the grave and spoke to those present, who took away the stone and smelt the stench. Then He cried with a loud voice. He raised him in this manner so that by means of their sight (for they saw Him standing at the grave), their sense of smell (for they were aware of the stench of the man four days dead), their sense of touch (for they used their own hands to take away the stone beforehand from the grave, and afterwards to loose the grave-clothes from his body and the napkin from his face), and their hearing (for the Lord’s voice reached the ears of all), they all might understand and believe that it was He who called everything from non-being into being, who upheld all things by the word of His power, and who in the beginning by His word alone made everything that exists out of nothing.

The simple people believed Him in every respect, and did not keep their faith quiet, but began to preach His divinity by deeds and words. After the raising of Lazarus on the fourth day, the Lord found an ass, and, when His disciples had made it ready, as the evangelist Matthew tells us (Matthew 21.1-11), He sat upon it and entered Jerusalem, as had been foretold in Zechariah’s prophecy: “Do not fear, O daughter of Zion: behold thy king cometh unto thee: he is just and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass” (Zechariah 9.9; Matthew 21.5). The prophet shows by these words that this king in the prophecy is the only true king of Zion. “Your king,” he says, “does not arouse fear in those who see him. Nor is he an oppressor or an evildoer accompanied by shield-bearers and spearmen, trailing behind him a host of foot-soldiers and cavalry, passing his life in greed for gain, demanding taxes and tributes, and upleasant and harmful labours and services. By contrast, His banner is humility, poverty and lowliness, and He enters mounted upon an ass, without any human pretensions at all. He is the only righeous King who righteously saves. He is meek, and meekness is His distinctive work.” The Lord said of Himself, “Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11.29).

So the King who had raised Lazarus from the dead entered Jerusalem sitting upon an ass. Everyone, children, men, old people, immediately spread their garments in the way. They took palm-branches, which are symbols of victory, and went to meet Him as the life-giver and victor over death. They fell at His feet and escorted Him in procession, singing together, not just outside but also inside the precincts of the Temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David, Hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21.9). “Hosanna” is a song of praise directed to God, which means, “Save us.” The additional words “in the highest” show that He is not only praised on earth, nor only by men, but also by the heavenly angels on high.

The people not only sang His praises and called Him God, but they subsequently opposed the Scribes and Pharisees’ evil purpose against God and their murderous allegations. For the latter were mad enough to say of Him, “This man is not of God, and since He doeth many miracles, if we let Him thus alone and do not put Him to death, all men will believe on Him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation” (compare John 9.16 and 11.47-48). But what did the people say? “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Blessed be the kingdom of our father David that cometh” (Mark 11.9-10). By saying, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord,” they showed that He was from God the Father and that He came in the name of the Father. As the Lord said of Himself, “I came in the name of My Father” (compare John 5.43) and I proceeded forth and came from God” (John 8.42). On the other hand, by saying, “Blessed be the kingdom of our father David that cometh,” they showed that this was the kingdom in which, according to prophecy, the Gentiles too, and indeed the Romans, were to believe. For this king was not just Israel’s hope, but also the expectation of the Gentiles, according to Jacob’s prophecy: “Binding his foal unto the vine,” where “foal” refers to the Jewish people who were subject to Him, “and his ass’s colt unto the branch of the vine” (Genesis 49.11). The branch of the vine is the Lord’s disciples, for the Lord said to them, “I am the vine, ye are the branches” (John 15.5). By this branch, the Lord binds to Himself His “ass’s colt,” namely the New Israel of the Gentiles, who become sons of Abraham by grace. If, asked the people, this kingdom in which we have put our faith is the hope of the Gentiles too, why should we fear the Romans?

Those who were childlike in innocence but not in intelligence were inspired by the Holy Spirit to offer up to the Lord a faultlessly perfect hymn, and bore witness that, as God, He had brought Lazarus back to life after he had been dead for four days. When the Scribes and Pharisees, on the other hand, “saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the Temple and saying, "Hosanna to the Son of David," they were sore displeased and said unto the Lord, "Hearest thou what they say?” (Matthew 21.15-16). In fact, it would have been more appropriate for the Lord to put the same question to them, “Can you not see, or hear or understand?” To refute those who were complaining that He tolerated songs of praise that were fitting for God alone, He replied, “Yes, I hear those who, invisibly enlightened by Myself, declare such things about Me. But if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out. Have you never read the prophecy that, ‘Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise’?” (Psalm 8.2; Matthew 21.16). This was another amazing fact, that simple, uneducated children should speak perfectly of the divinity of God made man for our sake, and that their voices should take up the angelic hymn. At the Lord’s birth the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth” (Luke 21.4), and now at the time of His entry into Jerusalem the children offered up the same hymn, “Hosanna to the Son of David, Hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21.29).

Let us all, young and old, rulers and subjects, be childlike in innocence, that God may empower us to make a public show of the trophies, and carry aloft the symbols of victory, not just of victory over the evil passions, but over visible and invisible enemies, and may we find the grace of the word to help in time of need (compare Hebrews 4.16). The young colt which the Lord deigned to ride for our sake prefigured, although it was only one, the Gentiles’ obedience to Him and we, governors and governed alike, are all Gentiles come from them.

In Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female, nor Greek, nor Jew, but all, according to the holy apostle, are one (Galatians 3.28). In the same way, in Him there is neither ruler nor subject, but by His grace we are all one in faith in Him, and belong to one body, His Church, whose head He is. By the grace of the all-holy Spirit we have all drunk of the one Spirit, and have all received one baptism. We all have one hope and one God, who is above all, and through all, and in us all (Ephesians 4.6). So let us love one another. Let us bear with one another, seeing that we are members one of another. As the Lord Himself said, the sign that we are His disciples is love. When He departed from this world, the fatherly inheritance He left us was love, and the last prayer He gave us when He ascended to His Father was about love for one another (John 13.33-35).

Let us strive to attain to this fatherly prayer and let us not lose the inheritance He left us nor the sign He gave us, lest we should also lose our sonship, our blessing and our discipleship. If that happens, we shall fall away from the promised hope and be shut out of the spiritual bridal chamber. Before His saving passion, when the Lord entered the earthly Jerusalem, not just the people, but also the true rulers of the Gentiles, the Lord’s apostles, spread their garments in His way. In the same manner, let us all, rulers as well as subjects, lay down our natural garments before Him, by making our flesh and its impulses subject to the spirit, that we may be made worthy not only to see and worship Christ’s saving passion and holy resurrection, but to enjoy communion with Him. “For if,” says the apostle, “we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Romans 6.5).

To which may we all attain by the grace and love towards mankind of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, to whom belong all glory, honour and worship, together with His Father Who is without beginning and the life-giving Spirit, now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

From Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, Mount Thabor Publishing.

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