On the Saving Nativity of our Most Pure Lady the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary
(Delivered during the vigil for the feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, September 8, perhaps in 1352, at the Basilikon Convent in Thessaloniki, which was dedicated to the same feast.)
By St. Gregory Palamas
1. The time is always right to make a beginning of a way of life that will lead to salvation. To prove this, the great Paul says, "Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2). "Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us do the works of light. Let us walk honestly as in the day" (cf Rom. 13:12-13). He does not mean that one particular hour or day is the acceptable time, but the whole period after the manifestation of Our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ. When the visible sun has risen upon earth it is time for men to do physical work, as David tells us: "The sun ariseth, and man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening" (ps. 103:22-23). In the same way, since the Sun of righteousness (Mal. 4:2) appeared to us in the flesh, all the time following His appearing is appropriate for spiritual work. The same Prophet makes this point in another passage where, after saying of the Lord's Coming, "The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner" (ps. 118:22), he adds, "This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it" (ps. 117:24). In the case of the visible sun, which is interrupted by the night, he says, "Man goes forth unto his work until the evening", but as the Sun of righteousness knows no evening, and has, according to the Epistle, "no variableness neither shadow of turning" (Jas. 1:17), it offers an unbroken opportunity for spiritual labour.
2. If, however, it were necessary to name the most appropriate season of all, and if, just as there is a time to sow and a time to reap, a time to plant and a time to harvest, and a time for everything else (cf Eccl. 3:1-8), you are looking for a season especially suited for beginning a good work, then it is autumn, particularly this month, which is our first month and the start of the year, when our salvation had its origin, as we celebrate today. This sacred feast and holiday that we are keeping is the first to commemorate our recall and re-creation according to grace, for on it all things began to be made new; enduring precepts began to be brought in instead of temporary ones, the spirit instead of the letter, the truth instead of shadows.
3. Today a new world and a mysterious paradise have been revealed, in which and from which a New Adam came into being, re-making the Old Adam and renewing the universe. He is not led astray by the deceiver, but deceives him, and bestows freedom on those enslaved to sin through his treachery. Today a paradoxical book has been made ready on earth, which in an indescribable way can hold, not the imprint of words, but the living Word Himself; not a word consisting of air, but the heavenly Word; not a word that perishes as soon as it is formed, but the Word Who snatches those who draw near Him from perdition; not a word made by the movement of a man's tongue, but the Word begotten of God the Father before all ages. Today the living Tabernacle of God not made with hands appears, the inspired human Ark of the true Bread of Life sent down from heaven for us (cf John 6:32ff). Today, according to the Psalms, "Truth has sprung up from the earth", the true image of human nobility which comes from above, "and righteousness has looked down from heaven" (ps. 85:11 Lxx). This righteousness has deposed the unrighteous ruler from his unjust dominion, after being wrongfully condemned by him and rightly condemning him, and having bound the strong and evil one, plundered his goods (cf Matt. 12:29), and transformed them, rendering them receptive to divine righteousness. Thus Christ took sin's prisoners to live with Him for ever, justifying them by faith in Him, but He bound the prince of sin with inescapable bonds, and delivered him to eternal fire without light. Today, as prophesied, out of the "stem of Jesse" a rod has come forth (cf Isa. 11:1), from which a flower has grown which knows no wilting. This rod recalls our human nature, which had withered and fallen away from the unfading garden of delight, makes it bloom again, grants it to flourish for ever, brings it up to heaven, and leads it into paradise. With this rod the great Shepherd moves His human flock to eternal pastures, and supported by this rod, our nature lays aside its old age and feeble senility, and easily strides towards heaven, leaving the earth below for those who, devoid of support, are plunging downwards.
4. But who is the new world, the mysterious paradise, the paradoxical book, the inspired Tabernacle and Ark of God, the truth sprung from the earth, the much-extolled rod of Jesse? It is the Maiden who before and after childbearing is eternally virgin, whose birth from a barren mother we celebrate today. Joachim and Anna lived together blamelessly before God, but seemed to the Israelites to be at fault according to the Law because they remained childless. Since there was not yet any hope of immortality, the continuance of the race was seen as an absolute necessity. Now that this Virgin born today has bestowed eternity upon us by bearing a child in virginity, having children to succeed us is no longer necessary, but in those days having many children was regarded as superior to virtue, and childlessness was such a great evil, that these just people were rebuked for their lack of children, rather than praised for their virtue. Deeply saddened by these reproaches, the righteous couple called to mind Abraham and Sarah, and the others who had suffered grief because of their childlessness. They then considered the healing remedy for that sorrow; which some had found, and decided that they too would resort to beseeching God. The chaste Joachim departed to the wilderness and dwelt there, fasting and offering up prayer to God that he might become a father. And before he ceased praying or returned thence, he received full assurance that his request would be granted. Meanwhile, the like-minded Anna shut herself in a nearby garden and cried to the Lord with pain in her heart, "Hear me, O God of my fathers, and bless me, as you blessed Sarah's womb." And the Lord heard them and blessed them, and promised to give them a child. Now He has fulfilled this promise and has granted them a daughter more wonderful than all the wonders down through the ages, the Mother of the Creator of the universe, who made the human race divine, turned earth into heaven, made God into the Son of man, and men into the sons of God. For she conceived within herself without seed, and brought forth in a way past telling, the One Who brought everything that exists out of non-being, and transformed it into something good, Who will never let it cease to exist.
5. Why did she come from a barren womb? In order to put an end to her parents' sorrow; transform their disgrace, and prefigure that deliverance from the grief and curse of the Forefathers of the human race, which was to come about through her. She alone dwelt in the Holy of Holies, and she alone became the abode of the Creator of the natural order, so how could nature dare profane the womb in which she rested, and from which she came forth? Neither before nor after her had there appeared a virgin mother or a mother of God, and no one before or after her had dwelt in the Holy of Holies, so it was fitting that no other infant was seen to have been conceived within her mother's womb before or afterwards. As the Mother of God had to be a virgin of David's stock, born at the right moment for our salvation, the time drew near and the Virgin had to be made ready, but even among David's descendants no others were found at that time superior in virtue or in nobility of character and birth to that childless couple. So those without children were preferred to those with many, that the Daughter with all virtues might be born of highly virtuous parents, the All-pure of those who were exceptionally chaste, and that chastity, conceiving through prayer and asceticism, might as a consequence become the mother of virginity, virginity which would bring forth without corruption the divinity begotten of the virgin Father before all ages. What wings that prayer had! How boldly it approached God! How spotlessly pure their hearts must have been to offer a prayer which so speedily achieved so much! A miracle was needed to prepare the way for the great wonder, and nature had gradually to give way to grace.
6. But you, O sacred audience, who listen to my words, my human flock and field in Christ, offer your exercise of the virtues and your progress in them as a birthday gift to the Mother of God: both men and women, elderly people along with younger ones, rich and poor, leaders and subjects, those of absolutely every race, age, rank, profession and branch of learning. Let none of you have a soul which is barren and without fruit. Let nobody be unloving or unreceptive to the spiritual seed. May each of you eagerly accept this celestial seed, the word of salvation (cf Luke 8:11), and by your own efforts bring it to perfection as a heavenly work and fruit pleasing to God. Let no one make a beginning of a good work which brings no fruit to perfection (cf Luke 8:14), nor declare his faith in Christ only with his tongue. "Not every one", it says, "that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21), and, "No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62).
7. Virgins who are vowed to the monastic life, and those of you who have done well and returned to live in a community of virgins after being married, and all of you in general who have chosen to live together in this way out of a desire to repent: live according to God in all things on account of the Virgin born on this day for our sake, who as a virgin gave birth according to the flesh to Him Who was begotten of the virgin Father before eternity. Live for her and the only God, Who was incarnate of her, looking only to Him, making Him your sole delight, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation (Rom. 12:12), obedient to those in authority over you, serving one another, striving for peace one with another, waiting constantly with attention and prayer and contrition of soul, with both psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19). Be pure and unsullied in body and soul, in all your senses and your understanding, and show forth in all respects your spiritual and virginal way of life. Thus, according to the Psalm, you shall follow behind the Mother of God, and be brought as her companions (cf Ps. 44:14), and enter the temple not made with hands of the King of the Heavens, into the heavenly and eternal bridechamber of incorruption.
8. Those of you who are married should not surrender yourselves entirely to this world. For the Mother of God, this newly established world higher than the world, appeared today as the fruit of married life. You who are old, demonstrate that your thinking is worthy of old age, and do not imitate youth's rashness in your words, thoughts and actions to your own detriment, being carnally minded and living according to the flesh. Young people, emulate the elderly, respect them and obey them. Do not be ignorant of how honourable old age is, or that youth is not inferior to august old age. If you are unaware of this, ask the wise Solomon and you will hear, "If men have understanding, they have grey hairs enough, and an unspotted life is the true ripeness of old age" (Wisd. 4:9). Those of you who possess an abundance of the unstable goods of this world, which slip away and often pass from one person to another, will, by giving them away, trade them for eternal life for yourselves. "For a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth" (Luke 12:15). As for those of you who lack necessities, be rich in patience and thanksgiving to God, that you may be numbered with those poor whom He pronounces blessed, and inherit the Ruling Power of God (the kingdom of the heavens (Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:20). Rulers, "execute true judgment" (Zech. 7:9), and do not use force against those in your power, which is unjust, but show a fatherly disposition towards them, bearing in mind that you are of the same race as they and a fellow-servant. Nor should you be unjustifiably vexed on account of submission to the Church and its teaching, for these things are a sure proof of men of good will. Subjects, you ought only to obey your rulers in matters which do not deprive you of our promised hope of the kingdom of heaven (cf Matt. 22:21).
9. Offer now with one accord to the Virgin, whose feast we keep today, the most desirable and appropriate gift, your sanctification and bodily purity through self-control and prayer. See, all of you, how chastity, fasting and prayer, linked with contrition, made Joachim and Anna the parents of a divine vessel, a vessel chosen not just to bear the name of God, like Paul (Acts 9:15) who was to be born later, but to bear Him "Whose name is Wonderful" (cf Isa. 9:6; Ps. 8:1 Lxx). If we persevere in our prayers, as well as the other virtues, continuing in God's temple with understanding, we shall find stored up within ourselves that purity of heart, which holds God and manifests Him to us. It is this purity, and the soul's corresponding disposition towards God, that Isaiah calls the spirit of salvation within the womb, saying to the Lord, "On account of thy fear, O Lord, we have been with child, we have been in travail, we have conceived the spirit of thy salvation which we have wrought upon earth" (Isa. 26:18 Lxx). Do you see how barren, fruitless souls bear fine children? However, after the words we have quoted the Prophet adds, "We shall not fall, but the inhabitants of the earth shall fall", meaning those who wallow in earthly thoughts and passions.
10. If we too, brethren, wish to dwell not on earth but in heaven, and not to fall to the ground or into sin that pulls us down, but to reach out continuously towards the divine heights, let us fear God, abstain from everything evil, return to Him through good works, and strive by self-control and prayer to wipe out the evil accretions within us, to change our inner thoughts for the better, and, according to the Prophet, to be in labour with the spirit of salvation and bring it to birth, having as our helper, through invoking her name, the Virgin who was today bestowed upon her parents through prayer and a manner of life pleasing to God. She transformed their sorrow; annulled the ancestral curse, and brought our first Mother's pangs to an end, painlessly bearing Christ as a virgin.
11. To Whom belong all glory, honour and worship together with His Father without beginning and the all-holy, good and Life-giving Spirit, both now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
From SAINT GREGORY PALAMAS: THE HOMILIES, Mount Thabor Publishing.