February 11, 2018

Homily on Christ's Second Coming (St. Gregory Palamas)


On the Gospel Passage Describing Christ's Second Coming 
and on Compassion and Doing Good

By St. Gregory Palamas

1. Last Sunday through the parable of the prodigal who was saved, the Church commemorated God’s incomparable love for mankind. This Sunday it teaches us about His terrifying Judgment to come, following the right order and in accordance with the prophetic sayings: “I will sing of mercy and of judgment” (Ps. 101:1), and, “God hath spoken once: twice have I heard this; that power belongeth unto God. Also unto thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy: for thou renderest to every man according to his works” (Ps. 62:11-12).

2. Mercy and forbearance precede the divine Judgment. God Himself is the first possessor of every virtue and embraces them all. He is both just and merciful. But as mercy does not go with judgment, as it is written, “Thou shalt not be merciful to a poor man at judgment” (cf. Prov. 24:23), God rightly allotted a proper time to each, appointing the present for forbearance, the future for retribution. The grace of the Spirit so ordered the rites of the Holy Church, that when we learn that we receive forgiveness of sins from what happens here and now, we may press on while still in this present life to attain everlasting mercy and make ourselves worthy of the divine love for mankind. For that Judgment is without mercy for the unmerciful.

3. We have just recently spoken of God’s incomparable compassion towards us. Today our subject is Christ’s second coming, the terrifying Judgment, and the things that will then be mysteriously fulfilled, that “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man” (1 Cor. 2:9), the heart, that is, which has no share in the divine Spirit. These things surpass both the human mind and reason as well as the senses. But although He who teaches us of them is Himself all-knowing and will judge the whole earth, He comes down to his listeners’ level and offers words suited to their capability. That is why lightning and clouds, trumpet and throne and the like are brought in, even though we look for new heavens and a new earth (cf. 2 Pet. 3:13), in accordance with His own promise, for all that now exists will be changed.

4. If mere words, words adapted to our measure, can fill the soul of the prudent listener with trembling and awe, who will withstand when the reality is accomplished? What sort of lives ought we to be living in holiness and godliness, as we wait for the coming of the Day of God, that day on which, as the divine Peter says, “the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat?” (2 Pet. 3:12). Before that, however, will be the grievous coming of the Antichrist to oppose and threaten the faith which, if it were not shortened, being allowed only for a brief time, there should no flesh be saved, as the Lord says in the Gospels (Matt. 24:22, Mark 13:20). So He exhorts his followers, “Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man” (Luke 21:36).

5. All these things are full of overwhelming horror, but worse still than these are threatened for those who waste their lives in unbelief, injustice and laziness. As the Lord says Himself, “Then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn” (Matt. 24:30). The tribes of the earth are people who do not obey Him who came down from heaven, who neither know the heavenly Father nor call upon Him, and do not lift up their race to Him by deeds that resemble His own. Again the Lord says, “For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth” (Luke 21:35, Isa. 24:17 Lxx), meaning those nailed to the earth and earthly concerns by dissipation, drunkenness, self-indulgence and the cares of this life, wholly taken up with outwardly visible splendour, riches, glory and pleasure. The expression “face of the earth” refers to the earth’s apparent pleasantness, whereas by saying “them that dwell” He implies their continuing inward attachment. With these words he puts sinners who continue unrepentant to the end together with the godless, for as Isaiah foretold, “The lawless and the sinners shall burn together, and none shall quench them” (Isa. 1:31 Lxx). “But our commonwealth is in heaven”, says the apostle, “from whence also we look for the Saviour” (Phil. 3:20). The Lord said to His disciples, “you are not of the world” (John 15:19), and also, “When these things begin to come to pass, then look up and lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh” (Luke 21:28).

6. Notice how those who live according to Christ are filled with ineffable joy and courage by the events immediately following these, while those who live according to the flesh are filled with shame, suffering and dejection. As Paul too proclaims, “God will render to every man according to his deeds: to them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: but unto them that obey evil, indignation, and wrath, tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that doeth evil” (Rom. 2:6–9). In the days of Noah, when evil had increased and held sway over nearly all the human race, there was a flood sent by God which wiped out everything living and kept safe only the righteous man and his family to start another world (cf. Gen. 6:5–9:2). And after that God again cut off evil when it was rampant, in turn burning the Sodomites to ashes (cf. Gen. 19:1–28), drowning Pharaoh’s men in the sea in an extraordinary way (cf. Exod. 14:19–31), and destroying the shameless race of the Jews by famine, revolt, disease and bitter retribution (cf. Exod. 16:1–3; 17: 1–4; 32:1ff).

7. Our Physician made use of harsh medicines and remedies for our sake, but nevertheless He did not disregard such as work pleasantly and agreeably. He raised up fathers, revealed prophets, performed signs, gave the law and appointed angels. Since these means were powerless against the irrepressible impetus of our wickedness, the Word of God Himself, the great Remedy for grave sins, bowed the heavens and came down. Having become like us in everything, though without sin (cf. Heb. 4:15), He abolished sin in Himself. By giving us strength He dulled its sting, and on the Cross He put to shame its rulers and fellow-workers, that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death (Heb. 2:14).

8. As in the days of Noah He flooded sinners with water, later He flooded sin with His own righteousness and grace, and raised Himself immortal, as a seed and first fruit of the world without end, a sign and proof of the resurrection for which we truly hope. When He had risen and ascended He sent out apostles into all the inhabited world, presented us with an innumerable throng of martyrs, appointed a multitude of teachers, and revealed companies of saints. Then when He had done everything, and omitted nothing that had to be, He saw the evil caused by the independence of our free will once more brought to a head. Or rather, in those days it will be seen to have reached such a peak that people will worship and obey the Antichrist, abandoning the true God and His true Christ. Then He will come again from heaven with great power and glory (cf. Mark 13:26), no longer to be patient but to punish those who in the days of his forbearance heaped up wrath against themselves. He will cut off the incurable from the healthy like rotting limbs and deliver them into the fire, but His own He will rescue from the spiteful abuse of evil men and from contact with them, and will make them heirs of the kingdom of heaven.

9. Immediately after the abominable advent of the Antichrist, He who fashioned everything will shake it all again. As the prophet says, “Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven” (Heb. 12:26, cf. Hag. 2:21). Straight away He shakes the world, dismantles the upper boundary of the universe, folds up the vault of heaven, mingles the earth with fire and puts everything into confusion. From below He forces open the foundations of the whole world, from above He sends down the multitude of stars like an indescribably terrible hurricane upon the heads of those who made the evil one their God, that the believers in the Antichrist might be punished first by this means, whose minds were engrossed in him and who were persuaded that the opposite to God was God. Then He will appear in unutterable glory and, as He once breathed life into our first father Adam, so with a clear trumpet call He will bring everyone to life. He will have the dead from all ages standing before Him alive. But He will not bring the godless to judgment nor count them worthy of a word. For according to the Scriptures the ungodly will be resurrected not for judgment but for condemnation (cf. Matt. 12:41–42, Luke 11:31–32).

10. He will subject all our affairs to judgment, as we read in today’s Gospel. “When the Son of man”, it says, “shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him” (Matt. 25:31). At His first coming the glory of His divinity was hidden beneath the flesh which He took from us and for our sake. Now it is hidden, together with the flesh which is divine, with the Father in heaven. But then He will reveal all His glory, for He will appear in radiance from the east to the west, illuminating the ends of the earth with the rays of His Godhead, while the trumpet that brings the dead to life shall sound throughout the world, summoning everything to Him. He also brought angels with Him before, though invisibly, and He restrained their zeal against God’s enemies. Afterwards He will lead them openly and will not keep silent, but will put the disobedient to shame and hand them over for punishment.

11. “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then”, it says, “shall he sit upon the throne of his glory” (Matt. 25:31). Daniel foresaw and foretold this, saying, “Behold thrones were set and the Ancient of days did sit, and I beheld one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days. And there was given him all honour and dominion. Thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him” (cf. Dan. 7:9–13). The Holy Gospel says, in accordance with this, that in those days, “before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth the sheep from the goats” (Matt. 25:32). He calls the righteous sheep because they are meek and gentle, walk the level path of the virtues that He trod, and are like Him. For He was Himself called a lamb by the Forerunner and Baptist who said, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The sinners He calls goats because they are audacious and unruly, and rush down the precipices of sin. The sheep, it says, He shall set on his right hand as those who act rightly, but the others on the left. “Then”, it says, “shall the king say”, without adding which king or of whom he is king, for there is no other, but only one is Lord, one is King, He who by nature is Lord of all. Then the one and only King will say to those on His right hand, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34).

12. The world was founded with this in view from the beginning. The heavenly, pre- eternal Counsel of the Father, according to which the Angel of the Father’s Great Counsel made man (Isa. 9:6) as a living creature in His own likeness as well as His image, was for this end: to enable man at some time to contain the greatness of God’s kingdom, the blessedness of God’s inheritance and the perfection of the heavenly Father’s blessing, by which everything visible and invisible was made. He did not refer to “the visible world” but to “the world” without qualification, heavenly as well as earthly. Even the indescribable divine self-emptying, the theandric way of life, the saving passion, all the sacraments were planned beforehand in God’s providence and wisdom for this end, that everyone who is shown to be faithful in the present shall hear the Saviour say, “Well done, thou good servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord” (Matt. 25:21). “Come”, He says, “you who made good use of the earthly, perishable and fleeting world in accordance with my will, and inherit as well the lasting, heavenly world which is now at hand.” “For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me” (Matt. 25:35–36).

13. At this point we might enquire why He only mentions works of mercy, and why it is only on account of them that He gives this blessing, inheritance and kingdom. But if we listen with understanding, He does not mention these alone. Earlier He called those who performed works of mercy sheep, and in this way He bears witness to their likeness to Himself, their possession of every virtue, and their readiness to die for the sake of what is good. Just as He was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, according to the Scriptures (Isa. 53:7, Acts 8:32).

14. Because they are people like this, he extols their good works as well. Anyone who is to inherit the everlasting kingdom must have good works as the proof and the fruit of love, as the crown of all the other virtues. The Lord showed this in the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1–13). Not everyone who happens to be there is led into the bridechamber, only those adorned with virginity, which cannot be accomplished without ascetic effort, self-control and many different struggles in the cause of virtue. Besides they must hold lamps in their hands, which denotes their minds and the watchful knowledge enclosed within, borne upon and supported by the practical part of their souls – as signified by their hands. Such knowledge must be dedicated to God for life and set alight with His brilliance. But oil in abundance is needed to keep the lamps burning, and this oil is love, the summit of all the virtues. If you lay down foundations and build walls, but do not put on the roof, you leave it all useless. In the same way, if you acquire every virtue except love, they are all useless and senseless. Though the roof cannot be constructed without the supporting walls.

15. The Lord therefore grants His inheritance to those who have sealed the other virtues with loving deeds, who either ascended to love by way of a blameless life or fled to it for refuge through repentance. Those who have kept safe the mystical rebirth that comes from God, I call sons, whereas the hired servants have been called back again to grace as a reward for many different labours of repentance and humility.

16. After having initially expounded various matters concerning the Judgment in the Holy Gospels, He introduces the subject of love, which fulfills and stirs up the virtues previously enumerated. But the righteous will reply (Matt. 25:37–39): “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?” Do you see that those on the right are also called righteous? Accordingly their mercy proceeds from, and is accompanied by, righteousness. Do you see that testimony is given that the righteous also possess another virtue, humility, in the fullness of their love, like a protective wall raised up around them at the right moment? They insist that they are unworthy of the proclamation and the praise, as having done nothing good, although it is attested that they left no good undone.

17. I think this is why the Lord responds to them boldly, that they may clearly show what they are like, and may be lifted up by humility and rightly find grace with Him who bestows it abundantly on the humble, for “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (Prov. 3:34 Lxx, Jas. 4:6). He now tells them, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40). He calls the person least on account of his poverty and lowliness, but His brother because He Himself lived in this way on earth according to the flesh.

18. Listen and be glad, all you who are poor and needy, for in this you are God’s brethren. Even if you are poor and lowly against your will, with patience and thanksgiving voluntarily turn it to your own good. Listen, all you who are rich, and long for blessed poverty, that you may become more truly heirs and brethren of Christ than those who are involuntarily poor, for of His own free will He made Himself poor for our sake. Listen and groan, all you who overlook your suffering brethren, or rather, Christ’s brethren, and do not give the poor a share of your abundant food, shelter, clothing and care as appropriate, nor offer your surplus to meet their need. Let us listen and groan ourselves, for I who am telling you these things stand accused by my conscience of not being completely free of this passion. While many people shiver and go without, I am well fed and clothed. But more grievously to be mourned over are those who have treasures in excess of their daily needs, who hold on to them and even strive to increase them. They have been commanded to love their neighbours as themselves and have not even loved them as dust, for what are gold and silver, which they loved more than their brethren, other than dust.

19. But let us change direction, repent and agree together to supply the needs of the poor brethren among us by whatever means we have. If we prefer not to empty out all we possess for the love of God, let us at least not callously hold on to everything for ourselves. Let us do something, then humble ourselves before God and obtain forgiveness from Him for what we have failed to do. For His love for mankind makes up for our omissions, that we may never hear the horrifying voice: “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed” (Matt. 25:41). How great a horror! “Be ye removed from life, cast out of paradise, deprived of light!”

20. Not this alone, but also, “Depart from me, ye cursed, unto everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). Those on the right will have life and have it more abundantly: life through being with God, abundance of life through continuing as sons and heirs of His kingdom. Those of the left, having failed to gain the kingdom by being far away from God, will find even more evil through being ranked with the demons, and delivered up to the punishing fire.

21. What sort of fire is that, which burns bodies, and rational beings with bodies, and spirits without bodies, tormenting them while detaining them for ever alive? It will melt even the fiery element in us, for the Scripture says “the elements shall melt with fervent heat” (2 Pet. 3:10, 12). How greatly is suffering increased when there is no hope of redemption. And that fire is unquenchable. Again, what gives it its violent impetus? They say a river draws that fire along, apparently bearing it ever further away from God. So He did not say “You have departed”, but “Depart from me, ye cursed”. “You have long been cursed by the poor, and as they suffered so much you deserve cursing. ‘Depart’, He tells them, ‘into everlasting fire, prepared’, not for you, ‘but for the devil and his angels’. For this was not originally My will. I did not create you for this, nor did I prepare the fire for you. The unquenchable fire was lit for the demons who are irreversibly in the grip of evil. You joined them because your unrepentant minds were like theirs, and you share the dwelling of the evil angels by your own choice.” “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not” (Matt. 25:42–43). As love and loving deeds, brethren, are the fulfilment of the virtues, so hatred and the outcome of hatred, behaviour devoid of compassion and a mind devoid of the desire to share, are the full measure of sin. As the virtues follow upon benevolence and are associated with it, so evil deeds follow upon hatred for our fellow man, and for this hatred alone they are condemned.

22. I wanted to say that there was no greater proof of hatred than preferring excess money to our brother. But I see that evil has found a greater proof of hatred for our fellow man. For some people not only do not give alms out of their abundance, but even appropriate what belongs to others. Let them deduce from the sentence given to the unmerciful what their own fate and suffering will be, and how indescribable and unbearable is the condemnation they deserve. Let them give up injustice and by works of repentance find mercy with God. On that day the unmerciful will reply, “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?” (Matt. 25:44).

23. Observe this last evil: pride is yoked with callous behaviour, as humility is with compassion. When the righteous are praised for doing good they humble themselves the more, without justifying themselves. When these others are accused of being devoid of compassion by Him who cannot lie, they do not humbly throw themselves to the ground, but answer back and justify themselves. So they go on to hear, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.” So “these shall go away”, it says, “into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal” (Matt. 25:46).

24. Let us be merciful to ourselves by being merciful to others, gain compassion by showing compassion, and do good that good may be done to us. For we receive the like in return: good works, benevolence, love, mercy and compassion, but not merely to the same value and measure of excellence. You give out of what you possess as a man, and only as much as a man can bestow. But you receive in return a hundredfold from the inexhaustible divine treasures, together with eternal life, and benefit from as many great bounties as God can bestow, which “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man” (1 Cor. 2:9).

25. May we make haste to obtain the riches of kindness and buy an eternal kingdom in exchange for a little money. We should be afraid even now of the sentence pronounced on the unmerciful, lest we receive the same condemnation. There is no need to fear that if we give alms we shall become poor, for we shall hear Christ say, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom” (Matt. 25:34). Let us be afraid of being shown to be excluded from loving God by our lack of compassion, and do everything to avoid this. “For he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen”, says the evangelist, “how can he love God whom he hath not seen” (1 John 4:20). And how can someone who does not love God be with Him? Anyone who is not with Him will be driven away from Him, and anyone driven away from Him will certainly fall into hell.

26. Let us show loving deeds towards our brethren in Christ by being merciful to the poor and restoring those who have gone astray, whatever their poverty or error may be, by obtaining justice for the wronged, by encouraging those laid low by sickness, whether their suffering be due to visible enemies and physical ailments or to invisible evil spirits and dishonourable passions, by visiting those confined in prison, and even by bearing with those who injure us, forgiving one another any cause for complaint we may have among ourselves, as Christ forgave us. In a word, let us show love to one another by all our actions and words. So may we attain to God’s love, receive His blessing and inherit the eternal heavenly kingdom promised to us and prepared for us from the foundation of the world.

27. May we all attain to this by the grace and love for mankind of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom, together with the Father and also the Holy Spirit, be honour and glory unto the ages of ages. Amen.

From Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009.