February 2, 2018

Homily on the Reception of our Lord (St. Gregory Palamas)

Homily 5


By St. Gregory Palamas

1. Before Christ we all shared the same ancestral curse and condemnation poured out on all of us from our single forefather, as if it had sprung from the root of the human race and was the common lot of our nature. Each person’s individual action attracted either reproof or praise from God, but no one could do anything about the shared curse and condemnation, or the evil inheritance that had been passed down to him and through him would pass to his descendants.

2. But Christ came, setting human nature free and changing the common curse into a shared blessing. He took upon Himself our guilty nature from the most pure Virgin and united it, new and unmixed with the old seed, to His divine person. He rendered it guiltless and righteous, so that all His spiritual descendants would remain outside the ancestral curse and condemnation. How so? He shares His grace with each one of us as a person, and each receives forgiveness of his sins from Him. For He did not receive from us a human person, but assumed our human nature and renewed it by uniting it with His own person. His wish was to save us all completely and for our sake He bowed the heavens and came down. When by His deeds, words and sufferings He had pointed out all the ways of salvation, He went up to heaven again, drawing after Him those who trusted in Him. His aim was to grant perfect redemption not just to the nature which He had assumed from us in inseparable union, but to each one of those who believed in Him. This He has done and continues to do, reconciling each of us through Himself to the Father, bringing each one back to obedience and thoroughly healing our disobedience.

3. To this end, He established holy baptism and gave us saving laws. He preached repentance and shared His own body and blood with us. For it is not only human nature in general, but each believer as a person who receives baptism, governs his life by the holy commandments and becomes a partaker of the Bread that makes divine and of the Cup. By these means Christ justified each one of us personally and restored us to obedience to the heavenly Father. He renewed the human nature He took from us and by what He did and suffered in His person united with our nature, He revealed it as sanctified, justified and completely obedient to the Father. Among the things He did and suffered are the events we celebrate today, when He went up, or was taken up, to the ancient Temple for purification, was met by the God-bearing Simeon, and was proclaimed by Anna, who spent her whole life attending to the Temple.

4. After the Saviour was born of the Virgin and circumcised on the eighth day according to the law, then, as Luke the evangelist says, “when the days of their purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, as it is written in the law of the Lord” (Luke 2.22). He is circumcised according to the law, brought to Jerusalem according to the law, presented to the Lord as it is written in the law and a sacrifice is offered as the law demands.

5. Notice that the Creator and Lord of the law is completely obedient to the law. What does He achieve by this? He makes our nature obedient in all things to the Father, He completely heals us of its disobedience and transforms the curse on it into a blessing. As all human nature was in Adam, so it is in Christ. All who received their being from the earthly Adam have returned to the earth and been brought down, alas, to Hades. But, according to the Apostle, through the heavenly Adam we have all been called up to heaven and made worthy of its glory and grace. Secretly for the present, for it says “your life is hid with Christ in God”. But, “when Christ shall appear”, at His second manifestation and coming, “then shall ye all appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3.3). What does it mean by “all”? All those who have received the adoption of sons in Christ by the Spirit, and have proved by their deeds that they are His spiritual children.

6.“And when the days of their purification were accomplished they brought him to present him to the Lord” (Luke 2:22). Whose purification? The law says that the parents and the children born from their coming together need to be purified. Also the psalmist says, “I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). Where there were no parents, only one Virgin Mother, and the child born was conceived without seed, there was of course no need for purification. But this too was an act of obedience which restored disobedient human nature and took away the guilt of its disobedience. So “when the days of their purification were accomplished, they brought him to present him to the Lord”, to dedicate Him, to declare openly that He was a firstborn son, as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord” (Exod. 13:2, 12, 15; 34:19, Luke 2:23).

7. He is the only one who opened the womb at His conception, for He was conceived not through parents’ coming together but simply through God’s salutation and message which the Virgin heard from the angel. So why does the law say “every male that openeth the womb”? Just as “prophets” and “anointed ones” are referred to in the plural when God says through the psalmist, “Touch not mine anointed ones, and do my prophets no harm” (Ps. 105:15, 1 Chr. 16:22), even though there is only one anointed and only this one particular prophet, so every firstborn is said to open the womb, even though the only one who truly did so is the holy one of Israel. Then, it says, they brought Him up “to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24).

8. The pair of turtledoves, reflecting the parents' chastity; referred in some way to those yoked together in lawful marriage. The two young pigeons, knowing nothing of marriage, clearly foretold the Virgin and Him who was born of her and was a virgin to the end. Notice how precise the law is. It stipulated a pair of turtledoves which symbolize those yoked in marriage, but was careful not to refer to the young pigeons as a pair, for neither the Mother nor her Son knew anything of the married state. The law prophesied these things and through them foreshadowed the virgin birth, which it declared long before. When the child born in so marvellous a way was brought up to the Temple, the Holy Spirit prepared other, more fitting turtledoves and young pigeons. Who might these be? Simeon and Anna, who could be said to be young pigeons, because of their babe-like innocence of evil, or rightly called turtledoves on account of their utter chastity.

9. If we run quickly through the Gospel verses, we see that Simeon, a just and devout man, had been warned beforehand by the Holy Spirit and was moved by Him to come unto the Temple at this time. He met the heavenly and earthly infant and took Him in his arms. As God, he offered Him a hymn and a supplication, asking Him to let him depart from the body, declaring Him to all as the light of salvation (cf. Luke 2:29-32), and asserting that He was set for the fall of unbelievers and the resurrection of those who believed in Him (cf. Luke 2:34).

10. Then he conversed with the infant's Virgin Mother. He showed that her grief on account of the child's Cross revealed her as the mother according to nature of the now theandric Babe, and that by disclosing the doubtful thoughts surrounding the child she would dispel them from people's hearts. Simeon gave the true Mother of the paradoxical child clear evidence of her pain at the child's suffering and her intense sorrow and compassion for Him (cf. Luke 2:35).

11. The prophetess Anna, widow of Phanuel, was about eighty four years old. Devoted to fasts and prayers, she never left the Temple. At that moment, more than ever in the power of the Holy Spirit, she gave thanks to God and announced the good tidings, that redemption which she declared to be this infant, had come to those who were waiting for it (cf. Luke 2:38).

12. The Holy Spirit sent this dovelike Pair into the Temple beforehand to meet Christ when He came, teaching us what sort of people those who receive Christ should be, and what sort of people women who have lost their husbands and men who have lost their wives should be. For this Anna, Phanuel's widow, was both a widow and a prophetess. How was this possible? Because she renounced the worldly cares of everyday life and did not leave the Temple. She spent her days and nights in fasts, vigils, prayers and psalmody, and her life was blameless. So it stands to reason that she recognized the Lord, whom she served by her actions, when He came. As the psalmist and prophet says of Him, ''I will sing and I will behave myself wisely in a perfect way. O when wilt thou come unto me?'' (Ps. 101:1-2).

13. Men and women who choose, after being honourably widowed, to draw near to a life of virginity or to live with someone else, should be like this. If you altogether despise second marriages as something base, then hold fast to your purpose and follow in the footsteps of those who stayed unmarried all their lives. At one time Peter had a mother-in-law (cf. Mark 1:29-31, Luke 4:38-39), but he did not lag behind the virgin John when they both ran to the tomb where life began (cf. John 20:3-6). In some ways he even surpassed John, for he was appointed leader of the leaders by their Lord (cf. Matt. 16:18-19, John 21:15-17). When desire is redirected from the flesh to the spirit it raises us to such heights.

14. Be careful not to stand aloof from marriage as from something vulgar whilst at the same time failing to remain chaste because it is too difficult. In that case, you will drift away and fall unawares, for you are following neither what is according to the law nor what is superior to the law; but what is against the law. We regard widowed people who do not live chastely as worthy of condemnation, and even if they are lawfully joined in a second marriage we do not deem them completely blameless - for Paul says that they have cast off their first faith (cf. I Tim. 5:11-12, I Cor. 7:27, 39-40). So how much more to be condemned are those who prefer illicit pleasure to lawful marriage, and who live with their wives but do not abstain from fornication. It was fornication which brought the universal flood upon those originally called God's sons (Gen. 6:1-7), which caused fire to rain down from heaven on the men of Sodom (Gen. 13:13; 18:20; 19:5-25), and brought defeat and terrible slaughter to the Israelites at the hands of the Moabites (Num. 25:1-9). And at the present time, in my opinion, it brings upon us defeats at our enemies' hands and all sorts of misfortunes and disasters from within and without.

15. The first to be called sons of God in the Scriptures are the descendants of Enos, who was the first to hope to be called by the Name of the Lord (cf. Gen. 4:26 Lxx). Enos was the son of Seth, whose family was separate from the accursed family of Cain, and lived chastely. For their sake the world continued until, according to the Scripture, they saw the daughters of men, that is, the women of Cain's stock, that they were fair (Gen. 6:2). Overcome by their corrupt beauty, they took wives of all whom they chose, and learnt their ways. Then evil increased on earth and the flood came and swept them all away (Gen. 6:17). If on earth in those days Noah and his sons had not been found to be chaste - as shown by the fact that each man had one wife with whom he went into the ark (Gen. 7:13) - there would have been no root or source from which a second world could begin.

16. Notice that the world would have been destroyed in those days on account of the promiscuous, had it not been preserved for the sake of the chaste. How will people who are unworthy even of this present life. seeing that they pervert its order into disorder, not be banished from the age to come? They will be handed over to the fire of hell because they did not withstand the fire of fleshly pleasures, unless they make haste now to quench it with repentance and wash away with tears the stains it has already caused. They should also be aware that if they do not quickly make a stand against this passion, in time they will be delivered up to worse, shameful, unnatural passions. These are the product of impure desires and attract here and now the fire of hell, which seizes the licentious and carries them away to eternal punishment.

17. Everyone has heard of the men of Sodom, of their fervour for completely unlawful depravity; the unprecedented rain of fire that fell on them and their destruction. Often a whole town had to bear the consequences of one man's lechery, as in the case of the inhabitants of the town of Shechem who were completely wiped out by Jacob's sons because Shechem defiled Jacob's daughter Dinah (Gen. 34:2-31). If we leave aside now those who lived before the law, the law itself commands that if a bride is found not to be a virgin she is to be stoned (Deut. 22:13-21), and if a priest's daughter plays the harlot she is to be burnt with fire (Lev. 21:9). It is also forbidden to offer the wages of prostitution in the Lord's Temple (Deut. 23:18). When the Israelites defiled themselves with Moabite women, twenty-three thousand men perished by the sword in one day (1 Cor, 10:8, cf. Num. 25:1-9, Exod. 32:28). The great Paul tells us, ''Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand'' (1 Cor. 10:8). Such are the penalties for fornication before the law and under the law, once the law was given.

18. But what about ourselves who have been enjoined to crucify the flesh with the passions and lusts (Gal. 5:24), but fall again into those sins on account of which God's wrath comes upon the children of disobedience (Col. 3:6)? We have been exhorted to mortify our members which are upon the earth, fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection and lust, and have not heeded the advice (Col. 3:5). At the end of the day, if nothing else, we should at least fear natural disasters: from below, from above, those which have happened already, those eternal ones which threaten us. We should stand in awe of the appearance of Christ, the Sun of righteousness (Mal. 4:2), in the flesh, and walk honestly as in the day (cf. Rom. 13:13). We should be afraid of the apostle's warnings, declarations and counsels when he says, ''Know ye not that ye are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy'' (1 Cor. 3:16-17). Also, ''Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness and such like; of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God'' (Gal. 5:19, 21). Also, ''For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God'' (Eph. 5:5). Also, "This is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication. For God hath not called us to uncleanness, but unto holiness. He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath given us his Holy Spirit" (I Thess. 4:3, 7-8).

19. Who could recount all the sayings of the apostles and prophets on this subject? Those who are chaste, and therefore belong among Christ's members, are commanded by the apostle as follows: ''I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators'' (I Cor. 5:9). Because they themselves feel no shame, he advises the others to avoid them and awaken shame in them saying, ''If any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, with such an one do not eat'' (I Cor. 5:11). Notice that anyone who wallows in fornication is a stain on the whole Church (I Cor. 5:6), so everyone should turn away from him and drive him out (I Cor. 5:7). Paul himself delivered to Satan the fornicator in Corinth and neither allowed love to be shown towards him, nor accepted him, until he exhibited fitting repentance (I Cor. 5:5).

20. Save your soul, O man, from such present and future evils, and from those twofold evils which are both in the present and the future. Esau's descendants were outcasts because he was immoral and sacrilegious (Gen. 25:25; 26:34-35, Heb. 12:16). Rehoboam was deprived of most of his kingdom (I Kgs. 11:43) because his father Solomon, who was exceptionally obsessed with women (I Kgs. 11:1-4, cf. Neh. 13:26), died without suffering this loss. Solomon was spared on account of David (I Kgs. 11:34), who with streams of tears and other works of repentance, continuously eroded the curse that at one time was inflicted on him.

21. The apostle urges us once more, brethren, to flee fornication (I Cor. 6:18). If Samson had fled from it, he would not have fallen into Delilah's hands after being deprived of the hair of his head and his strength. He would not have been blinded nor lost his life in such an unfortunate way alongside his enemies (Judg. 14:1). If they who were led by Moses and to whom he had given the law had fled from fornication they would not have made sacrifices to Baal-peor (Num. 25:3), nor eaten sacrifices of the dead (Num. 25:2-3, and cf. Ps. 106:28, Hosea 9:10), nor fallen as often as they did. If Solomon had fled from it he would not have deserted God who made him king and gave him wisdom, nor would he have erected temples for idols (I Kgs. 11:2-4).

22. You will observe that the passion of fornication pushes a person toward ungodliness. Susanna's beauty would not have beguiled the senior judges in Babylon, triumphed over them and resulted in their being stoned, if from the beginning they had fled from defilement and had not watched her every day lasciviously beforehand (Sus. 5-62). The wretched Holofernes would not have died with his neck severed if Judith's sandal had not previously, according to the Scripture, caught his eye and her beauty ensnared his soul (Judith 16:9). Job says, ''I made a covenant with mine eyes; why then should I think upon a maid'' Gob 31:1), how much less upon a corrupt woman either divorced or married.

23. Practise the single life as dear to God, or the married life as God's gift. Drink water from your own wells or rather, chastely from your one well. Keep away completely from the adulterated draught, which is the water of the Styx, the stream of the river Acheron. It is full of murderous venom and has poisonous powers, and invariably drags those who drink it down through the trapdoor of hell into its innermost recesses. Flee from the honeyed lips of prostitutes which are skilled in spreading shameful death, namely, separation from God. David said on this subject, ''They that wantonly desert thee shall perish'' (Ps. 72:27 Lxx).

24. We, whose bodies have become the temple of God through the spirit, and in whom the Spirit dwells, must be clean, or at least be in the process of being cleansed, and remain always undefiled, contenting ourselves with permissible pleasures. We must make haste to attain purity and chastity and avoid fornication and every uncleanness, in order to rejoice throughout all ages with the pure bridegroom in the unsullied bridal-chambers. By the prayers of the ever-virgin, most pure, all-glorious Mother who bore Him in virginity for our salvation, now and for ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

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