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April 28, 2019

An Interpretation of Certain Sayings of St. Gregory the Theologian Found in Paschal Hymns (Abba Dorotheos of Gaza)

In Abba Dorotheos of Gaza's Ascetic Works, Teaching 16 is "An Interpretation of Certain Sayings of Saint Gregory the Theologian Found in Paschal Hymns." These hymns are no longer sung at Easter, since they have been superseded by the famous Canon by Saint John the Damascene, though he may have used them for inspiration. Abba Dorotheos seems to be basing his remarks on a troparion which was, indeed, sung at Easter when he was alive and elements of which are to be found in a homily preached by Saint Gregory the Theologian on Easter day, 383 A.D. (S.C. vol. 92, p. 458). The troparion was published by S. Petrides in Byzantinische Zeitschrift 1904, 421-3).

166. I’m very happy to say a few words to you about the hymns we sing, so that you won’t be too taken up with the melody and so that your minds will take part commensurately in the power and depth of the words. So what have we just been singing?

It is the day of the Resurrection,
Let us offer ourselves as first-fruits.

In olden times, when the Israelites came together for their festivals, according to the Law they offered God gifts such as incense, burnt offerings, first-fruits, and the like. Saint Gregory invites us, also, to celebrate the feast in God’s honour as they did, and exhorts us to do so by saying:

It is the day of the Resurrection,

a day instead of the holy feast, a day of divine celebration, the day of Christ’s “Passover”. What is the “Passover” of Christ? The Israelites kept Pesach when they came out of Egypt. Easter, the “Passover” which the Saint commend us to celebrate, is enacted by the soul, which comes out of the spiritual Egypt, that is, from sin. When the soul passes over from sin to virtue, then it celebrates the Pesach of the Lord. As Evagrios says: ‘The Passover of the Lord is the passage away from evil’.

167. So today, Easter Day, is the ‘Passover’ of Christ, a day of bright feasting, the day of the Resurrection, the day when He nailed sin to the Cross, died for us and then rose. Let us offer ourselves as sacrificial gifts and whole burnt offerings to the Lord, rather than dumb animals which Christ doesn’t want. Because ‘You did not desire the sacrifice and offering of dumb beasts, and are not pleased with burnt offerings of sheep and calves.’ And Isaiah says: ‘What do I care for the multitude of your sacrifices says the Lord’ and so on. But the Lamb of God was sacrificed for us, according to the Apostle who says, ‘Our Passover is Christ Who was sacrificed for us, to take away the sin of the world’. And, as the Scriptures say, He has become a curse for our sake: ‘Cursed be the man who hangs upon a tree’ in order to ‘redeem us from the curse of the Law’ and that we might be adopted by Him. This is why we ought, on our part, to offer Him a gift that will please Him. So what gift or what sacrifice ought we to offer Christ in order to please Him on the day of His Resurrection, given His aversion to the sacrifice of dumb animals?

In his teaching, the Saint tells us the answer, because, after saying, ‘It is the Day of the Resurrection’, he adds, ‘Let us offer ourselves as first-fruits’. The Apostle, too, instructs us: 'Offer up your own bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and well-pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.’

168. How then should we present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy to God? By no longer following the desires of our flesh and our own ideas, but by walking in the spirit and not fulfilling the desires of the flesh. This is mortification of our earthly members. This is what is meant by a living sacrifice, holy and well-pleasing to God. But why a living sacrifice? Because a dumb animal led to sacrifice, dies at the very moment that it becomes a sacrificial victim. But the saints who offer themselves to God, offer themselves alive, every day- as David says, ‘For your sake we are put to death all the day long, we have been reckoned as sheep for the slaughter’. This is what St. Gregory means by

Let us offer ourselves as first-fruits,

that is, let’s sacrifice ourselves, let’s die to ourselves all the day long, as did all the saints, for the sake of Christ our God. How did they put themselves to death? By not loving the world or what is in the world- as it says in the Catholic Epistles, by rejecting the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, that is, hedonism, avarice, and vainglory, and by taking up the Cross and following Christ and crucifying the world to themselves and themselves to the world. About this the Apostle says, ‘Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.’ This is how the saints put themselves to death.

But how did they offer themselves up? By not living for themselves, but by placing themselves in servitude to God’s commandments and putting away their own will for the sake of the command and love of God and their neighbour. As Saint Peter says, ‘Behold we have given up everything and followed you.’ What did he give up? He had no possessions, riches or gold or silver, he only had his net and that was threadbare, according to Saint John Chrysostom. But, as the latter also said, he did give up all his own aspirations, all desire of having the things of this world, and it is clear that had he had riches or power, he would have despised them and taken up his cross to follow Christ according to the saying, ‘I live, yet no longer I, but now Christ lives in me.’ This is how the saints offered themselves up, putting themselves to death, as we were saying, in regard to all their passionate desires and doing their own will and living solely for Christ and his commandments.

170. So then, let us also

Offer ourselves as first-fruits,

as Saint Gregory teaches. But it’s us he’s referring to when he says,

God’s most precious possession

Of all visible creatures, human beings are, indeed, the most precious. All other things the Creator brought into being by His fiat alone, saying, ‘Let it be’- and there it was; ‘Let the earth bring forth’ and it did; ‘Let the waters bring forth’ and so on. But He fashioned and adorned human beings with His own hands; and He established all the rest of creation for the service and comfort of those people whom He set up as rulers and allowed them to enjoy all the delights of paradise. And what is even more astonishing: when people fell from there through their own fault, God called them back again through the blood of His only-begotten Son, so that of all the visible creatures we should be the most precious. And not only the most precious, but also ‘the most familiar’.

Because He said, ‘Let us make people in our own image and likeness’, and again, ‘God created people in His own image and likeness and breathed into them the breath of life’. Our Lord, having made a home for Himself among us, took on the human form, human flesh, and the human mind. Put simply, He became human in everything except sin, becoming our familiar Friend and making us, as it were, His own. This was beautifully and appositely expressed by Saint Gregory when he said that we’re God’s most precious and most familiar possession.

171. Then he adds, even more clearly,

Let us restore the image to the ‘in the image’. [i.e. to the original state in which God made it].

How can we do that? Let’s learn from the Apostle who says, ‘Let us purify ourselves from all defilement both of flesh and of spirit’. Let us make clean and clear the image as we received it. Let us scour from it the filth of sin, so that it may appear in all its beauty through the virtues. It was for this beauty that David prayed, saying ‘Lord, by your will, give power to my beauty’. Let us, therefore, purify our own image. God wants this from us, since He gave it ‘without spot or wrinkle, or anything of the sort’.

Let us restore the image
To the ‘in the image’.
Let us come to know our value.

Let’s learn what great blessings we’ve been given; let’s learn in Whose image we’ve been made. Let’s not ignore the great gifts we’ve been given by Him, not because we deserve them, but simply out of His goodness. We should know that we’ve been made in the image of God Who created us.

Let us honor the Archetype.

Let’s not belittle the image of God in which we were made. If someone wanted to paint the image of a ruler, would they dare use a clarty colour in the picture and thus disrespect the ruler and leave themselves open to punishment? They’d always use costly and bright colours, worthy of a picture of a ruler. In fact, gold leaf is often used in pictures of rulers, and great care is taken to depict, as far as possible, all the royal robes, so that anyone seeing the picture with the whole of its regal character might think that they were almost seeing the ruler himself, the actual model for the portrait. Because the picture is wonderful and brilliant. So let’s not demean our Archetype. We’ve been made in the image of God. So rather let’s make our own image pure and honourable, worthy of the Archetype. Because, if people are punished for disrespecting the portrait of a ruler, who is no more than human in any case, what should we suffer if we disparage the divine image within us and don’t restore the image pure to the ‘in the image’, as Saint Gregory puts it. So, let’s honour the Archetype.

172. Let us know the power of the mystery and for whom Christ died.

The power of the mystery of Christ lies in the fact that, by sin, we’ve expunged the image in which we were made and have therefore been rendered dead, as the Apostle says, by our sins and transgressions. Having made us in His image, and through compassion for His creation and His image, God became human for our sakes and accepted death for all of us, so as to return us, who were dead, to life from which we had fallen away through the transgression. When He mounted His holy Cross and crucified the sin for which we were expelled from Paradise, He led captivity captive, as it’s written.

What’s this ‘He led captivity captive?’ It means that, because of Adam’s transgression, the enemy took us prisoner and kept us under his thumb. From then on, people’s souls went to Hades when they left the body, because Paradise was closed. But when Christ mounted the holy and life-giving Cross, by His own blood He delivered us from the captivity into which the enemy had led us through the transgression. In other words, He snatched us back from the hand of the enemy and, in a sense, made us captives again by defeating and casting down him who’d enslaved us in the first place. This is why it says He led captivity captive. This is the power of the mystery. This is why Christ died for us, so that, as Saint Gregory says, He might lead us, who were dead, back to life. We’ve been delivered from Hell, then, through Christ’s love for us, and now the return to Paradise is up to us. Because now the enemy is no longer a tyrant over us; no longer does he have us as his slaves.

173. Let’s only beware, brethren, and keep ourselves from active sin. I’ve already told you often enough, that every active sin we commit renders us, once again, slaves of the enemy, since of our own will we cast ourselves down and submit to him. Is it not shameful and great wretchedness if, after Christ has redeemed us from Hell with His most precious blood, and after we’ve heard all this, we should turn back and cast ourselves into Hell once more? Wouldn’t we then deserve worse and more ignominious punishment? May God, Who loves us, have pity on us and grant us the vigilance to understand and help ourselves, so that we may find a little mercy on the Day of Judgment.