December 21, 2021

Homily on the Holy and Dread Mysteries of Christ (St. Gregory Palamas - Delivered Four Days Before Christmas)

 Homily Fifty-Six

On the Holy and Dread Mysteries of Christ

By Saint Gregory Palamas

(Delivered Four Days Before Christmas)

1. The word which brings about the salvation of our souls is analogous to seed. Just as farmers first cultivate the earth with the plough, then sow seed, so must we prepare ourselves beforehand to accept the heavenly seed, by which I mean the word of spiritual teaching. But we are not inanimate, unfeeling earth which is cultivated and sown by others, but living, breathing, rational ground. For that reason we must make ourselves ready by means of repentance. To give you an indication of the starting point of repentance and the cultivation of the soul, it is what those who approached John`s baptism did one their own initiative: "They went out”, it says, "and were baptized in Jordan, confessing their sins” (cf. Matt. 3:5-6; Mark 1:5).

2. The confession of sins is the beginning of this cultivation, the start, that is, of repentance and preparation to accept within us the saving seed, the word of God, which is able to save our souls. Ploughing the ground was devised by farmers an a means of extracting wild roots from deep down in the earth, and rendering it capable of receiving our seeds and plants. Confession does exactly this for the reasonable field, our heart. It digs up the evil passions concealed within it and throws them out, making it ready to take in the sacred seeds and suitable to grown a fine harvest of virtues. Just as, after Adam`s transgression, the earth began to bring forth thistles, thorns, and other useless plants (Gen. 3:18), so man`s heart bears shameful and evil passion and thoughts, and the sins which they in turn produce.

3. This is the reason, brethren, why it is necessary for each of you to have a spiritual father, to approach him with faith, humble himself before him and declare the evil passions of his heart. Accepting spiritual therapy, he must cast out from his soul by the roots those thorns and thistles of sin which each of you has nourished within him through a pleasure–loving life in the grip of passions, and so open his ears to the Spirit`s teaching and be persuaded by what we preach and put forward to you for the good of all, and be reconciled, through the absolution and blessing he receives from us, with Him who bowed the heavens and come down on account of the boundless ocean of His love for mankind, and cast words of life and saving seeds into the hearts of those who obeyed Him. Let none of you shun this starting point of repentance. How can you go forward and make progress for the better from now on, if you have not even grasped the very beginning of virtues?

4. It is especially necessary for you to have to do this now. For this period of forty days was given to us by the God-bearing Fathers as a means of purifying ourselves beforehand, because it leads up to the yearly celebrations of the nativity in the flesh of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, when it is customary for almost all Christians to partake of His holy body and blood, to be united through them with Him, and to become one spirit and one body with Him in a divine way. If, as my words have already shown and will go on to prove further, without confession and the repentance which goes with it, on one is worthy to receive even divine utterances, how can anybody take the body and blood of Christ into himself unless he has been cleansed before hand through confession and repentance in proportion beforehand through confession and in proportion to his sins? For this reason the great Paul protests and exhorts, saying, "Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he the eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord`s body” (1 Cor. 2:28-29), not recognizing that this sinless body will not consent to dwell in a body indulging in sins.

5. For if a man cannot lift up his hands to Christ and pray unless they are unsoiled by sin, and he has first rejected all hatred and the disputes it causes (as Paul again makes clear, saying, "I will therefore that ye pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and guarreling”, cf. 1 Tim. 2:8); and if we lack boldness toward God because we do not have a clear conscience (as Christ`s beloved theologian says: "If our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God”, 1 John 3:21), how shall we have God with us and become one body with Him unless we have earlier laid aside our sins through confession and cleansed away the dirt left by them in our soul, by means of almsgiving, purity, self – control, prayer, contrition and the other work of repentance? God does not accept your gift unless both you and it are pure – as God originally showed us through Cain, by not heeding his gifts and telling him, "No; if thou offerest them correctly, yet hast thou not divided them aright” (Gen. 4:7 Lxx); then through the old law by forbidding a prostitute`s earnings to be brought into the house of God (Deut. 23:18); and later through the Gospel, saying: "First be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Matt. 5:24). So can it be that He will give you His own great gift of His body without you having first been purified by confession and repentance? What do you say? God does not even wish His statutes to be spoken by an impure mouth. "Unto the wicked” says the Scripture, "God saith, What right hast thou to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my convenant in thy mouth?” (Ps. 50:16). If He does not permit His covenant to be taken into an unclean mouth, will He give His give own body into such a mouth?

6. Therefore, brethren, let us purify ourselves beforehand in body, mouth and mind, and let us approach with a good and clear conscience. When coppersmiths and goldsmiths plate copper with gold, silver or some other precious metal and are about to overlay the copper with a bright surface, first they scrape off the dirt and make it clean. So how much more ought we, who are going to be made golden in a far better way, to cleanse ourselves beforehand from all defilement of flesh and spirit? For we do not shine merely on the surface, like plated copper, but everywhere within. Let us draw near after we have washed away even those stains in the depths of our soul. Then we shall also draw near to salvation.

7. If, however, we come with a bad conscience, without having yet obtained forgiveness by means of confession from him who has received power to loose and remit sins, and before we have returned to God, or been put on the right path by the prescriptions of the Church, then surely we shall do so to our own condemnation and eternal punishment, driving away God`s mercy and His forbearance towards us. "Who hath trodden”, says the Scripture, "under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant … an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?" (Heb. 10:29) A person who tears the royal purple robe and someone who buries it in filth will clearly be subject to the some judgment, and anyone who pours perfume on to mud has committed the same evil as someone who encloses it in a stinking container. The divine gift is unaffected, for it is not subject to suffering, but it invisibly flies away from us because "Fragrant ointment it not entrusted to a rotten vessel”. What it would have suffered, had it been capable of suffering, through being spoilt, will be undegone by the man who has unworthily take it to himself.

8. Let us make ourselves worthy through repentance, or rather, let us offer ourselves through works of repentance to Him who is able to render the unworthy worthy. In this way, let us approach with steadfast hope and faith, not simply beholding what is visible, but things unseen. For this bread is like a veil concealing the Godhead within. In proof of this the divine Paul says, "A new and living way hath he consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh” (Heb. 10:20), and by this means our citizenship is transferred to heaven – for that is where this bread is – and we enter into the true Holy of Holies through the offering of the body of Christ in purity. So, "Let, us draw near”, brethren, "with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:22).

9. Mysteries are so called because they are not simply something visible, but something spiritual and inexpressible. In accordance with the Lord`s words, "It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing” (John 6: 63), if you only look at the appearance, it will be of no benefit to you, but if you look to the spirit, that it to say, if you behold spiritually this bread set before you, you will be made alive by partaking in it. For this is "the meat which perisheth not, but which endureth unto everlasting life; the true bread which cometh down from heaven, the living bread which giveth life unto the world” (cf. John 6:27, 32-33, 51). Anyone who does not eat his bread will not live, but he who eats "shall live for ever” (John 6:51), and shall not only be resurrected, but also delivered from damnation and obtain an everlasting kingdom. The Lord did not speak to His disciples about this bread only at the Last Supper, but earlier, when He was teaching in the synagogue, He clearly proclaimed, "The bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:51). Again He declared, "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life” (John 6:53-54). How amazing! What great love has God abundantly poured our upon us! He has given us new birth in the Spirit and we have become one spirit with Him, as Pail says, "He that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit” (1 Cor. 6:17)

10. In order that we might be one with Him not just in spirit but in body, flesh of His flesh and bone of His bones (cf. Gen, 2:23), He granted us union with Himself through his bread. Every love finds fulfillment through unity, and starts from likeness. The popular adage "Like attracts like” is an ancient one. The love associated with the married state seems somehow superior to other forms of love. "For this cause”, it says, "shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh” (Matt. 19:5). "This is a great mystery”, says the divine Paul, "but I speak concerning Christ and the Church” (Eph. 5:32). It says in that same passage that a man shall cleave and become one flesh, but not one spirit. We, by contrast, shall not only be joined to Christ`s body but mingled with it through partaking in this divine bread, and we shall not just become one body, but also one spirit. Do you see that the surpassing greatness of God`s love towards us comes about, and is manifested, through sharing this bread and this cup? For this reason "Burnt offering and sin offering hath he not required”, according to the Psalm, "But he hath prepared a body for us” (cf. Ps. 40:6 Lxx).

11. O how manifold and ineffable this communion! Christ became our brother, partaking of the same flesh and blood with us, and through them become like us. Through this blood He has redeemed us for Himself as true servants. He has made us His friends (cf. John 15:14-15) by bestowing upon us the revelation of these mysteries. Through the partaking of this blood He has bound and betrothed us to Himself as a bridegroom his bride, and become one flesh with us. But He has also become our Father through holy baptism in His name, and nourishes us with His own breasts as a loving mother feeds her babies. And what is even better and more wondrous still, He feeds us not only with blood instead of milk, but with His own body, and not only His body but also His Spirit. In so doing. He always preserves undiminished the nobility given to us by Him, leads us towards greater longing, and grants us to fulfill our desire, not only to see Him but also to touch Him, to delight in Him, to take Him into our hearts, and for each of us to hold Him in our inmost selves. Come, He says, those of you who have set your heart on eternal life, eat May body and drink My blood (cf. John 6:53), that you may not only be in God`s image, but, by clothing yourselves in Me, the King and God of heaven, you may be eternal and heavenly gods and kings, feared by demons, admired by angels, beloved sons of the celestial Father, living for ever, fairer than the children of men (cf. Ps. 45:2), a delightful dwelling place for the sublime Trinity.

12. If but the symbol of this body made Abraham righteous (Gen. 14:18-19; 15:6; 22:2-19), if just the token of this blood kept alive the firstborn of Israel in Egypt (Exod. 12:23), if merely the type prefiguring this blood consecrated God`s ancient tabernacle, cleansed and hallowed even the Holy of Holies, made known the place where the divine Name dwelt on earth, and created priests, high priests and anointed men of God (Lev. 8:15, 19, Heb. 9:21-22, cf. Exod. 40:9-15); if just the symbol did all this, is there anything the reality will not achieve? Aaron did not enter the sanctuary without the symbolic blood, and unless we share in this reality the heavenly sanctuary will not be accessible to us, nor shall we have anywhere to stay in heaven nor shall we be an abode for the God of heaven, nor a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (cf. Rom. 12:1). For through Him alone shall we be admitted. "What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to destruction?” ask David, the prophet among kings (Ps. 30:9 Lxx).

13. Let us therefore mingle our blood with God's, in order to remove the corruption from our own, for in this blood there is great benefit past telling. It makes us new instead of old and eternal instead of temporary; it frees us from death and makes us like evergreen trees planted by the revers of the water of the divine Spirit (cf. Ps. 1:3), from which is gathered fruit unto life eternal (John 4:36). A spring welled up from paradise (cf.Gen. 2:10), a natural one, which sent forth natural rivers and watered the face of the earth, while from this sacred table, which, according to the psalm, Christ prepared for us in the presence of His enemies (cf. Ps 23:5), the demons and passions, a spring wells up giving rise to spiritual fountains, letting souls drink and leading them up to heaven. It turns the angels' faces towards its beauty, and in it is discerned the manifold wisdom of God (Eph. 3:10), causing them to desire to look into (1 Pet. 1:12) the gifts bestowed upon us through this blood. When we approach these mysteries we become a royal purple robe or, rather, the blood and body of the King and – O marvelous wonder! – we are transformed to receive divine sonship, as God`s radiance comes upon us in secret, shines round about us in an extraordinary way, makes us God`s anointed ones, and gives us power, according to the promise, to shine as the sun in the presence of the Father (cf. Matt. 13:43), provided only that no stain lingering in the soul of the person drawing near stands in the way.

14. For this reason not only should we cleanse ourselves before we approach, but also, after receiving this divine gift, we should pay heed to ourselves and be very much on our guard, that we might stay aloof from the passion and proclaim the virtues of Him who has graciously deigned to dwell in us on account of the likeness to Him in virtues which has come to light within us. Let us consider with whom we have been united and what blessings we have been vouchsafed and, amazed at the surpassing greatness of God`s gift and of His love for us, let us order our actions, words and thoughts according to "the good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2) For this is the blood of the New Testament (Matt, 26:28), which establishes that new covenant, namely, that gospel of Christ. "For a testament”, it says, "is of force after men are dead” (Heb. 9:17). When we partake of the blood of Christ's covenant, let us not make it uncertain through our works, lest we suffer judgment and eternal punishment, having counted the blood of the covenant an unholy thing, with which we were sanctified (cf. Heb. 10:29). Just as there is a great promise for those who keep the hallowing that comes from communion (for they are promised the kingdom of God) so there is also a severe punishment for those who make themselves useless after receiving the gift (cf. Heb. 10:29). For if, it says, "He that despised Moses' law died without mercy according to the law: of how much sorer punishment shall he be thought worthy, who hath counted the blood of the covenant an unholy thing, and hath done, despite unto the Spirit of grace?” (cf. Heb. 10:28-29)

15. But let us, I beseech you, brethren, preserve the grace of God undiminished in ourselves, putting all our efforts into obedience, into fulfilling the holy commandments and into offering ourselves to God through our actions, since He gave Himself for our sake. For the Father gave His only-begotten Son for us, and the only-begotten Son of God gave Himself. Shall we not then give ourselves in exchange, not for His sake but for our own? But how are we to give ourselves for our own sake to Christ who gave Himself for us? If we embrace love towards Him and one another. If we humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God (1 Pet. 5:6) and, for His sake, are humble towards ourselves and our fellows, "Minding not high things, but condescending to men of low estate” (Rom. 12:16). If, as far as we can, we crucify the flesh "with the affections and lusts” (Gal. 5:24), If we "mortify our members which are upon the earth; drunkenness, fornication, uncleanness, covetousness” (cf. Col. 3:5), and every evil passion. If we die to sin and live to virtue.

16. These things are taught us by the crucified body of Christ set before us as food. For at the same time as being nourished by Him, we are also taught to share in His virtues and His sufferings, that we may live and reign with Him for ever. He announced this beforehand through the prophet David, saying, "The sacrifice of praise will glorify me, and there I shall show him the way of my salvation” (cf. Ps. 50:23 Lxx). The service we perform in remembrance of what He has done for us is a sacrifice of thanksgiving, honor and praise to Him. And as the body and blood of Christ is truly set before us, and speaks to God the Father in a much more excellent manner than did the blood of Abel – for Abel`s blood cried to God against his bother (Gen. 4:10), whereas the blood of Christ speaks on behalf of us, whose brother Christ deigned to become, propitiating God for us and reconciling us to the Father on high – and this blood also speaks to us, clearly showing us the way of love, because He, for love of us, emptied Himself until He was like us, laid down His life for us and taught us the way of humility, because "In his humiliation his judgment was taken away; and he led as a sheep to the slaughter” (Acts 8:32-33, cf. Isa. 53:7-8). He taught us the way to obedience, for He too obeyed the Father unto the Cross and death (Phil. 2:8), and the way which bestows eternal life upon us through putting the passions to death.

17. For He too was dead, and behold He lives for evermore (cf. Rev. 1:18), giving life to those who cleave to Him through virtue and faith, glorifying them and glorified by them, together with His Father without beginning and the all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
From Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009.