Sunday, March 27, 2016: Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas; The Holy Matrona of Thessalonica, Paul, Bishop of Corinth
This world, and all that is in it, is passing away. As we hear in the epistle, “they will perish . . . they will all grow old like a garment, like a mantle thou wilt roll them up.” We would be mistaken, however, if we were to conclude from its transitory character that this world is unimportant or that we can remain indifferent to what goes on around us because it is passing away.
The reason for this is that creation is just that, God’s creation. “Thou, Lord, didst found the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of thy hands.” And far from passing into non-existence, these things that pass away will, one day, “be changed.”
The author Hebrews is not telling us to turn our backs on the world around us. He is rather contrasting the fleeting nature of this life with the permanence of God. “[T]hou art the same, and thy years will never end.” And it is because God doesn’t change that “we must pay closer attention” to the Gospel, “lest we,” who are prone to change “drift away from it.”
This isn’t to suggest that change is, in and of itself, a bad thing. Change, the ability to be different, is the hallmark of being a creature. St Gregory of Nyssa goes so far as to say “that human perfection consists precisely in this constant growth in the good” (The Life of Moses, PG 44.300 B-301 C). Or, if you prefer, we are called to change and change frequently.
What we are not called to do, is turn our back on the world around us.
We can’t be indifferent either to the material creation or human society. The evidence for this is found in, among other places, this morning’s Gospel as well as in the teaching of St Gregory Palamas, the saint whose memory we celebrate today on the first Sunday of Great Lent.
Let’s look briefly at each.
Jesus comes and proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of God not only in His words but also in His deeds. The works serve as evidence of the truthfulness of His words, while the teaching explain the meaning of His actions. Healings are chief among the works that Jesus performs. Jesus restores the human body to its proper function.
He does this not only out of mercy for the afflicted but also to show that “the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Restoring the normative, that is healthy, function of the body is the sign of Jesus’ authority to forgive our sins.
This close association between sign and its meaning extends beyond the merely physical. Jesus also has authority over demons. Through His exorcisms—the same exorcism we hear in the rite of baptism by the way—Jesus demonstrates His power over the Enemy. Jesus is seen in the Gospels commanding the demons, ending their tyranny over humanity and casting them “into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41, NJKV).
The physical and spiritual dimensions, however, are not the limit of Jesus’ authority. As much as the human body, the social dimension of human life, chief among these the family and human society, are also in need of being restored, of being healed. This is why together with His re-affirmation of the nature of marriage (Matthew 19:1-10), Jesus tells His disciples to rightly distinguish the things that are Caesar’s from the things that are God’s (see Mark 12:17 and parallels) and cleanses the temple (Matthew 21:12-17). Human society in both its civil and religious dimension need to be re-shaped.
And the point of this restoration?
It isn’t to create a perfect, earthly society since Jesus’ Kingdom “is not of this world” (see John 18:36). It is rather meant (as with physical healings) to transform society into an icon of the Kingdom of God that is to come (see Hebrews 7:26-8:5).
The human body, marriage and family life, civil and religious society, together with the rest of creation are all in need of the healing grace and mercy of God. There is no part of the created order, visible or invisible, divorced from the grace of God. All will one day be transformed into the New Heaven and the New Earth (Revelations 21) where sin and death will be no more and where we will stand in the presence of “the throne of God and of the Lamb.” It is there, in the Kingdom of God that we “shall see His face.” It is there that there will be “no night” no need for lamp or sunlight because God Himself will be our light. And it is there that with Him we shall “shall reign forever and ever” (Revelations 22:3-5, NKJV).
This great, eschatological fulfillment begins here and now. In the sacraments and the worship of the Church we have a foretaste of the Kingdom. Building on this grace our ascetical life, and here we turn to St Gregory Palamas, is our personal preparation for the Kingdom.
St Gregory argued that to see the Divine Light as not simply as an internal, psychological reality, but also something we experience with our physical eyes. This means that, here and now, our bodies participate in the Kingdom which is to come.
So, like Jesus, we don’t simply talk about the Kingdom of God but engage in those deeds that form, reform and transform the creation into a sacrament of the Kingdom of God. The evangelical fruit of our sacramental and ascetical life extends not simply to the soul but also to the body. But it doesn’t end there. Through our work, we also are called to bring the material world and human society into an ever greater conformity to the Kingdom of God.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, on this the second Sunday of Great and Holy Lent, let us commit ourselves not only to an ascetical struggle of the body but also to a like struggle in society. Let us by God’s grace and our own efforts work to bring the human body and the body politic into a deeper consonance with the Kingdom of God that is to come.