Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas


Matthew 5:8

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Isaiah 58:3-11

“'Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?'
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the LORD?

"Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

“Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, 'Here I am.'
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the LORD will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.”


Gregory Palamas, To the Most Reverend Nun Xenia, 42

You cannot extinguish a raging fire by slashing at it from above; but if you pull away the fuel from below, the fire will die down immediately. So it is with the passions of impurity. If you do not cut off the inner flow of evil thoughts by means of prayer and humility, but fight against them merely with the weapons of fasting and bodily hardship, you will labour in vain. But if through prayer and humility you sanctify the root, as we said, you will attain outward sanctity as well.


Reference to Gregory Palamas seems much more appropriate for the Feast of the Transfiguration than for Lent, at least upon first blush. After all, he dedicated most of his polemical career to defending the uncreated nature of the Thaboric light. Yet, mixed into that debate, was a constant focus on knowledge of God through experience of Him, and experience of God through a purified heart and the mediating power of Christ.

I have made reference before to encountering God (in Christ) in the Lenten fast, and I stand by that language. It is important to remember, and both Gregory and Isaiah remind us of this, that it is not the fast itself that facilitates this experience. It is, at best, a secondary cause. The outward fast is intended to engender in us both prayer and humility. In truth, we find that this follows very naturally in practice. Particularly with reference to food, the nagging nature of hunger and the knowledge of the cause of that hunger is a constant call to prayer and a persistent reminder of our own fragility and finitude.

In essence, the outward fast creates within us an inward fast, a true fast of the kind that Isaiah describes. It is a fast of good works and dedication to God. It is a spiritual fast that is helped but not summed up in our physical fast. Self-denial becomes a means of affirming God. This isn't to say that we need to abolish the self in order to truly affirm God, because, in Christ (and the experience of God he brings), we find the only true and substantial affirmation of our being. Humanism--of a genuine sort--embraces the true essence of humanity which is perfected and typified in Jesus Christ. In essence, by emptying ourselves and approaching Christ in the forty days of fast we enounter ourselves as we ought to be and as we truly will be some day.

So by grace we are offered the chance to die to ourselves in order to find our life in Christ, to be purified, and, ultimately, to see God.


Oh that my words were written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
Oh that with an iron pen and lead
they were engraved in the rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!
--Job 19:23-27

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