Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas

Today on this day of St. Gregory Palamas, the calendar of the church has given us such a rich burden of teaching about our Lord Jesus Christ, that if we paid attention to it – which it is difficult for us to internalize all that – we would realize we have almost heard the entire gospel today.

St. Paul, in the first reading from Hebrews, the one that was intended for the catechumens, tells us that some believe that Christ is like an angel, that is a creature. Some heretics proclaimed that Jesus was the first creation of the Father, but St. Paul reassures us that Christ was eternally with the Father. In fact, God had said to Him, “Sit down at my right hand,” and He sat at the right hand of the Father until His enemies should be put into submission under his feet. That Jesus Christ is He who was and is and is to be, in whom the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell bodily, the visible form of the invisible God.

St. Gregory Palamas testified that when God appeared in the Old Testament, when He showed himself to the fathers, when he appeared to Abraham, when He appeared to Moses, when He wrestled with Jacob through an angel, a messenger, when He appeared to Isaiah at the temple, that these were not illusions, not tricks, not visual aids, not special effects, but the very uncreated energies of the eternal God. So it was Christ Himself – the visible form of the invisible God – who appeared in the Old Testament. And we can rightly say that Christ spoke to Abraham in the desert, that Christ spoke to Adam in the Garden, that Christ as the Ancient of Days proclaimed to Isaiah to go and teach, that it was to Christ that the angels proclaimed, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Sabbaoth.”

And in the second reading from the letter to the Hebrews, he tells us that this Christ is the High Priest, that all priesthood that came before Him was simply to teach. The priests who were men like us, high priests with sins, who needed first to ask for their own forgiveness before they could pray for the forgiveness of the people, who needed to offer sacrifices over and over again, and who needed to offer sacrifices of creatures of the fallen world – of lambs from the flock, of cattle from the herd, of birds – who needed to offer sacrifices of blood daily for their sins and for those of the people, but that Christ as the High Priest, having entered into the Holy of Holies, holding the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek had offered himself once, and that that one sacrifice was and remains sufficient for the sins of the whole world; being a high priest who will never die and be succeeded, being a high priest who needs not repeat his offerings, being a high priest in whom there is no sin at all for which he first must offer sacrifice. You might say then that if Christ’s sacrifice is offered once, if he is our high priest, you might say like the Adventists and some of the Protestants do, “Why do we need priests in the church?” We priests in the church are simply visible icons to you of the invisible Christ.

Now, if we offer the liturgy every week, and sometimes every day, and we call it a sacrifice of praise, why are we still offering sacrifices if Christ’s one sacrifice is sufficient. Because, brothers and sisters, although the services of the hours, the matins, the vespers, the compline, the first, the third, the sixth, the ninth hour are attached to the time of the day, they’re attached to moments in the history of the faith. The first hour representing the beginning of Creation, and matins God’s creation and the last judgment, third hour the descent of the Holy Spirit, sixth hour our Lord’s being fixed to the cross, ninth hour His descent from the cross. And these represent times of the day, times in salvation history. The Divine Liturgy is timeless. When we enter into this mystery, when we say, “Let us who mystically represent the cherubim and with them sing the thrice holy hymn to the life creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares,” we pass out of space and time and we become present in eternity. It is not that Christ dies again and again, but that we again and again are privileged to stand at the one offering of Himself on Golgotha and of His resurrection in the Divine Liturgy.

You understand, don’t you? I hope you understand. In the Roman Catholic mass, and in the liturgies of some of the protestant churches such as the Lutherans and Anglicans, the blessing of the bread and the wine are seen as some how or the other representing or being the crucifixion of Christ. But it is not so for us, nor was it for the ancient church. Christ’s body and blood have already been prepared on the table there. The Lamb – one for today and another for Wednesday, the Pre-Sanctified, has already been sacrificed, and pierced. The blood has already been shed. The gifts are prepared and covered, surrounded by the ranks of saints, and by the particles that represent your prayers from the little books and sheets you send into the altar. When we bear them into the altar, it is not Christ going to die, it is we carrying His body and blood to place in the tomb so that in the anaphora we may be present when He arises with glory. For us, the Divine Liturgy is the representation, the presentation again, of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, of His trampling down death and destroying hell.

Now, in the first gospel today our Lord was talking to a crowd. He was preaching to the people; He was standing under the porch of one of the houses that had the roof where thatch was laid across wooden beams. People would go up there to sleep at night, there was a staircase around back. Four men had a friend who was crippled. They wanted very much for Jesus to heal him, but they couldn’t get near because there was a crowd around Him. The King James Version says, “They could not get near on account of the press, so some of the kids probably things those are the paparazzi, but the press meant the people pressing on Him. So they went around behind and they climbed up and they tore up the thatch and they lowered him down by four corners of a cross. And Jesus looks and him and He says, “Son, thy sins be forgiven thee.” This young man and Jesus understood what had happened. The man wanted more than anything to be reconciled to God. It was more important to him to be right with God than to stand aright on his own feet. But the Jews, they were thinking – the Sadducees and the scribes – “How can this man forgive sins? No one can forgive sins except God.” You see, they had their own answer. That this Man, greater than the angels sat down at the right hand of the Father, would offer up His sacrifice for all, One God on earth. But they couldn’t accept that, so they said, “How can this man forgive sins? This man blasphemeth.” And Jesus didn’t have to hear them say it. He knew what was in their hearts. He could read their minds. And He said, “Why do you think such in your hearts?” Then He showed them that He was the One who forgives sins, the very Lamb who God said “takes away the sins of the world” and not just the big sins of the world, but the little sins of you, and you, and me. He takes away our sins. The Lamb of God. And Jesus said, “That you’ll know that the Son of Man” – He claimed for Himself that old title the Son of Man – “has power on earth to forgive sins,” He says to the sick man, “Arise, pick up your bed, and walk.” And the young man was healed at that minute. The healing was to confirm the forgiveness.

And then finally, finally St. Paul tells us something more about Jesus. He is not only Almighty God, the Eternal Only Begotten Son of the Father, He is not only the Ancient of Days, the Son of Man who came down from heave with power and might, He is not only the forgiver of our sins and our High Priest, but He is our Shepherd. The Israelites were taught by God to wander for a long time. They wandered in the wilderness, and He preferred such people as Abel, and Jacob, who were tenders of flocks, and He chose for His king, not any of those big, tall, dark-haired, strong men who were the sons of Jesse, but the little, short, red-headed kid named David. He chose him because he was a shepherd. Because when he said, “The Lord is my shepherd,” he knew what it meant to have God as his shepherd, because he had experienced the danger of the wolf, and of the bear, and of the ravaging creatures who had attempted to destroy the sheep of his flock, and he had had to fight them with his sling and with his rod, and his staff. And now we’re told that Jesus Christ is our Good Shepherd, he is the door to the sheep fold, that He comes to open the door of protection for us, that we may no longer wander in the wilderness of desires, but may enter into the sheep fold and be tended by our good shepherd, who being the Ancient of Days, all-powerful, almighty, nevertheless, loving, kind, compassionate, and caring.

Let us let just a little of this sink into our souls as we progress toward next Sunday when we will lift the cross in the midst of Lent and receive from God belief in the midst of our journey.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, glory to Jesus Christ!

Glory forever!

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