PROPER OF THE SEASON
SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT
SAINT GREGORY PALAMAS
(Heb. 1:10-2:3; Mk. 2:1-12)
Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther
years before Constantinople fell to the Turks, the Church was divided by a
conflict over prayer. Can someone
praying from the heart see the light of God, which Jesus manifested in his
Metamorphosis on Mount Tabor? Barlaam,
a monk in South Italy – using Western theological methods – said that this
was impossible. Palamas, relying on
his experience of prayer, gained on the Holy Mountain – Athos – argued that
it was not only possible but certain. Gregory
Palamas argued that the prayerful Christian could see the light of God’s
activity, not the Light of God’s essential being.
Barlaam argued that to distinguish between the essence and the energies
of God would be to deny the unity and the simplicity of God.
But Palamas reflected the Orthodox belief in the Holy Trinity, by which
just as Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God the Father, so the three
Persons of God are each distinct one from another, but all have the same
essence. God is a complex unity. To see the light of God’s energies is
perfectly credible, because mankind has seen the Son of God Himself.
The teaching of Palamas became part of Orthodox dogma.
The epistle tells us that God made ‘earth’s
foundations in the beginning.’ This shows God’s activity as an effect of
God’s essential being. The writer shows a distinction between the Son and the
angels. The angels are sent out by
God to do tasks for mankind. The Son sits on his throne on the right hand of God the
Father. The language (1: 14) means
that the angels are always being sent forth ‘to help those who will be the
heirs of salvation.’ The
writer goes on to say that ‘We ought, then, to turn our minds more
attentively… to what we have been taught, so that we do not drift away.’
This is because the revealer is God, and the revelation of God is
greater than the teaching of the Law, and those who communicate that
- the angels. So the writer argues that ‘If a promise that was made
through angels proved to be so true that every infringement and disobedience
brought its own proper punishment, then we shall certainly not go unpunished if
we neglect this salvation that is promised to us.’
In relation to the teaching of Gregory Palamas, this passage reminds us that our faith must be expressed in prayer, for by prayer there may take place the revelation of God’s reality and the answering of human questions, questions about the big problems in our lives. Light reveals; prayer makes revelation possible. But are we worthy to receive the light? Are we struggling to be closer to God this Lent?
Today’s gospel is the story of the healing of the paralytic. Firstly, Jesus is meeting opposition from the traditional teachers of religion, the scribes; secondly, ‘the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ Jesus uses this Aramaic term publicly of himself; meaning by it that he emphasizes the ordinariness of his manhood compared with the Godhead of his Father. Jesus uses this term 14 times in the gospel of Mark. Jesus is showing that he is the Messiah whom the Jews expected and that he and the community of faithful believers will enter into the glory of God’s full life. The point of this passage in regard to Palamas is that what that Gregory says about prayer and the light of God is just as much central to Orthodoxy as what the other Gregories – Nazianzen and Nyssa – have said about God the Holy Trinity.
We have just been told (Mark 1: 40-45) that because Jesus had healed a leper who began to ‘tell the story everywhere’, Jesus could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived. Even so, 'people from all around would come to him.’ This is a helpful image: God hiding himself so that we may work hard to find him. We now see Jesus in a house in Capernaum ‘preaching the word’ to the many people who have come to hear him. The house has an outside staircase, common throughout the Middle East. This staircase allows helpers of the crippled man to carry him up to the flat roof; where they make a hole in the clay and let down the stretcher with the patient into the room beneath. To do this, the helpers had to clear away the supporting branches beneath the clay. We can see how eager they were. That is the third point: to have faith. ‘Seeing their faith Jesus said to the paralytic, ‘My child, your sins are forgiven.”’ Jesus speaks in a way his audience would understand. It was believed that disease was due to sin (John 9: 2). By telling the patient that God can forgive the sin and guilt which cause illness, Jesus is acting as the Messiah; but the scribes would have believed that forgiveness could only happen at the final judgement. No, says Jesus: God is here, now, working in me. This is the same understanding which Palamas expressed in his argument that a very faithful Christian could see the divine light of God’s energies.
We are told that some scribes were present and that they thought that Jesus was blaspheming. Jesus picks up their thoughts and challenges them. ‘Why do you have these thoughts in your hearts? Which of these is easier: to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven” or to say, “Get up, pick up your stretcher and walk”? Jesus’ question is intended to provoke thought deep inside the heart.
The gospel goes on with Jesus’ challenge. ‘But to prove to you that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…I order you: get up, pick up your stretcher, and go off home.’ The reading ends with the paralytic doing what he is told, what he is now able to accomplish, and astonishing everyone, who praise God and say ‘We have never seen anything like this.’
The relationship to Palamas is now complete. When he made his ascent to the high places of Athos, he went up in faith, carried by the strength of other Christians who had understood the transfiguring power of Jesus. To take that risk in faith, to make that effort, to be quiet in the struggle: these are the things which Eastern monastic life had always done. 100 years later, all these things were to be more necessary, because the Turks would suppress the open preaching of the word, make the life of Christians more restricted, and deny the Church the right to show its symbols publicly.
In our world, where the conditions of daily life give us freedom but deny our reality as people of faith, the inner prayer of the heart is a way to see Christ as he is: the Lord, the healer, the teacher, the Saviour. Our sins are forgiven if we have faith in him. And our strength is increased. As we say at communion,
‘We have beheld the true Light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the truth faith. Let us bow down in worship to the Trinity Undivided, for He hath saved us.’
That is everything.
That is the Orthodox faith.
That is the meaning of Lent:
'O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.’
© Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther.
Sunday, 23 March 2003.
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