Victory

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Section 18 is the last in St. Gregory the Theologian’s Oration 38. Despite the challenges posed by the polemics of Sections 14 & 15, this last part of St. Gregory’s homily on Christmas may very well be the most provocative, especially for those of us who live in the relative luxury of 21st century America. St. Gregory exhorts us to intimately identify ourselves with Christ. That in and of itself isn’t very shocking; however, the kind of intimacy he demands is.

Be stoned? Get interrogated by authorities who might kill us? Seek torture? Taste gall? Seek spittings? Accept beatings? Get crowned with thorns? Get crucified and die? At first glance, St. Gregory sounds as if he wants us all to turn into suicidal masochists.

For those of us who live in societies that are relatively tolerant of Christianity, St. Gregory’s words are metaphor. The proof of this is when he asks us to “be crowned with thorns through the harshness of a life in accord with God.” Though he might be speaking of the ascetical practices of Orthodox Christianity, the sacrifices we must make in our time and treasure for a life in Christ as well as the hardship that accompanies trying to do the right thing, here is a dirty little secret: life is harsh whether you are a practicing Orthodox Christian or not.

We are all doomed to tragedy, decay and death. We will be assaulted by natural disaster, emotional turmoil and disappointment. We will all see the dreams of our youth fade into the harsh realities of adulthood and old age (that is, if we aren’t molested by some disease or accident which makes old age look like a luxury).

Thus, St. Gregory really isn’t asking us to seek trials and tribulations because we are going to have to go through them whether we like it or not. Rather, St. Gregory is asking us to go through all of our pain and suffering with Christ at our side. He does so with this litany of sufferings that Christ went through Himself to demonstrate that Christ is intimately familiar with our suffering. We do not have to go through the harshness of life alone. We do not have to shoulder all of this pain on our own.

Christ tells us His burden is light, because He has the strength to shoulder all of the pain and all of the suffering that humanity has ever, will ever and is going through. If we allow ourselves to identify with the suffering Christ went through for us, we, with Christ not only at our side but within us, can power through even the most horrendous of tribulations. Witness the martyrs.

In the end, all the pain, the suffering and the death that world can throw at us are powerless in the face of of the resurrection. This is our hope, this is our strength, this is our victory and it is all made possible because Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Oration 38 Section 18

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St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38, Section 18:

You should hate only one of the events surrounding the birth of Christ, Herod’s murder of children; but rather, revere this sacrifice of those of the same age as Christ, who are sacrificed before the new victim. If he flees to Egypt, be willingly banished with him. It is good to flee with the persecuted Christ. If Christ delays in Egypt, call him forth from Egypt, where he is worshipped well. Travel blamelessly through all the stages of Christ’s life and all his powers, as a disciple of Christ. Be purified, be circumcised, that is remove the veil that has surrounded you since birth. After this teach in the temple, drive out the traders in divine things, be stoned if it is necessary that you suffer this; you will escape from those throwing the stones, I know well, and you will flee through the midst of them like God. For the Word is not stoned. If you are brought before Herod, do not answer for the most part. He will revere your silence more than the long discourses of other. If you are scourged, seek the other tortures. Taste the gall because of the taste [of the forbidden fruit]. Drink vinegar, seek the spittings, accept the blows, the beatings; be crowned with thorns through the harshness of a life in accord with God. Put on a scarlet robe, accept the reed, and the worship of those who mock the truth. Finally, be crucified with him, die with him, be buried with him willingly, so as also to be resurrected with him and glorified with him and reign with him, seeing God as far as is possible and being seen by him, who is worshipped and glorified in the Trinity, whom even now we pray to be manifest to us as clearly as is possible to prisoners of the flesh, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and sovereignty unto the ages of ages. Amen

The Eternal Now

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Section 17 of St. Gregory the Theologian’s Oration 38 and passages like it are the reason I so adore reading the Fathers of the Church. How can one not leap for joy, as St. Gregory exhorts us to do, after reading these words?

In order to understand the power behind these words, and why I love this passage so much, I need to quote the Anaphora of another of the Three Hierarchs — St. John Chrysostom. This is the prayer that immediately follows the words of institution (Eat…Drink…)

Remembering, therefore, this command of the Savior, and all that came to pass for our sake, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and the second, glorious coming.

Note how the second and glorious coming is referred to in the past tense. This is an acknowledgment by the Orthodox Church that what happens within the liturgy does so outside of time as we experience it. When we utter the words, “Blessed is the Kingdom” we enter into the Eight Day, the day that has no end, the day that exists outside of time where time can only be described as the eternal now.

It is in this context that St. Gregory exhorts us to leap for joy. Note that as he moves through all of the various narrative actions from the story of Christ’s birth that we are called to join in. This joining is not something which we do in remembrance of something that has happened in the past, but rather is something which is occurring right now.

When we gather as the Orthodox Church to celebrate the Nativity, we will be witnesses to the event itself. Christ is perfect God and perfect Man. As such, Christ is both in and outside of time. Thus, everything that he has done for us exists both in and outside of time. While the birth of Christ is an historical event that did happen in the past, it is also an eternal reality that we will partake of as the Orthodox Church.

Thus, we can be awed by the census, revere the birth, honor Bethlehem, bow before the manger, know our master and his crib, run after the star to bring gifts, give glory, sing hymns and witness the angels lift up the gates of heaven right now. Amen.

Oration 38 Section 17

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St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38, Section 17:

Now welcome for me his conception and leap for joy, if not indeed like John in the womb, then like David when the ark came to rest. Be awed at the census record through which you have been recorded in heaven, and revere the birth through which you have been released from the bonds of birth, and honor little Bethlehem, which has brought you back to paradise, and bow before the manger. you who were without reason have been fed by the Word. Know, like the ox, your owner — Isaiah exhorts you — and like the donkey know your master’s crib, whether you are among those who are pure and under the law and chew the cud of the Word and are prepared for sacrifice, or whether up to now you are among the impure and unfit for food or sacrifice and belong to the Gentiles. Run after the star, and bring gifts with the magi, gold and frankincense and myrrh, as to a king and a God and one dead for your sake. With the shepherds give glory, with the angels sing hymns, with the archangels dance. Let there be a common celebration of the heavenly and earthly powers. For I am persuaded that they rejoice and celebrate with us today, if indeed they love humankind and love God, just as David represents them ascending with Christ after his Passion as they come to meet him and exhort each other to lift up the gates.

Celebrate!

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Section 16 of St. Gregory the Theoogians Oration 38 is evidence that as early as A.D. 380, the church in Constantinople was celebrating Christmas and Epiphany as we do today — on December 25 and January 6. This is why he tells us that we will “shortly” see Jesus in the Jordan.

St. Gregory then goes on to tell in great detail of all of the things that Christ did in His ministry. He finishes this list with a very intriguing statement: “How many celebrations there are for me corresponding to each of the mysteries of Christ!” He is referring here to the whole calendar of the Church. We have feasts for all of the major events in Christ’s life from His conception, to His circumcision, to His presentation at the temple, to His baptism, to His crucifixion and, of course, His resurrection. While we do grossly neglect most of these feasts, St. Gregory also mentions events that do not have specific feasts such as His temptation in the desert, the healing of the sick or the driving out of demons. Despite the lack of feasts, these events are all celebrated throughout the year — a fact we would be aware of if we happened to attend liturgy on days other than Sunday.

The Divine Liturgy is not only for Sunday, even though Sunday is the day par excellence to celebrate because it is the day of resurrection and the 8th day, the day that has no end. If one visits an Orthodox monastery on Mt. Athos, they will find that a Divine Liturgy is served every day. It is during these liturgies that we hear the stories from the Gospel about the healing of the sick, the driving out of the demons and all of these other aspects of Christ’s ministry. It is also when we celebrate these events.

Thus, when St. Gregory says, “How many celebrations there are for me corresponding to each of the mysteries of Christ!” he is referring to the fact that it is proper and right for us to have a celebration and a liturgy every day.

However, the most important thing St. Gregory says in Section 16 is the last thing he says, “they all have one completion, my perfection and refashioning and restoration to the state of the first Adam.” Everything that Christ and His Church do have one singular purpose: our perfection, our return to the communion with God that Adam had prior to the Fall, a shedding of everything the Fall means.

This begs the question: Why aren’t we celebrating this awesome mystery as much as is humanly possible?

Oration 38 Section 16

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St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38, Section 16:

So shortly you will also see the purification of Jesus in the Jordan for my purification; or rather he is cleansed for the purification of the waters, for he indeed did not need purification, who takes away the sin of the world. The heavens are parted and he receives the testimony of the Spirit, who is akin to him. He is tempted and conquers the tempter and is served by angels. He heals every sickness and every infirmity, and give life to the dead. Would that he would give life to you who are dead through your false doctrine. He drives out demons, some by himself and others through his disciples. With a few loaves he feed tens of thousands, and he walks on the sea. He is betrayed and crucified and crucifies sin with himself. He is offered as a lamb and offers as a priest, he is buried as a human being, raised as God, then also ascends, and he will return with his own glory. How many celebrations there are for me corresponding to each of the mysteries of Christ! Yet they all have one completion, my perfection and refashioning and restoration to the state of the first Adam.

Hypocrite!

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After I made the claim that modern secularists and atheists like to brand Christians with the image of the fire and brimstone preacher, one might be tempted to point out that in Section 15 of his Oration 38 St. Gregory the Theologian sounds an awful lot like a fire and brimstone preacher:

Against which is he more angry?…It would have been better for you to be circumcised and possessed by a demon, if I may say something ridiculous, rather than in uncircumcision and good health to be in a state of wickedness and atheism.

This characterization, however, would completely miss the point of what St. Gregory is trying to say. Whereas the fire and brimstone preacher is typically urging morality (stop sinning so you don’t go to hell), St. Gregory really isn’t talking about moral behavior in Section 15.

The point, rather, is about how to answer that most important question: Who is God? and subsequently Who is Christ? St. Gregory mentions demons because they, unlike his Arian opponents, understand that Christ is God.

This section talks about how the Triune God is one in essence and distinct in persons. Father and Son have their own activities (the Father sends forth and the Son is sent), yet both have the power to resurrect. Therefore his point about being a demon possessed Jew (an illustration he calls ridiculous) isn’t about behavior, but understanding.

In order to have a proper relationship with God, and therefore be able to partake of His divine nature (cf 2 Peter 1:4), we must have a proper (aka orthodox) understand of who God is. If I go around insisting that all women are really men and that all men are really women, all of the relationships in my life are going to be dysfunctional. How can it be otherwise with our relationship with God?

To demonstrate this relational understanding, St. Gregory mitigates his own characterization of God as angry by correcting himself: Rather whom must he pardon more? God is a loving God. The relationship, therefore, is about love (who must He pardon) and not anger (who must He condemn).

Ultimately, what do the Arians and the atheists gain from who they insist God is? Nothing. If Christ is a created being (as the Arians insist) we cannot partake of divine nature — we merely partake of creation, something we already do at every meal. Since Christ would have a beginning (as we do), he must also have an end (just as we do). Therefore, both Arians and atheists really have only one hope: death.

In contrast, St. Gregory lives in hope that by partaking of Christ, who is one of the persons of the Triune God, we may all share in God’s eternity and thus overcome death. Morality really doesn’t play a role in this discussion, because we are all hypocrites and sinners. In fact, that is why Christ became a babe born in a cave.

Thus, to mirror St. Gregory’s self-admitted ridiculous statement, it is better to be a sinful hypocrite who has a proper understanding of who God is than an atheist who is unquestionably moral.

Oration 38 Section 15

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St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38, Section 15:

He was sent, but as human, for he was twofold. For he was tired and hungry and thirsty and endured agony and wept through the law of the body, but if he underwent these things also as God, what of it? Consider the good will of the Father to be sent forth, and to it the Son ascribes his own activities, both as honoring the timeless Beginning and so as not to seem to be a rival god. For indeed Scripture says that he was given up, but it is also written that he gave himself up; and he was raised and taken up to heaven by the Father, but he also resurrected himself and ascended there again. For one is the Father’s good will, the other his own power. You speak of what belittles him, but you overlook what exults him; you recognize that he suffered, but you do not add that it was voluntary. It is as if the Word still suffers now! By some he is honored as God but confused with the Father; by others he is dishonored as flesh and separated from him. Against which is he more angry? Rather whom must he pardon more? Those who unite Father and the Son wrongly or those who divide them? For the former would need to distinguish and the latter would need to conjoin; the one in regard to number, the other in regard to divinity. Do you take offense at the flesh? So did the Jews. Do you also call him a Samaritan? I will be silent about the rest. Do you disbelieve in his divinity? This even the demons do not do. O you who are more unbelieving than demons and more senseless than Jews! The latter regarded “Son” as a term denoting equality of honor, the former knew that God drove them out, for they were persuaded by what they suffered. But you neither accept the equality nor confess the divinity. It would have been better for you to be circumcised and possessed by a demon, if I may say something ridiculous, rather than in uncircumcision and good health to be in a state of wickedness and atheism.

Polemics

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Inevitably when reading the Fathers of the Church, we will run into a polemic style like that in Section 14 of St. Gregory the Theologian’s Oration 38. To the modern ear, it sounds angry, mean, over the top and even bigoted. However, we must understand that our own politically correct, post-Holocaust context is extremely different than the context that St. Gregory found himself in.

Christianity, despite being adopted by the emperor St. Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century was still on precarious ground. Not only had it suffered persecution under the emperor Julian the Apostate only two decades prior, but St. Gregory’s faith, expressed in the Nicene Creed, was not held by the majority of clergy or the emperor when St. Gregory was preaching this homily. As I stated in my introduction to St. Gregory, despite being bishop, he was forced to serve in a house church because every single church in the city was controlled by Arians. In addition, Judaism not only had had special privileges within the empire, they were a source of persecution against the Church.

In the same way we might be comfortable with the polemic cries of bigotry aimed at those who would persecute Jews or other minorities today, we should not allow our modern ear to allow us to dismiss Oration 38 because St. Gregory’s polemics are entirely appropriate for the context in which they were said.

If we can look past these contextual polemics, what we actually find is a apologetic style that we modern Christians should actually find quite useful. In essence, St. Gregory is challenging his foes (the Arians, in his case) to answer for their rejection of the Christianity preached by St. Gregory. He does so in a wonderful way that is still applicable today: “Do you bring as a charge against God his good deed?”

So often we Christians must defend ourselves from personal attacks by secularists. We are seen as ignorant, non-rational, backwards thinking and un-scientific. The assumption is that only non-rational and ignorant people would be foolish enough to believe in an old-fashioned idea like God. Rarely do they have to answer to St. Gregory’s challenge: Do you accuse God because He loved you so much so as to send you His Only Begotten Son? Do you accuse God because Christ humbled Himself for you? Do we need to dismiss God because Christ loved you enough to go to the Cross and experience death? Does God need to be persecuted because He gave us the gift of the resurrection?

Rather than having to get into an argument over who we are as Christians (an argument we cannot win, because there is no way to prove or disprove faith), we should talk about the real issue: God and His Gospel. At issue isn’t our faith, our intelligence or our ignorance. At issue is the rejection of God and all the good He willingly gives us.

Today’s atheists are used to Christians talking about morality, avoiding punishment and operating from a negative view of who God is. St. Gregory powerfully demonstrates that we shouldn’t operate that way. The Gospel isn’t about morality, hell or punishment, it is about the ultimate expression of love. It is this love that is rejected. It is this love that is attacked. It is with this love that we should be challenging the secular world around us.

Oration 38 Part 14

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St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38, Section 14:

In regard to these things, what do the slanderers say to us, the bitter calculators of divinity, the accusers of praiseworthy things, the dark ones speaking of the light, the uneducated speaking of wisdom, for whom “Christ died in vain,” the unthankful creatures, fashioned by the Evil One? Do you bring as a charge against God his good deed? Is he small because he is humble for your sake? Do you accuse the Good Shepherd because he went to the one who strayed, he who laid down his life for the sheep, to find the stray ‘on the mountains and the hills where you offered sacrifice,’ and having found it took it on his shoulder, on which also he carried the cross, and having taken it brought it back to life on high, and having brought it on high counted it again among those who remained there? Do you accuse him because he lit a lamp, his own flesh, and swept the house, cleansing the world of sin, and searched for the coin, the royal image covered with a heap of passions, then calls together his friends, the angelic powers, once he has found the coin, and makes participants in his joy those angels initiated into the mystery of his saving plan? Do you accuse him because the most radiant Light follows the lamp, his forerunner John, and the Word follows the voice, and the Bridegroom follows the friend of the bridegroom, who prepares for the Lord a chosen people and through water purifies them beforehand for the Spirit? Do you bring these charges against God? Do you also suppose that he is inferior for these reasons, that he girds himself with a towel and washes the feet of his disciples, and shows that the best way to be exalted is lowliness, since he lowers himself because of the soul bent down to the ground, so as to lift up with himself those leaning downward because of sin? But how do you not accuse him because he also eats with tax collectors and at the homes of tax collectors and makes tax collectors his disciples, that he also may make some profit for himself? What profit? The salvation of sinners. Of so, one must also blame the physician for bending over one who is ill and enduring the stench to health to the sick; or one who through compassion leans over a pit to rescue, according to the law, the animal that has fallen into it.