All human beings have a desire for union with God. In some Asian religions, union with God means the dissolution of the human person into God. As the saying has it “The dewdrop (the soul) falls into the shining sea (God).” But in Christianity we say that we never “merge” with God, we have a personal relationship with God. However, In Orthodox Christianity, we hear about the process of theosis (divinization), which means becoming God. We also hear the saying “God became a human being that human beings might become God.” So it seems we have a paradox here – we never dissolve into God, yet we genuinely undergo the process of divinization. How do we resolve this apparent contradiction? We do so by studying the saint of the day, Gregory Palamas.
St. Gregory was born in 1296 in Constantinople. He was educated at the imperial court with the idea that he would become a court official. However, he felt the call to become a monk. He left behind his life at court and become a monk on Mount Athos, where he learned the practice and theology of the Jesus Prayer (i.e., Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner). Later on St. Gregory became archbishop of Thessalonica in 1347 and died in 1359, and was canonized soon after his death. His contribution to the theology of divination is as follows.
The monks on Mt. Athos claimed to have an experience of God himself in prayer. They said the light they sometimes saw as an uncreated light, the light of God Himself. In other words, in prayer they genuinely had an experience of God. However, an Italo-Greek name Barlaam said that human beings can never have such direct contact with God, that they were deluding themselves. The Athonite monk asked St. Gregory Palamas to defend them. He wrote a book “The Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts” (those who practice the Jesus Prayer). In the book he explained and defended the ancient Eastern Orthodox teaching on essence and energy in God. The idea is that we can never know the essence of God as God is Himself. However, we can know God and can participate in Him through His energies. The energies of God are God himself acting beyond the divine essence, but still God. Or to put it another way, God’s energies are his uncreated, divine grace. So we truly participate and are united to God through his energies, but we never “dissolve” into the divine essence. It is important to remember that St. Gregory did not invent the energy-essence concept. It was there in early Eastern tradition. St. Gregory rather organized and defended the teaching which was declared as Orthodox doctrine by several synods of the church in Constantinople.
So the essence-energies distinction shows us how we can never “merge or dissolve” into God, but as human persons we can be united to the tri-personal God by participation in the divine energy.
Troparion — Tone 8
O light of Orthodoxy, teacher of the Church, its confirmation, / O ideal of monks and invincible champion of theologians, / O wonder-working Gregory, glory of Thessalonica and preacher of grace, / always intercede before the Lord that our souls may be saved.
Kontakion — Tone 4
Now is the time for action! / Judgment is at the doors! / So let us rise and fast, / offering alms with tears of compunction and crying: / “Our sins are more in number than the sands of the sea; / but forgive us, O Master of All, / so that we may receive the incorruptible crowns.”
Although icons had been used in churches, in the early 8th century AD, the eastern Roman Emperor began a campaign against icons. The emperor ordered his soldiers to remove icons from churches, monasteries, public places and so on. No one is entirely sure why the emperor ordered this. Some think it was because of the Old Testament commandment forbidding the worship of graven images. In any case, many Christians suffered because of their defense of icons.
In 787 AD the Empress Irene, who was ruling in place of her young son, called a council of bishops to defend icons. Many bishops gathered and the veneration of icons was declared to be not only permissible, but even necessary. This council, known as the second council of Nicea, is considered the seventh ecumenical council. However, later emperors renewed the campaign against icons. It was not until 843 AD, when the empress Theodora ordered the restoration of icons that the iconoclasm, or the campaign against icons, ended. This was on the first Sunday of Lent that year and since then the first Sunday of Lent commemorates this event. This is known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
The Fathers of the church taught that we venerate icons, not worship them. Worship is due only to God, when we venerate an icon, we are not venerating wood and paint, but rather the person or persons depicted on the icon. We can do this because Jesus Christ became a genuine human being.
The essence of Christianity is that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, became a human being order to save humanity. As human beings we are not imprisoned in bodies, as some Greek philosophers taught, but we are unities of body, mind and spirit.
Therefore, the whole human person participates in the process of salvation and this includes the veneration of icons. And so icons are not simply religious pictures which can be used or not used according to taste, but rather they make the essential dogmatic point that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, and came to save the whole person. This is what the church proclaims on the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
Troparion — Tone 2
We venerate Thy most pure image, O Good One, / and ask forgiveness of our transgressions, O Christ God. / Of Thine own will Thou wast pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh / to deliver Thy creatures from bondage to the enemy. / Therefore with thanksgiving we cry aloud to Thee: / Thou hast filled all with joy, O our Savior, / by coming to save the world.
Kontakion — Tone 8
No one could describe the Word of the Father; / but when He took flesh from you, O
Theotokos, He accepted to be described, / and restored the fallen image to its former
beauty. / We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images.
The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts will be celebrated on Wednesday, April 2, at 7 p.m.
Please make participation in this service part of your Lenten journey towards Holy Week and the Resurrection of Christ.
With love in the Lord,
Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky
Three Wednesday evening Presanctified Liturgies remain during this Great Lent:
The services begin at 7 p.m. and end at about 8:15 p.m. They are followed by light refreshments in the parish hall and brief presentations on men and women who were courageous followers of Christ within the living memory of Orthodox Christians today.
Please do not forget to participate in the Wednesday evening services. There is not so much time left!