Orthodox Commentary on Theology, Ethics, and Culture
Saturday, March 26, 2016
On Knowing God as Whole Persons: Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church
Whenever we face major challenges, it can be tempting to give up and run away. Some have even tried to make Christianity a way to escape the problems of the world and the limitations of our bodies. A problem with that way of thinking is that Jesus Christ has become part of our world with a body every bit as human as ours. By doing so, He has made it possible for us to participate in His salvation as whole persons. We do not need to escape our humanity in order to experience eternal life.
Today we commemorate St. Gregory Palamas, a great bishop, monastic, and theologian of the 14th century. He is known especially for defending the experience of hesychast monks who, through deep prayer of the heart and asceticism, were enabled to see the Uncreated Light of God that the Apostles beheld at the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor. Against those who denied that human beings could ever experience and know God in such direct and tangible ways, St. Gregory taught that we may truly participate in the divine energies as whole persons. He proclaimed that knowing God does not mean merely having ideas about Him, but being united personally with Him by grace. It is to become radiant with the divine glory like an iron left in the fire in ways that permeate a person’s body, soul, and spirit. To share in God’s life is not an escape from the world or our humanity, but instead their glorious fulfillment.
If that all seems a bit abstract, think about the paralyzed man in today’s gospel text. Christ not only forgave his sins, but healed his bodily paralysis and instructed him to rise, take up his bed, and walk. His encounter with the Lord was not limited to thoughts or symbols. No, the Lord transformed that fellow’s entire life– body, soul, and spirit.
During the season of Lent, we want Him to transform our lives also. That is why we pray, fast, show generosity to the needy, forgive our enemies, confess our sins, and otherwise reorient ourselves toward God in practical, tangible ways. If done with integrity, these actions involve every dimension of who we are; we certainly cannot do them without using our bodies. They are not an escape from reality, but ways in which we come to participate more fully by grace in the eternal life of our Lord. They are disciplines through which we may know and experience God in every aspect of our being. Through them, our Lord strengthens us to rise, take up our beds, and move forward into a life of holiness, the life for which He created us in the first place.
Christ calls us to experience and know His salvation in practical, tangible ways that extend from the depths of our hearts to how we treat our neighbors every day. He even nourishes us with His own Body and Blood such that His life becomes ours as we live and breathe in the world as we know it. The Lenten journey prepares us to follow Christ to His Passion, through which He tramples down death by death. Because we are weakened and paralyzed by our sins, we need these weeks to help us find the healing necessary to embrace the new life that He has brought to the world through His resurrection.
We need the practices of Lent because, in contrast with the glory to which He calls us, we all remain too much like the paralyzed man before his healing. Our weakness before our habitual sins and passions often seems more real to us than do the gracious divine energies that alone bring healing. Perhaps that is because we have far more experience of our own brokenness than of deep personal union with God. The good news, however, is that true personal knowledge of the Lord is available to us all by calling on Him in humility from our hearts. No matter how busy our lives or how noisy the world around us, we may pray the Jesus Prayer in inner silence, even as we fight our passions and reorient our lives to Him through repentance. If we do so, we will open ourselves to His grace as whole persons. We will not abandon or escape the world, but instead know in our own lives the joy of its salvation. Indeed, we will know Him. Surely, that is God’s will for each and every one of us in the remaining weeks of this blessed season.