When the Holy Fathers took upon themselves the task of arranging Great Lent they decided that this walk towards Pascha should teach us the full meaning of fasting. For this reason they dedicated the first two Sundays of the fast to Dogmatic subjects, that is:
1. the adoration and honouring the Holy Icons and
2. Saint Gregory Palamas,
and the last two for ascetic personalities and saints, that is:
1. Saint John of the Ladder and
2. Saint Mary of Egypt the great penitent and desert dweller.
This was so that they might reveal the essential relationship between True Faith (Orthodoxy) and a true and virtuous life (Orthopraxy).
In the middle of the Fast they placed the Holy Cross as a sign and a pointer to srtengthen us and lead us forward during this difficult and challenging time of spiritual struggle.
“Light of Orthodoxy, Teacher of the Church; its Confirmation! Ideal of monks and invincible champion of theologians. Wonder-working GREGORY, glory of Thessalonica and preacher of grace. Always intercede before the Lord that or souls may be saved.”
With these words, the Orthodox Church recognises and praises this our holy Father among the Saints, Saint Gregory Palamas, the Thrice-blessed Saint, excellent pastor and great shepherd, disciple of Christ, God-bearer, whose Lips are full of Grace, whose tongue rang in the heart, and awakened the souls of man and woman from slothfulness, God’s Holy instrument of wisdom; the Joyful Trumpet of Theology.
Let me remind you why we honour St. Gregory Palamas.
St. Gregory came from Asia Minor, an area we now call Turkey. He was brought up from his childhood in the royal court of Constantinople, where he was instructed in both religious and secular wisdom.
Then, whilst still a young man, he left the glories of the Imperial Court and became a monk, struggling in asceticism on Mount Athos, and in the Skete at Beroea.
He was so ascetical that his health became damaged and he had to spend some time in Thessalonica being nursed back to health.
He was present in Constantinople at the Council that was convened in 1341 against Barlaam of Calabria, and at the Council of 1347 against Acindynus, who was of like mind with Barlaam.
Barlaam and Acindynus claimed that the grace of God is created.
At both these Councils, the Saint fought courageously for the true faith, teaching in particular that divine grace is not created, but is the uncreated energies of God which are poured forth throughout creation: otherwise it would be impossible, if grace were created, for humanity to have genuine communion with the uncreated God. Immediately you can see how important his teachings are!
In 1347 he was appointed Metropolitan of Thessalonica. He was a wonderful pastor, a true Apostle, for twelve years writing many books and pamphlets on the teachings of our Faith; and then having lived to be sixty-three years old, he reposed in the Lord in 1359.
His holy relics are enshrined in the Cathedral in Thessalonica. A full service was composed for his feast day by the Patriarch Philotheus in 1368, when it was decided that his feast be celebrated today.
The Apostle tells us that works without faith are worth nothing, as indeed, is faith without works. You can see how Great Lent is constructed to bring forward this truth. Currently we are being inspired to hold the True Faith in Jesus Christ Who is the founder of our faith. Last week we celebrated the Triumph of Orthodoxy and today we celebrate the great defender of this Orthodox Faith.
Our Holy Father Gregory Palamas is an icon of how the true faith and the true life in Christ work together, calling each one of us to become a chosen vessel of the Holy Spirit… a light that shines before mankind, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. The saints, you see, are exactly like us, sharing our ordinary human nature our flesh and blood. If they can do it by the grace of God, so can we also, by the grace of God.
Saint Gregory recalls to our minds once again the true meaning of fasting, especially of Great Lent, which is a spiritual ladder that raises us from Earth to Heaven. For this reason we call upon him: “by your divinely-sounding word, GREGORY wonder of Thessalonica, we find a ladder leading us from Earth to Heaven.”
This spiritual ladder of virtues was richly described by Saint John of Sinai to whom we celebrate the Forth Sunday of Great Lent.
It is this ladder that leads us to the last step and the true aim of the whole fast which, of course, is to live the Joy of the Holy Resurrection.
We need to keep this last step of the ladder, its eventual destination, always in our mind during the Fast. If we keep looking towards that last step and destination, the light and the joy of the Resurrection, then we will progress upwards and we will avoid the passions that attempt to drag us back down to earth.
You will find that Saint Gregory Palamas’ teachings of about the Light and Joy in Jesus Christ are still alive in our days and in the writings of contemporary fathers and writers.
For example the Serbian Bishop Nikolai of Ochrid writes describing the Easter service at Jerusalem like this:
We waited, and at last our expectations were fulfilled”, “When the Patriarch sang "Christ is risen", a heavy burden fell from our souls. We felt as if we also had been raised from the dead.
All at once, from all around, the same cry resounded like the noise of many waters. "Christ is risen" sang the Greeks, the Russians, the Arabs, the Serbs, the Copts, the Armenians, the Ethiopians one after another, each in his own tongue, in his own melody. Coming out from the service at dawn, we began to regard everything in the light of the glory of Christ's Resurrection, and all appeared different from what it had yesterday; everything seemed better, more expressive, more glorious. Only in the light of the Resurrection does life receive meaning.”
In this passage, so vividly described, we witness that resurrection joy to which we are heading! It is our one and only foundation for our Christian like and hope. But notice what Bishop Nikolai says “We waited”. We have to pass through that time of preparation, like the Children of Israel in the desert, like our Saviour in the wilderness, like Noah in the Ark, like David in Philistia we also have to wait, be patient, be watchful, be faithful and be expectant like Sarah, like Hannah, like Elizabeth and like the Theotokos and like the Myrrh Bearers.
“We waited” says Bishop Nikolai “and at last our expectations were fulfilled.” The waiting reveals the deeper meaning of Pascha, and indeed our expectation will be more that fulfilled.
I ask Him, through the intercessions of Saint Gregory, to grant us all strength and patience to walk this road of fasting and this arena of spiritual struggles, and to prove us all worthy to receive the reward and the victor’s garland from Him who rose again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the only wise God, our Saviour, to whom be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever.
Author: Metropolitan John (Yazigi)