Sunday, February 24, 2013
Second Sunday of Great Lent: Sunday of St Gregory Palamas
In a fourteenth century, a controversy arose around the ancient meditative practice known as hesychasm. According to the hesychasts, by the power of God's grace, and through a rightly ordered course of meditative prayer, one could come to experience directly the divine energies. That is, while admitting that the divine essence in its infinite depth forever escapes the power of a creature, even through grace, to fully comprehend, the hesychasts insisted that it was not some created effect of God which they perceived, but God's own energies, which is to say, God himself.
In contrast was the view of Barlaam of Calabria. An admirable theologian in his own right, Barlaam worried that the view of the hesychasts was overreaching. In this life, he insisted, God could not be directly perceived; such a privilege belongs to the elect in heaven alone. While he did not deny that there could be a real impact of grace upon those devoutly contemplating the Incarnate Lord, he rejecting the notion that any method of meditation, however ancient, could put is in direct contact with God's very being, no matter how subtle a distinction one drew between God's energies and his essence. God, he noted, is altogether simple; one either directly perceives his essence (in the beatific vision), or some created effect.
In many ways, the scribes who witnessed the healing of the paralytic in Capernaum faced the same dilemma. That God forgives sins, they had no doubt. However, what could it mean for this man Jesus, right here and now, in the flesh, directly and without spectacular mediation, to claim to forgive sins? God might, they imagined, draw close to Israel in the giving of the Law, but that closeness came in a dramatic and fearful way, amidst cloud and fire, by the hands of ministering spirits, once long ago to Moses alone, who himself could not bear to see God's face and live. Yet we can see Jesus. We can touch him and bear the sight of his face, walking away unscathed. It is unthinkable, so they must have said among themselves, that the holy God should be accessible to us in this way.
Yet, this is just what we confirm at the heart of the Gospel, not that Good News of salvation came to us as announced from afar, but that the Lord himself, taking upon himself our human nature, delivered to us the glad tidings of salvation from sin and death, and the tyranny of the Evil One. It was by the mouth of none other but God's that the paralytic was both forgiven his sins and commanded effective to stand up and walk. At the same time, it was by means of a mouth no less human than mine or yours, a voice as physical and concrete, as here and now, as anything else of this world.
This was the heart of St Gregory Palamas' defense of the holy hesychasts. He reminded Barlaam that the very doctrine of the Incarnation, affirmed again and again in the New Testament and in the ecumenical councils of the Church, in her sacraments and in her icons, insists that, however much a seeming paradox and a mystery, God, without ceasing to be forever and absolutely beyond all our knowing and escaping infinitely our grasp, yet draws near to us, by drawing us near to him, so that we experience in Jesus Christ not a divine effect, not merely some created good, but the very presence of the living God.
This is also why in this Lent we are called back to the faith which has been delivered to us by the Lord Jesus Christ through the preaching of the apostles and their successors. The life-giving teaching and mysteries of Jesus Christ, which bring to us the very voice and power of God himself, are really and truly communicated to us here and now through means altogether earthly. We do truly, by the mystery of Baptism and power of the Holy Spirit, become transformed and even now can know not simply about God, but can know and experience God himself. This is the astounding Good News of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, and by this Gospel, we can rejoice that to know God is not something reserved for a time to come, but it is in very truth a present gift.