Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, March 12, 2017
Hebrews 1:10-2:3; Mark 2:1-12
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
It is probably one of our deepest fears that we will be left alone.
It is part of what drives us to find love, get married and have children. Even introverts want other people in their lives to connect with, to have one-on-one time with, to give the feeling that another person really does care and really does “get” them. Yes, we all need time alone, but we don’t want to be utterly forsaken. And we don’t want just superficial relationship.
To be noticed, to be known, to be understood—these desires drive a lot of our behavior and even drive the course of whole civilizations.
Yet even in the closest friendships or the most loving marriages, there is still a problem, still a sense in which the other person just doesn’t “get” us, just won’t ever understand, won’t ever really know who we are, what we want, why we keep going.
St. Augustine once famously described the human heart as “restless.” And he was right. But we don’t want to be restless. We want rest. We want peace. We want to feel completely comfortable with another person—to be known, to be trusted, to be wanted.
It is with this desire that we arrive at the second Sunday of Great Lent. We continue our extended, ten-week meditation on priesthood, and we also especially remember today a saint of the fourteenth century, a monk, author, preacher and archbishop named Gregory Palamas.
The great theological controversy that brought Gregory to prominence in his time and indeed for all time was based in this very question of desiring to know someone and to be known by someone. And the Someone in this case was God Himself.
Certain heretics in Gregory’s day taught that the highest knowledge of God was intellectual—rational. The mind that dissects and analyzes and understands—this is how we know God best. The scholar was the best image of the man who knows God.
But Gregory countered this by talking about an experience that he knew very well. He talked about his experience as a monk on the holy mountain of Athos in Greece. In that experience of intense prayer and asceticism, he and other monks actually could see God with their physical eyes, revealed to them as the Uncreated Light.
And along with that physical experience came a deep, powerful sense of being with God Himself. God was within them, shining His light within them, knowing them and being known by them. They were interacting with God in a very direct and palpable way. And they had the deepest, most intimate knowledge of Him, because they were uniting with Him.
Gregory knew all about this not because he had read it in a book—though he was a master of such learning—but because he had been there and experienced it for himself.
When we sense this desire within ourselves to connect, to give ourselves fully over to another and to receive the other fully, it is only normal that this desire should seek out God. Augustine said that our hearts would be ever restless until they found their rest in God. No human being can really know us as God knows us, and no human being can give himself to us as God gives Himself.
But don’t we often have a sense that God is in fact the least accessible? Don’t we often feel that, of all those who leave us alone, God is actually the worst? I have felt that way. I have felt abandoned by God.
I have read about the experience of people like St. Gregory Palamas and wanted it for myself. I have read those words from St. Augustine and wanted that rest that comes of my heart finding its rest in God.
So what are we to do? How do we deal with the experience of feeling abandoned by God, that we are left alone?
This brings us again to the priesthood. The purpose of the High Priesthood of our Lord Jesus is, as we mentioned last week, to bridge the gap between God and man. But we can use a more potent image here. He is not just the bridge when He offers Himself up as a sacrifice for mankind. He is not just helping us have a meeting. He is bring us into union with God.
How does this work? What does it mean?
When a sacrifice is offered to God, He does not merely act upon it to change it but He acts upon it by giving of Himself. What God gives is not some magical effect that is separate from Him. What He gives is Himself.
This is most obvious with Jesus, Whose flesh is the means by which we receive God. But it also applies to the priesthood of our ordained clergy. When they offer up bread and wine on the altar, God reaches down and touches that bread and wine not by turning them into talismans that grant magical powers but by making them truly Himself. We give bread and wine, but He gives Himself. So when we receive that bread and wine back from Him, we are receiving Him. And eating and drinking His flesh and blood brings us into union with Him.
This is the aspect of the priesthood that we are looking at today—union. The sacrifice given on the altar becomes the means of union with God.
All of the sacraments have this function, actually. Whatever is being offered up to Him conveys His actual presence when returned—in the Eucharist, bread and wine; in baptism, water; in chrismation, holy oil; in marriage, a man and woman; in unction, oil and wine; in confession, our thoughts; and in ordination, the life of a man. Our participation in all of these things is also an enactment of our royal priesthood, as is everything we offer to God.
In every case, these things are offered to God, and He transforms them and returns them, and we receive nothing less than Him. We receive Him and are united with Him. This is the priesthood of union.
God has not left us alone. The desire we have to know and to be known by another can be fulfilled only in Him. Other human beings can be there for us and can love us very much, but only God can really know us as we wish to be known. Only God will never leave us or forsake us.
I do sometimes indeed feel abandoned by God. But I wonder if He feels abandoned by me. How often is He knocking at the door of my heart and I am not listening? How often does He pour Himself out for me and I am indifferent? How often does He reach out, seeking to let Himself be known by me just as He already knows me, and I have something “better” to do?
But He has not abandoned me or left me alone. He has given the priesthood to us for the purpose of union with Him. If we earnestly seek Him and earnestly offer up sacrifices to Him, we will know Him even as we are known by Him. And we will be one with Him.
To the God Who knows us be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.