Fathers and Teachers of the Church

As a Christmas Gift, I would like to give you the first part of St. Gregory’s Oration 38 (translated by Fr. George D. Dragas). This section is an exhortation to the proper celebration of the Feast. The second part is a theological discussion of the Incarnation, with refuations of the pagans and heretics. If you would like to read the whole text, please go to http://www.saintjohnthebaptist.org/articles/GREGORY_NAZ.htm.

God becomes man

I. Let us Celebrate Christmas.

Christ is born; glorify Him. Christ from heaven; go out to meet Him. Christ on earth; be exalted. Sing unto the Lord all the earth (Ps. 96:1,11); and (to join both in one word) Let the heavens rejoice; and let the earth be glad for Him Who is of heaven and then of earth. Christ in the flesh; rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope. Christ of a Virgin; O you Women live as Virgins, that you may be Mothers of Christ. Who does not worship Him Who is from the beginning? Who does not glorify Him Who is the Last?

II. Why we celebrate Christmas. 
Again the darkness is past; again Light is made; again Egypt is punished with darkness; again Israel is enlightened by a pillar (Ex. 14:20). Let the people that sat in the darkness of ignorance see the Great Light of full knowledge (Is. 9:6). The old things are passed away, behold all things have become new (I Cor. 5:17). The letter gives way; the Spirit comes to the front. The shadows flee away; the Truth comes in upon them. Melchisedec is summoned to appear (Heb. 7:3).  He that was without Mother becomes without Father (without Mother of His former state, without Father of His second). The laws of nature are overcome; the world above must be completed. Christ commands it, let us not set ourselves against Him. O clap your hands together all you people (Ps. 47:1), because a Child is born to us, and a Son is given to us, Whose Government is upon His shoulder (for He took it up through the Cross), and His Name is called “The Angel of the Great Counsel of the Father” (Is. 9:6). Let John cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Mat. 3:3): I too will cry out the power of this Day. He Who is not carnal is Incarnate; the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, Jesus Christ the Same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever (Heb. 13:8). Let the Jews be offended, let the Greeks deride (I Cor. 1:23); let heretics talk till their tongues ache. Then shall they believe, when they see Him ascending up into heaven; and if not then, yet when they see Him coming out of heaven and sitting as Judge.

III. The Meaning of Christmas. 
Of these on a future occasion; for the present the Festival is the Theophany or Birthday, for it is called both, two titles being given to the one thing. For God was manifested to man by birth. On the one hand Being, and eternally Being, of the Eternal Being, above cause and word, for there was no word before The Word; and on the other hand for our sakes also Becoming, that He Who gives us our being might also give us our Well-being, or rather might restore us by His Incarnation, when we had by wickedness fallen from well-being. The name Theophany is given to it in reference to the Manifestation, and that of Birthday in respect of His Birth.

IV. Let us Celebrate Christmas In A Godly Manner.
This is our present Festival; it is this which we are celebrating today, the Coming of God to Man, that we might go forth (Eph. 4:22,24), or rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God – that putting off the old man, we might put on the New; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ (I Cor. 15:22), being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him (Col. 2:11). For I must undergo the beautiful conversion, and as the painful succeeded the more blissful, so the more blissful must come out of the painful. For where sin abounded Grace did much more abound (Rom. 5:20); and if a taste condemned us, how much more does the Passion of Christ justify us? Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own, but as belonging to Him Who is ours, or rather as our Master’s; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation.

V. Let Us Not Celebrate Christmas In A Pagan Manner. 
And how shall this be? Let us not adorn our porches, nor arrange dances, nor decorate the streets; let us not feast the eye, nor enchant the ear with music, nor stimulate the nostrils with perfume, nor prostitute the taste, nor indulge the touch, those roads that are so prone to evil and entrances for sin; let us not be effeminate in clothing soft and flowing, whose beauty consists in its uselessness, nor with the glittering of gems or the sheen of gold (Rom. 13:13), or the tricks of color, belying the beauty of nature, and invented to obscure the image of God; Not in rioting and drunkenness, with which are mingled, I know well, in fornication and wantonness, since the lessons which evil teachers give are evil; or rather the harvests of worthless seeds are worthless. Let us not set up high beds of luxury, making shrines for the belly of what belongs to debauchery. Let us not toast with fragrant wines, the specialties of cooks, the great expense of perfumes. Let not sea and land bring us as a gift their precious refuse, for it is thus that I have learnt to estimate luxury; and let us not strive to outdo each other in intemperance (for to my mind every superfluity is intemperance, and all which is beyond absolute need),-and this while others are hungry and in want, who are made of the same clay and in the same manner.

VI. What is The Difference Between Pagan And Christian Celebrations. 
Let us leave all these to the Pagan Greeks and to the pomp and festivals of the Pagan Greeks, who call by the name of gods beings who rejoice in the stench of sacrifices, and who consistently worship with their belly; evil inventors and worshippers of evil demons. But we, the Object of whose adoration is the Word, if we must in some way have luxury, let us seek it in word, and in the Divine Law, and in histories; especially such as are the origin of this Feast; that our luxury may be akin to and not far removed from Him Who has called us together. Or do you desire (for to-day I am your entertainer) that I should set before you, my good Guests, the story of these things as abundantly and as nobly as I can, that you may know how a foreigner can feed the natives of the land, and villager people of the town, and one who cares not for luxury those who delight in it, and one who is poor and homeless those who are eminent for wealth?

St. Gregory’s strictures on celebration might be considered somewhat strict, but I think his point is well taken. How can we celebrate with luxuries and gold, when there are people who have nothing to eat and no place to live? He condemns the intemperance of the celebration; a truly temperate celebration would include using the money saved to help those in need.


Metropolitan Athanasios of Limosol, Cyprus

In today’s Gospel (Luke 13:10-17) we see our Lord stand up to and oppose the local religious authority. Out of compassion he heals a woman who had been sick for 18 years; but he did the healing on the Sabbath. The ruler of the synagogue sees this healing in terms of breaking a commandment. He puts the commandment first and the woman’s need for healing second. Our Lord becomes angry because the ruler has put “the observance of religion” on a higher level than taking care of someone out of love.

In one of those non-coincidences, I just today saw a link from a Facebook friend to a talk given by Metropolitan Athanasios of Limasol, Cyprus (this is the real person who is given the name Fr. Maximos in Kyiracos Markides excellent book, Mountain of Silence). In this talk, His Eminence talks about the scourge of “religious” people, that is, people who reduce Christianity to doing things, like going on pilgrimage or lighting candles or fasting, or to a moral code of commandments to make them “a better person.” As a commentary on today’s Gospel, I would like simply to quote a few passages from his talk. You can find the complete talk at http://www.oodegr.com/english/psyxotherap/curing_pharisaism.htm

Therefore, the first and only commandment by God is to love God Himself with all our heart. Subsequently, whatever we do in church, has that precise purpose.  And that is why we go to pilgrimages, why we fast, why we pray, why we go to confession, why we light candles, why we read the lives of saints, why we do everything: it is our way of loving Christ.

Now, where is the mistake? The mistake is that unfortunately, we say that we do all these things in order to just become good people…. to become better people….and that is where the big hoax lies. It is the step that we all stumble over.  Because, if the purpose of the church was just to make us better people, then there wouldn’t be any need for a personal relationship with Christ, nor would there be any reason for Christ to have come to the world.  Why do you think we aren’t able to understand the saints?  Or, to say something simpler, why we can’t understand those who love God.

We tend to say “is it necessary to do this thing in order to be saved – to be near to God?  Is it necessary -let’s say- to depart to the mountains? Must we go and do all these things?” Of course not.  It is not a necessity. If we could understand that our relationship with God is not only for the sake of salvation, but is a relationship of love, only then will we understand the saints also and why they did the things they did (which can’t be interpreted rationally). This is because love transcends logic.

Love cannot be forced into the molds of logic. Love is above logic. That is how God’s love is.  God’s love surpasses human logic. That is why we can’t judge with logical criteria those people who love God.  That is why the saints reacted with a logic of their own – they had a different kind of logic, and not the logic of humans; because their logic was the “logic” of love.  So, the church does not teach us just to become good people – not in the least.  It is only natural, that we have to become good people, because if we don’t, then what have we succeeded in doing?  These are nursery school things. Our Church teaches us to love Christ – to love the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Inside the church, a relationship develops. It is a personal relationship between man and Christ; not with the teaching of Christ – no – not with the Gospel.  The Gospel is something that helps us to reach the point of loving Christ. When we reach that point of loving Christ, the Gospel will no longer be needed. Nothing will be needed…all these things will cease…only man’s relationship with God will remain.  That is the difference between the church and religion.

Religion teaches you to do your duties, the way the idolaters did. An example: let’s say that we went to our pilgrimage sites, paid our respects, left some money in the charity box, left some lit candles, some oil, or even our entreaties, our names, our offering-bread, everything. All these things are religious duties, but our heart has not changed in the least. The hour of duty ends, and we are the same as we were before: we are ready to attack the other, ready to protest about the other, ready to be sour again, the way we were before…. Our heart doesn’t change. We do not acquire that relationship with Christ, because we simply confine ourselves to duties – to religious duties.

And you must know that such people – you know, “religious” people – are the most dangerous kind in the church. Those religious people are truly dangerous.  May God preserve us from them…  Once, when I was officiating in church and we were citing the words “Lord, save the pious…”, a Holy Mountain monk jokingly remarked: “Lord, save us from the pious…”… In other words, God save you from those “religious” types, because “religious person” implies a warped personality, which has never had a personal relationship with God. These types [of persons] merely perform their duties towards Him, but without any serious relationship involved and that is why God does not say anything about this type of person. And I too must confess that – from my own experience – I have never seen worse enemies of the church than “religious people”.

People who wouldn’t miss a homily – not a single homily… those who were always the first… at homilies, night-vigils, reading books.. I don’t know… at doing everything…. they would also bring their children along, but when the time came for the child to exercise its freedom – to decide by itself which path to choose – then those people would move to the extreme opposite camp, thus proving that Christ had never spoken to their hearts…. They were merely “religious people”.  That is why religious people are the toughest kind in the church.  Because you know what? Sometimes, people like these will never be cured, because they only think they are close to God.

Sinners, on the other hand – the “losers”, so to speak – at least they know they are sinners. That is why Christ said that publicans and whores will go to the Kingdom of God, whereas to the Pharisees He had said: “You, who are ‘religious’, shall not enter the Kingdom of God. Because the word of God had never changed your heart.”  They had merely adhered to the observance of religious formalities.

Therefore, we should all pay close attention and understand that the church is a hospital that cures us and helps us to love Christ, and our love for Christ is a flame that ignites inside our heart so that we can examine ourselves, to see if we are within God’s love. If we discern all those forms of malice and selfishness and wickedness inside us, then we should be concerned, because it is not possible for Christ to be in our heart when we are full of “vinegar” inside.  How can you be praying and at the same time be full of bile towards another person? How is it possible to read the Gospel and not accept your brother? How is it possible to say “I have been in the church for so many years” – either as a monk or a priest or whatever – nd yet, where is that alpha and omega, which is love?  Where is that patience – showing some patience towards your brother?  By not embracing that, it means you have accomplished nothing. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.  We saw how Christ reached the point of telling those virgins that He would have nothing to do with them. He threw them out of the wedding hall even though they had all the virtues, because what they didn’t have was love.  Because He would have wanted to tell them that “you may have external virtues, you may have remained virgins, you may have done a thousand things, but you didn’t achieve the essence of that which is the most important.”  If you can’t achieve that, then what do you need the rest for?  What’s the use, whether I consume olive oil today, or I don’t?  I may [fast and] not eat olive oil – for example – but I devour my brother from morning to night…. They used to say on the Holy Mountain “don’t ask if I eat fish;  as long as one doesn’t eat the fisherman, he can eat fish“; or, “as long as you don’t eat the oil-bearer, you can have a drop of olive oil to eat“… To “devour” someone with a sharp tongue is far worse than consuming a spoonful of olive oil.  And yet, we focus on things like that: we eat oil – we don’t eat oil; we eat fish – we don’t eat fish…

The talk is much longer. It is well worth the time it takes to read through it and to meditate on the Metropolitan’s message. The bottom line is love which transforms. Without this love, everything we do is superstition.