The Feasts of the Church gave the holy Fathers the opportunity to celebrate in words. An address on a feast-day is a real celebration, because it lucidly analyses the true content of the feast. The substance of each address and the way it is delivered show its festive character.
The festive orations of St Gregory the Theologian belong in this category. I am thinking particularly of St Gregory’s address to his flock on “New Sunday”, Easter Day. In an aside, the Saint, referring to the meaning of the Feast, writes, “This is the source of the new creation and the feast after the Feast, and I am celebrating yet again.” This shows that the saints’ homilies on the Church’s Feasts reveal the stages of the divine Economy, and in these homilies they celebrate in the fullest sense of the word.
We shall look at this oration by St Gregory the Theologian because, apart from anything else, it shows how the saints preached. They linked theology with asceticism, life in society and human life in general. The whole homily will not be analysed but the main points will be emphasised.
St Gregory the Theologian and all the other saints do not deliver abstract sermons isolated from human life as a whole. They do not indulge in speculative theology unconnected with man’s fall and resurrection, nor do they discuss social problems in isolation from theology. They realise that the solution to social problems is inseparable from man’s inner transformation. The saints do not use the feasts as an excuse for literary discussion, but as an opportunity to share substantially in the grace abundantly present in the Church, and to transform human beings in reality. Living the feast means actually participating in the divine Economy of Christ.
Because St Gregory the Theologian wants to speak about Easter as the celebration of the renewal of human nature and of each person, he begins by interpreting what is meant by a feast of dedication. “It is an old and a good law that feasts of dedication should be celebrated; or rather, that new things should be honoured by dedication festivals.”The Old Testament speaks a lot about dedications. The Greek term for such dedication ceremonies (“egkainia”) derives from the word for “new” (“kainos”) and means a festival of renewal or dedication, a celebration of new things. Through His Incarnation, His Resurrection and the whole work of divine Economy, Christ renewed human nature. Thus Easter is the celebration of the inauguration of our salvation. As St Gregory the Theologian states emphatically, “I am celebrating yet again, commemorating the new beginning of my salvation.”
The Social Dimension of the Feast
... When someone is transformed by divine grace, his relationships with others are also changed and transfigured. Thus experiencing the Feast of Christ’s Resurrection has a marked sociological character. St Gregory the Theologian also draws attention to other practical aspects of the subject, which he presents in a personal way. He writes as follows.
Do not hate your brother for whom Christ died. Do not envy those who achieve success in their lives. Do not despise tears, in other words, someone who is distressed and unhappy. Do not turn away or dismiss a poor person, given that God has made you rich. If, however you do send him away, “Do not grow rich at the expense of the destitute.” Do not humiliate strangers, for whose sake Christ became an exile. “Give shelter, protection and food to those in need, as you have enough and to spare.” Do not love riches unless you are going to help the poor. Forgive, as you have been forgiven. “May your whole life and everything you do be made new.” Life in its entirety has to change; the way a person behaves has to be wholly transformed. In general, St Gregory the Theologian tells us not to admire things that do not last for ever and not to try to hold on to things that will escape our grasp. This refers to love of praise, love of money and love of pleasure. He states characteristically, “Do not admire anything that is fleeting, nor overlook anything that is lasting. Do not try to embrace something that will slip through your fingers.” Do not proudly imagine you are something special and do not laugh at your neighbour when he falls. “Certainly advance as far as you can, but also lend a hand to those who have fallen down.” Thus all our relationships with our fellow human beings are reassessed, put on a new basis and renewed.
At the same time St Gregory the Theologian speaks about changing the various ways in which we live. Those who are “yoked” – by which he mainly means those who are married – ought to offer something to God as well, as they are unable to offer themselves entirely to Him. Virgins, however, ought to offer everything to God. They must not prove to be secretly enjoying sensual pleasures, nor must they share houses with men, as they do not have husbands. The Saint has in mind cases of virgins who do not practise perfect virginity. Although they are physically virgins, they are soiled by lust. Virginity is not just abstention from physical acts, but the complete transformation of a human being. Even those in authority ought to fear God, Who is more powerful than they. “Let those who are powerful fear Him Who is more powerful; those on high thrones Him Who is higher.”
It is very significant that St Gregory the Theologian looks at the role of Christians in society from two angles.
Firstly there is man’s inner renewal, his soul’s change for the better. Renewal begins with the renewal of the person. When we become persons, we begin to make a positive contribution to society. First comes personal renewal, then changes to social institutions follow. This does not mean that we have to wait for people to be inwardly renewed before reforming social institutions. This task should be carried out in parallel with personal renewal, as there are some people who do not believe in Christ. By stressing personal renewal as a priority, however, we want to highlight the surest and best way of improving social institutions. People who have not been transformed are themselves a social problem, even if they attempt to solve what are regarded as social problems. For this reason St Gregory the Theologian is not content with abstract social improvement, but insists first and foremost on personal change.
The second point is that St Gregory the Theologian sets social teaching in a theological context. He advises us to love our neighbour, the poor and needy, not just for humanitarian and altruistic reasons, but because the poor person is loved by God as we too are loved. Thus social teaching takes on a new, clearly theological dimension. It is based on God and not man.
The Participation of Nature in the Feast of Renewal
St Gregory the Theologian widens the theme in other directions too. He shows that nature too participates in the Easter festival. At this point he also displays his literary gift. This is one of the many wonderful pages in the works of the Saint.
The saints live the drama of creation after the Fall of Adam, but also nature’s joy at the resurrection of human nature, which came about in the Person of the Word. This is not a matter of nature-worship but of the theology of nature. Nature rejoices and exults because Christ is risen and the blessing of His Resurrection has come upon the whole of nature. Nature does not have free will like human beings. This means that nature did not fall of its own accord. Man sinned and dragged down nature to destruction with him. Thus the resurrection of man has consequences for the world as well. “Now everything is filled with joy: heaven and earth and the regions under the earth. Let all creation keep festival…”
I do not have literary gifts and I cannot adequately describe the Saint’s writing from a literary point of view. I am afraid of misrepresenting the homily in this respect. I shall therefore simply list the images used, without examining the Saint’s eloquence of expression.
The queen of seasons, the spring, accompanies the queen of days, Sunday. “The queen of seasons escorts the queen of days and bestows on her as gifts the best and most delightful things she has.” The sky is brighter, the sun higher and more golden, the circle of the moon is brighter and the host of stars clearer. The waves seem to offer a libation, a sacrifice, to the shore, the clouds to the sun, the earth to the plants and the plants to our eyes. The springs pour forth purer water. The rivers are fuller. The meadows are fragrant and plants are springing up everywhere. “The grass is mown and lambs skip about on the green pastures.” Boats from the harbours set sail for the open sea, and dancing dolphins send them on their way. “Dolphins leap about, whistling as sweetly as they can, joyfully sending off the sailors and escorting them.” The farmer prepares his plough, raising his eyes to God. He digs the earth and rejoices in the hope of the harvest. Shepherds and cowherds play their pipes and pass on to nature the message of spring. The gardener, the hunter and the fisherman are glad because their work is beginning. All living creatures, like the bees and the birds, rejoice and exult. All sing God’s praises and glorify Him. “All laud and magnify God with wordless voices; God is thanked for everything by me.” St Gregory the Theologian ends by saying, “Now every kind of living creature laughs. Let us feast all our senses.”
All nature shares in spring, but also in the Resurrection of Christ. This festival of nature delights our senses. Thus the whole man rejoices, exults and celebrates. “Now is the universal spring, spiritual spring, spring for the soul, spring for the body, visible spring and spring unseen.”
extract from the book The Science of Spiritual Medicine