Oration 39 was most likely delivered by St Gregory on January 5th, vigil of the Feast of the Epiphany. His audience would have included the catechumens who were expecting to be baptized on the next day, catechumens prepared by Arian priests and catechists under the leadership of the recently deposed Homoian bishop of Constantinople, Demophilus. The Gothic warlord Athanarich may also have been present, submitting to the religion of the Roman Empire as an expression of his new alliance with the Emperor Theodosius. In other words, the new bishop of Constantinople has only two sermons to convert a group of unbaptized Arians, pagans, and barbarians to the faith of Nicaea and introduce them to the eternally begotten Son, Jesus Christ, God from God, Light from Light, of one substance with the Father. A tall order indeed.
The principal theme of Oration 39 is purification, the purification needed for anyone who wishes to enter into the mysteries of Christ, the purification effected by the illuminating waters of holy baptism, the purification that each believing Christian must practice throughout his life.
Christ is the true light and so St Gregory invites his hearers to draw near to him and be illumined by the truth. “It is the time of rebirth,” he declares; “let us be born from above. It is the time of refashioning let us receive again the first Adam. Let us not remain what we are but become what we once were” (Or 39.2). Gregory understands the rebirth of baptism as a restoration of our prelapsarian humanity. In Oration 38 Gregory declared that all the liturgical celebrations of the Church have but one end, our “perfection and refashioning and restoration to the state of the first Adam” (38.16). With our banishment from the tree of life, our destiny of eternal communion with the Holy Trinity has been interrupted. By incorporation into Christ and regeneration in the Spirit, the journey of theosis may now be resumed. At least that is what I think St Gregory may mean when he speaks of our becoming what we once were. The baptized still wear the fleshly skins of our exile.
Gregory then addresses at great length the many religious cults and mystery religions his catechumens are expected to renounce. He knew their power and seductiveness. Even sophisticated pagan philosophers of his day would seek initiation into them, even though privately acknowledging the stories of the gods as myths. But the gospel of Jesus Christ is truth, not myth:
To me all their initiations and mysteries are nonsense, dark inventions of demons and fabrications of a demon-possessed mind, assisgned by time and deceived by myth. For what they worship as true they hide as mythical. If these things are true, they should not call them myths but show that they are not shameful; if false, they should not marvel, nor so recklessly hold opposite opinions about the same subject. (39.3)
Upon reading this passage I immediately thought of the pre-Christian C. S. Lewis, who found truth and beauty in the old myths. On 19 September 1931 he, Hugo Dyson, and J. R. R. Tolkien went out for a walk on a blustery night and discussed at length the relationship between the gospel and mythology. Myths,” Lewis argued, were lies and therefore worthless, even though “breathed through silver.” Tolkien and Dyson sought to persuade him that the story of Jesus Christ was myth become fact. Though the myths woven by us inevitably contain error, explained Tolkien, they also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God (see Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien, pp. 146-148; also see Tolkien’s poem “Philomythus to Misomythus“). A month later Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greaves:
Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself … I like it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’.
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myth: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’. Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myths are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of the wh. God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.
Lewis would later elaborate on this theme in his essay “Myth Became Fact“:
Now as myth transcends thought, incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other.
A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it. The modernist—the extreme modernist, infidel in all but name-need not be called a fool or hypocrite because he obstinately retains, even in the midst of his intellectual atheism, the language, rites, sacraments, and story of the Christians. The poor man may be clinging (with a wisdom he himself by no means understands) to that which is his life. …
Those who do not know that this great myth became fact when the Virgin conceived are, indeed, to be pitied. But Christians also need to be reminded—we may thank Corineus for reminding us—that what became fact was a myth, that it carries with it into the world of fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “pagan Christs”: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: perfect myth and perfect fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.
Given that my own imagination and spirituality dwells in the mythopoeic dimension, I have always loved Lewis’s and Tolkien’s description of the gospel as “myth become fact”; but I wonder how St Gregory would have responded to Lewis’s construal of God as mythopoeic. As appreciative as he was of the Hellenistic tradition, St Gregory did not have the luxury of being an Oxford don living in a culture that had been relatively Christian for well over a millennium. In the late 4th century Roman Empire, pagan mystery cults were alive and well. Only twenty years earlier Julian the Apostate had sought to revive pagan religion throughout the Empire. The memories of violent imperial persecution of Christians were still fresh in the communal consciousness of the Church. Gregory looked at these various cults and saw them not only as religious competitors but as demonically influenced powers that encouraged violence, immorality, and vice. Since the Fall humanity has been helplessly imprisoned in its disordered desires. Not only have we become a “base of operations for all kinds of passions, which devour horribly and consume the inner human being; but also we have set up the gods as advocates of the passions, so that sin is regarded not only as blameless but even as divine, since it appeals to this defense, the things worshipped” (39.7). Hence every believer who comes to the baptism of the Church must firmly renounce the gods and their mystery cults. (But must they, must we, also renounce the mythopoeic imagination?)
And so Gregory summons his hearers to purification, which begins with the fear of God, the keeping of the commandments, and the cultivation of virtue. “For the same Word,” Gregory explains, “is both fearful because of his nature to those who are not worthy and graspable because of his love for humankind to those who are thus prepared, who have driven out the impure and material spirit from their souls and swept clean and adorned their own souls by full knowledge” (39.10). Yet one does not get the impression that Gregory demands moral and spiritual perfection from sinners before he is willing to bathe them in the waters of regeneration. He holds before his hearers the model of Zacchaeus, who, though of small spiritual stature, climbed the sycamore tree to see Jesus. Let such a person receive the word of Christ, “Today salvation has come to this house.”