St Gregory the Theologian: Oration 40 (part 1)

St Gregory the Theologian announces the theme of his homily—“baptism and the benefits that come to us from it” (Oration 40.1). He notes that he could only address this briefly the day before, as he was pressed for time. “Surfeit of speech is harmful to the ears,” he states, “as an excess of food is to the body.” He then proceeds to deliver a homily that is over twice as long as Oration 39! I wonder what counted as a surfeit of preaching in the 4th century.

St Gregory’s words are principally addressed to his catechumens and their catechists. John McGuckin suggests that the homily was probably delivered in the baptistry. Gregory wants them to understand the importance and meaning of the mystery of holy baptism and to persuade them to submit to it and enter into the fullness of the life of Christ. One has the impression that even at this point many of the catechumens still had reservations. Perhaps some had concerns about the “orthodoxy” of the newly appointed bishop of Constantinople. After four decades decades of Arian bishops, the new Emperor had just imposed upon the city a man who was enthusiastically committed to the homoousion and the controversial Creed of Nicaea. This was not a popular move. Only less than a year earlier, Arian monks and nuns had disrupted the Easter Vigil liturgy at the house church of the Anastasia and thrown rocks at Gregory. But whatever doubts the catechumens may have had about the orthodoxy of the new bishop, it is clear from the oration itself that Gregory is arguing against a deeply engrained inclination to postpone sacramental initiation until the last possible moment, an inclination unfortunately produced, encouraged, and advanced by the teaching and praxis of the Church herself.

In his Theophany homily on the preceding day St Gregory had summoned his congregation to repentance, conversion, and purification as the necessary precondition for illumination and deification. “Let us each purify ourselves, then come close to the pure, if indeed we do not want what Israel experienced, not bearing the glory of Moses’ face and because of this needing a veil, or again what Manoah experienced, so that he said, ‘We are lost, wife, we have seen God,’ as God appeared to him; or like Peter, to send away Jesus from the boat, as not worthy of such a visit” (Or. 39.9). The necessity of purification is embodied in the Church’s institution of the catechumenate, which requires extensive moral and ascetical training before baptismal initiation into the eucharistic life of the Church. The goal of the Christian life is the vision of the Holy Trinity. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus taught his disciples: “for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8). Purification and illumination are thus intertwined. “Where there is purification there is illumination,” Gregory explains. “And illumination is the fulfillment of desire for those who aim for the greatest things, or that which is greater, or that which is beyond greatness” (39.8).

St Gregory’s primary concept for the divine being is light. To be saved is to be purified and illuminated by the divine light; it is to be united to the divine light:

The highest light is God, unapproachable and ineffable, neither grasped by the mind nor expressed in language. It illumines every reason-endowed nature. It is to intelligible realities what the sun is to sense-perceptible realities. To the extent that we are purified it appears, to the extent that it appears it is loved, to the extent that it is loved it is again known. It both contemplates and comprehends itself and is poured out but a little to those outside itself. I speak of the light contemplated in the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, whose wealth is the confluence and the leaping forth of this radiance. (40.5)

Holy baptism, for Gregory, is the great mystery of our rebirth in the Holy Spirit and our illumination by the divine light:

This illumination is radiance of souls, transformation of life, engagement of the conscience toward God. Illumination is help for our weakness, illumination is renunciation of the flesh, following of the Spirit, communion in the Word, setting right of the creature, a flood overwhelming sin, participation in light, dissolution of darkness. Illumination is a vehicle leading toward God, departure with Christ, support of faith, perfection of mind, key to the kingdom of heaven, change of life, deliverance from slavery, release from bonds, transformation of our composite nature. Illumination—what more need I add?—is the most beautiful and most magnificent of the gifts of God. (40.3)

One can only imagine the excitement generated in the hearts of the catechumens when they heard these words. If this is what baptism is, if this is what life in the Church of Jesus Christ offers to the believer, how can anyone think of delaying or postponing their reception of this “great and wondrous mystery of our salvation” (40.6)?

Holy baptism is known by many names, St Gregory explains, for its benefits are many:

We call it gift, grace, baptism, illumination, anointing, robe of incorruption, bath of rebirth, seal, everything honorable. It is a gift because no offering is given for it beforehand; and grace, as given even to debtors; and baptism, as burying sin in the water; and anointing, as priestly and royal, since they were the ones anointed; and illumination, as most radiant; and robe, as entirely covering shame; and bath, as washing clean, and seal, as a safeguard and a sign of authority. In this the heavens rejoice together, this the angels glorify because it is akin to their great radiance. This is an image of the blessedness to come. We desire to sing forth its praises, but we are not able to do so worthily. (40.4)

Baptism initiates the believer into nothing less than eschatological existence in the trinitarian society of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Purification precedes baptism as necessary preparation, yet baptism is itself the decisive divine act of purification, exorcizing the evil spirits and cleansing both body and soul. We are physically washed by the water and by the Spirit purified in our interior depths, “making new instead of old and deiform instead of what we now are, recasting without fire and re-creating without shattering” (40.8). Hence the urgency of St Gregory’s appeal to his catechumens not to postpone their baptismal regeneration. Yet the need for purification does not conclude with holy baptism. Life in Christ is an ongoing endeavor both to protect that which we have received and to intensify it by prayer, fasting, good works, and repentance, until God’s deifying work in our lives is perfected in the Kingdom. St Gregory concludes Oration 39 with these words:

But let us honor today the baptism of Christ and celebrate well, not feasting with the stomach but rejoicing spiritually. And how shall we feast? “Wash, become pure.” If you are “red” with sin but less than blood-red, become “white as snow”; but if you are scarlet and complete “men of blood,” still, come to be “white as wool.” Be entirely purified and be pure, for nothing gives so much joy to God as the correction and salvation of the human being, for whose sake every discourse and every mystery exist, that you may become like “stars in the world,” a life-giving force for other human beings; that as perfect lights standing beside the great Light, you may be initiated into the illumination hereafter, illumined with greater purity and clarity by the Trinity, from whom you have now received in measure the one ray of the one divinity, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory to the ages of ages. Amen. (39.20)

As Christopher Beeley explains, baptism is the paradigmatic act of Christian purification, “the culmination of catechetical preparation and the beginning of a lifelong process of transformation and growth toward God” (Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God, p. 87).

But as we have seen, baptism is not only purification; it is simultaneously also divine illumination, our enlightenment and participation in the divine light of the Holy Trinity. Beeley describes the dynamic of purification and illumination in the thought of St Gregory:

The identification of baptism with both purification and illumination highlights the complex interrelationship between the two poles of Gregory’s spiritual dialectic. The concept of purification connotes the removal of impurities that stand in the way of one’s life with God, whereas illumination describes the conveyance of the divine light to the believer; and one must be purified in order to be illuminated, as we saw dramatized in the Sinai narrative (28.2-3). Purification leads to illumination (39.8), and God illuminates rational beings to the extent that they are purified, leading them through love to contemplation (40.5). So Christ is called “Light” because he is “the illumination of souls who are purified in world and life” (30.20). … For Gregory there is a constant, fluid, and dynamic relationship between action and contemplation, and purification and illumination, so that they are, in effect, two dimensions of a single movement. … Purification, then, is the constant preparation and the active, practical foundation for illumination. The dynamic relationship between the two constitutes the movement toward God, with baptism as its defining moment. … Throughout the process of purification, the Christian is increasingly illuminated by Christ with the light of the Trinity. (pp. 109-110)

And so the new bishop of Constantinople summons his catechumens to the transformative event of illumination: “Let us become light, as the disciples heard from the great Light, who said, ‘You are the light of the world.’ Let us become lights in the world offering the word of life that is a power of life for others. Let us receive divinity, let us receive the first and most undiluted Light. Let us walk toward his radiance before our feet stumble on dark and hostile mountains” (40.37).

(Go to Part 2)

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