St Gregory the Theologian: Oration 40 (part 3)

St Gregory has a problem. He didn’t create the problem; he inherited it. The problem is this: What to do with baptized believers who commit grave sin? In the fourth century the practice of the Church appears to have been something along these lines: the sinner is formally excommunicated and is restored to Holy Communion only after a period, perhaps a very long period, of penitence and good works. In Oration 39 Gregory refers to this penitential process as the fifth baptism, the baptism of tears:

I know yet a fifth [baptism], that of tears; but it is more laborious, received by one who each night washes his bed and his couch with tears, whose bruises also stink with wickedness, who goes in mourning and with a sad face, who imitates the turnaround of Manassas and the humiliation of the Ninivites that brought them mercy, who utters the words of the tax collector in the temple and is justified instead of the arrogant Pharisee, who bends down like the Canaanite woman and seeks compassion and crumbs, the food of a dog that is very hungry. (39.17).

The question of re-admission to the Eucharist after serious sin (particularly apostasy, murder, and adultery) was controversial and much debated in the early Church. Many deemed restoration to the eucharistic life of the Church not only as unwise but impossible. One such sect had been founded by Novation, and it still had its adherents in Constantinople and Asia Minor in the late fourth century. St Gregory argues against the rigorism of the Novationists in Oration 39, criticizing them as being less merciful than Christ and calling them the new Pharisees:

As for me, since I confess that I am a human being, an animal with a changeable and fluid nature, I also accept this eagerly and worship the one who has given it [the baptism of tears] and share it with others, and I advance them mercy that they may obtain mercy. For I know that I myself am “clothed in weakness,” and I will be measured as I have measured others. But what do you say? What do you legislate, you new Pharisee pure in name but not in intention, who trumpet forth to us the principles of Novatus but have the same weakness? You do not accept repentance? You do not give place to lamentations? You do not weep a tear? May you not encounter a judge such as yourself! You do not respect the lovingkindness of Jesus, who has taken our weakness and borne our diseases, who has not come to the righteous but to sinners that they may repent, who “desires mercy rather than sacrifice,” who forgives sins seventy times seven times? How blessed your exaltation would be, if it were purity and not pride making laws above what is human and destroying correction by despair. For these are alike evil: both release without self-control and condemnation without pardon; the one looses the reins completely, while the other strangles by violence. You would not accept David repenting, for whom indeed repentance preserved the prophetic gift; not the great Peter who suffered human weakness at the Savior’s suffering. Yet Jesus accepted him and by the threefold question and confession healed the threefold denial. Or would you not have accepted him even when he was perfected through blood? For this also is part of your craziness. You would not accept the lawbreaker in Corinth [1 Cor 5:1]? But Paul indeed made love prevail for him when he saw his correction, for this reason: “That such a person might not be swallowed up by excessive sorrow,” weighed down by lack of moderation in the reproof. You do not allow young widows to marry owing to the vulnerability of their age? Yet Paul dared to allow it, of whom you are quite clearly the teacher, since you have reached the fourth heaven and another paradise and have heard most unspeakable words and have encompassed a larger circle for the gospel.

But these things were not after baptism, they say: What proof is there? Either prove it or do not condemn. But if it is uncertain, let lovingkindness have the victory. But Novatus, they say, did not accept those who fell during persecution. What do you mean by this? If they did not repent, he acted justly. I myself would not receive those who either do not bow down, or not sufficiently, and do not compensate for the evil by correction; and when I receive them, I assign them the proper place. But regarding those who waste away in tears, I will not imitate him. And what law to me is the inhumanity of Novatus, who did not punish avarice, the second idolatry, but condemned unchastity so bitterly, as if he were fleshless and bodiless? What do you say? Are we persuading you by these words? Come, stand with us who are human beings. “Let us magnify the Lord together.” Let none of you dare to say, even if he is very confident about himself, “Do not touch me, for I am pure,” and, “Who is as pure as I?” Give us also a share in your splendor. But are we not persuading you? Then we will weep for you. So let them go, if they wish, our way and the way of Christ, but if not, let them go their own way. Perhaps hereafter they will be baptized by fire, the final baptism that is more laborious and longer, that devours matter like hay and consumes all evils like the lightest things. (39.18-19)

“Let lovingkindness have the victory!” Gregory’s generous attitude toward sinners is manifest. He understands human frailty and weakness, and he understands the abundant mercy of the Savior. Yet the fact remains that the penitential praxis of the 4th century Church did not appear in the eyes of many to embody the victory of mercy. Its rigorousness and limited availability (a penitent might avail himself of public penance only once in his lifetime) encouraged the postponement of holy baptism by catechumens and potential converts. Given the possibility that one might fall back into sin, thus incurring ecclesial penalties and excommunication, would it not be prudent to delay sacramental initiation until one has matured and gained a certain mastery of self? Might it not even be best to wait until one is close to death, thus severely limiting temptations and the possibility of disobedience? Which is the riskier path, to obtain the graces of baptism now or later? Even St Gregory’s devout sister, St Gorgonia, delayed her baptism into the Church until her deathbed.

On this Feast of Lights the Bishop of Constantinople faces his catechumens. Some of them, perhaps many of them, are still undecided whether to come forward for sacramental illumination. They too are worried about the possibility that they will fall into serious sin and thus lose the graces of baptism. Gregory acknowledges the seriousness of this situation:

For if one must say it briefly, the power of baptism is to be understood as a covenant with God for a second life and a purer lifestyle. And what is most to be feared, against which we each must guard our own soul with all watchfulness, is that we might show this agreement to be a lie. For if God is taken as a mediator to confirm agreements between human beings, how great is the danger if we are found to be transgressors of the covenant made with God himself and are thus accountable to the truth not only for other sins but also for that lie? And this when there is no second rebirth, no refashioning, and no restoration to the original state, even if we should seek this to the utmost with many groans and tears, from which with difficulty comes scarring over of the wounds, according to my principles and rule of conduct. For this will come and we believe it; but if we could even wipe away the scars, I would be well pleased, since I myself also need lovingkindness. However, it is better not to need a second purification but to stop at the first, which I know to be common to all, free from toil and equally honorable for slaves, masters, poor, rich, lowly, exalted, nobles, commoners, debtors, those without debt, as the air is breathed and light shines and seasons change, the spectacle of creation. It is a great delight common to all of us, and an equal share in the faith. (40.8)

Gregory cannot deny the problem. He, like all of his peers, believes that grievous sin destroys the new life and identity bestowed by the mystery of baptism. It is a betrayal of the baptismal covenant. The purification conferred by the sacrament cannot be sacramentally repeated (Heb 6:4-6). Yes, there is repentance and the baptism of tears, but dreadful it is, he says, to throw away the grace one has received and “to owe a debt of punishment and undergo correction proportionate to sin. For how many tears must we offer to equal the fount of baptism? And who will guarantee that death will wait for the cure, and that the tribunal will not receive us still indebted and needing the fire of the hereafter?” (Or 40.9). In this sentence Gregory may in fact be thinking of those who are hoping to achieve purification and salvation through repentance and tears without submitting to the ritual bath; but the point, I think, still obtains. How much more difficult it is to be saved once the purification that God gives is lost.

I have to confess that I find patristic penitential practice, and the theory that underlies it, troubling and contrary to my long-held understanding of the gospel. I hope to ruminate on this difficult question of post-baptismal sin, penitence, and forgiveness in a future blog post. Is God less merciful to the baptized than to the unbaptized? Is divine forgiveness conditional upon repentance and good works? What is mortal sin and when should the baptized be excluded from Holy Eucharist? In Gregory’s defense it should be noted that the Church would eventually adopt the practice of auricular confession and absolution to provide a sacramental way to recover one’s baptismal identity, yet auricular confession, at least as historically practiced, raises its own questions.

As we have seen, St Gregory urgently pleads with his catechumens to receive the illumination of Christ. The benefits are great, many, and wondrous. Life in the Church is itself the greatest security against sin and damnation. She provides abundant moral, sacramental, and ascetical resources for believers to protect and maintain their salvation. “There is great help for you,” he assures them, “toward the attainment of what you desire in vigils, fasts, sleeping on the ground, prayers, tears, compassion for the needy, and sharing” (40.31). Do not avoid the gift of holy baptism for fear that you might sin or perhaps even fall away from the faith and thus be deprived of the greatest good, namely Christ himself (40.16). This anxiety comes from the Evil One. It is he who would keep you outside the Church. Do not listen to him. Do not take him as your advisor. “You must come inside, cross the court, observe the Holy Things, look into the Holy of Holies, be with the Trinity” (40.16).

But Gregory also warns the catechumens: Satan will attack you once you have been joined to Christ, just as he attacked Christ Jesus himself. But do not fear the struggle. You have a way to conquer. “Defend yourself with the water, defend yourself with the Spirit, in which all the fiery darts of the Evil One are extinguished” (40.10). When he tempts you to sin, say to him, “I am also myself an image of God. I have not yet fallen, like you, from the glory on high through seeking elevation. I have put on Christ, I have been transformed into Christ by baptism. You should worship me” (40.10). Note the decisive importance of theosis for St Gregory. Satan must flee from the baptized because of the believer’s union with Christ. The Evil One can no more conquer the Christian than he can conquer God, for the Christian has been reborn in God and belongs to God and has become God.

Given the devastating consequences of losing baptismal grace through grave sin, St Gregory repeatedly enjoins his catechumens to maintain and preserve their illumination. At one point he even speaks to them as if they had already experienced the washing and chrismation:

Yesterday you were a Canaanite soul and bent by sin. Today you have been made straight again by the Word. Do not bend again and incline toward the earth, as if under a yoke, weighed down by the evil one, and have a lowness hard to recall to things above. Yesterday you were dried up by the vigor of a hemorrhage, for you were ouring out scarlet sin. Today your vigor is renewed as you are stanched, for you touched Christ’s hem and the flow has stopped. Guard for me the purification, lest you hemorrhage again and are not strong enough to grasp Christ, that you might steal salvation. For Christ does not like to be stolen from often, though he loves humankind very much. Yesterday you were thrown onto a bed, slackened and weakened, and you had no human being to throw you into the pool when the water was agitated. Today you have found a human being, the same one who is also God, or rather the God-human. You got up from your pallet, or rather picked up your pallet and recorded his good deed on a monument. Do not again be thrown onto a pallet by sinning, in the evil rest of a body slackened by pleasures, but walk as you are remembering the commandment: “Behold, you have become well; sin no more, lest something worse happen to you” when you show yourself as evil after this beneficence. “Lazarus, come out.” Lying in a tomb, you have heard the great voice—for what voice is greater than that of the Word?—and you have come forth, as one dead not four days but many days, risen with the one who rose on the third day and loosed the bonds of those in tombs. Do not again become dead and come to be with those who dwell in tombs, nor bind yourself tightly with the cords of your own sins. For it is unclear whether you will again rise from the tomb until the final and common resurrection, which will bring all of creation to judgment, not to be healed but to be judged and to give an account of what for good or ill it has treasured up. (40.33)

As is typical for Gregory’s festal preaching, he identifies his hearers with specific characters in the gospel story who have experienced healing and salvation through the word and ministry of Jesus; he incorporates his catechumens into the biblical narrative. In this way their lives are reinterpreted and they become contemporaries with the Lord.

But the heart of Gregory’s message is not admonition but the urgent exhortation to avail oneself of the freely offered gift of new life in Jesus Christ. This is beautifully expressed in the following passage:

But if with neither labor nor trouble you can attain what you desire, how silly to delay the gift. “You who thirst,” Scripture says, “come to the water”—Isaiah exhorts you—”and as many as have no money, come, buy, and drink wine,” without price. O swiftness of love for humankind! O ease of reconciliation! The blessing is on sale to you for your will alone; God accepts the yearning itself as a high price. He thirsts to be thirsted for, he gives a drink to those wishing to drink, he is benefited by being asked for benefit. The great gift is at hand; he gives with more pleasure than others take in receiving. Only let us not be condemned for pettiness in asking for small things unworthy of the giver. Blessed is one of whom Christ asks a drink, like that Samaritan woman, and to whom he gives “a fountain of water springing up to eternal life.” (40.27)

This is the God of St Gregory the Theologian, a God who passionately loves his people and delights in giving them every blessing and grace.

(Go to Part 4)

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1 Response to St Gregory the Theologian: Oration 40 (part 3)

  1. joelrice says:

    Great stuff, here. Perrenial sinner that I am,have pondered from time to time if it is possible that I may have lost my salvation–not only due to grevious sins, but also long periods when I just don’t FEEL the Spirit….you know? I take comfort in the hope that even if I can’t keep my end of the deal, Jesus will keep His. Isn’t it a lack of faith on our part–and demeaning to the miracle of
    sacrament–to think otherwise?


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