Melkite Greek Catholic Church
THROUGHOUT THE NEW TESTAMENT we read that light is somehow an apt description of God. Thus in St Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians we read: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Elsewhere we read even more explicit statements such as this, from the First Epistle of John: “God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). We also hear Christ telling us, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Reflecting on these statements prompts us to ask: Are these teachings merely employing metaphors or symbolic images, or is light of the essence of God, both in Himself and in our world?

It is hard to imagine the apostles believing that light merely represents or symbolizes God. John, along with Peter and James, had witnessed Christ’s transfiguration on Mount Tabor when Christ’s “…face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). St Paul was on his way to Damascus, when “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him” (Acts 9:3) and he was blinded at the appearance of the risen Christ. These were concrete manifestations of light, not simply poetic images.

The Church, reflecting on these Scriptures over the first millennium, struggled to understand how the immaterial God could “be” light. Fathers like St Gregory of Nyssa and St Gregory the Theologian affirmed that God is incomprehensible to us because He is so beyond our nature. God is an impenetrable darkness to us as “He whom the soul seeks transcends all knowledge, separated from every part by His incomprehensibility as by a darkness.”

These Fathers, occupied with more pressing doctrinal issues such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, did not resolve the dilemma: how could God be both darkness and light. It was only in the fourteenth century that St Gregory Palamas, the archbishop of Thessalonika, came to interpret the Fathers’ teachings by making a distinction which would resolve this quandary.

God as Essence and Energy

St Gregory Palamas developed a patristic distinction between the essence of God, absolutely inaccessible to man, and His uncreated energies, which proceed from God and manifest His own Being, and by which He is present to us. In this way he affirmed that God is both knowable and unknowable, both light and darkness. We cannot know God as He is in Himself. As we read in the Gospel, “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18). We can know God in His energies (to know what God does, and who He is in relation to His creation and to man), because God has revealed Himself to humanity.

Gregory adapted the classical image of the sun, its heat, and its light to describe how the unknowable God can be perceived by His creation. St Gregory considered the sun as signifying God’s essence: God’s deepest self. God, he taught, was completely unknowable in His essence. In this he was in agreement with St Thomas Aquinas, who wrote in his commentary on Boethius’ tract On the Holy Trinity that “His essence is beyond all that can be known down here.”

And yet we are told in the Church that God touches us and in accessible to us. We say that the Spirit of God dwells in us and that Christ is in our midst. We have knowledge of and even communion with the unknowable God. According to Gregory, it is God’s energies – the light of God, His grace and His love – which touch us, not His essence. These energies are of God: they radiate from His essence as rays from the sun, but are not the essence itself.

The Uncreated Light

St Gregory asserted that what Peter, James and John witnessed at the Transfiguration of Christ was, in fact, the uncreated light of God, the divine energies which have been manifested to many saints who have come close to Him through repentance and unceasing prayer. According to Gregory, they saw “the essential majesty of God… the ultra-luminous brightness of the archetypal beauty, the formless kind of Divine comeliness… they saw the inconceivable and ineffable Light… they saw the Grace of the Holy Spirit, which they subsequently received, and it abided in them” (Third Homily in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts). This was not a sensory vision or an exercise of reason, but a deifying illumination by God, a gift of the Holy Spirit. In this St Gregory echoed St Maximos the Confessor who says that the Apostles saw the uncreated Light “by a transformation of the activity of their senses, produced in them by the Spirit.” The vision of the uncreated energy of God is theosis, our transformation by the indwelling presence of God.

In the Face of Christ

There are several recorded instances of people seeing the uncreated light of God, but most Christians have not had this experience. We are rather like the apostle Philip who asked the Lord Jesus, “‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’ Jesus answered, ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’” (John 14:8, 9).

Philip had not witnessed Christ’s transfiguration, so when the Lord reminds him that he has seen the Father, Jesus is not speaking of the uncreated light. Rather, Jesus is referring to the spiritual witness of His teaching and His miracles. God’s presence is uniquely reflected in the words and works of the incarnate Lord for those who are given to see Him. Even when the light of His face is veiled by His humanity, it is possible to see God’s energies manifested in Christ. As He goes on to tell Philip, “How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? ... The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather it is the Father, living in me, who is doing His work” (John 14:9, 10).

One way in which we see the Father through Jesus’ teachings is through the parables and images He puts forth for us to consider. Many of them are incomprehensible to us on the basis of our experience alone. The father in the parable of the Prodigal Son displays an unconditional love beyond our ability to love. The steward who pays a full day’s wage for one hour’s work, the Samaritan who pays for a stranger’s care out of his own pocket, and the shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep in order to search for one which was lost present us with standards of love which shed a new and divine light on the Father. “The light of Christ,” as we say in the Presanctified Liturgy, “enlightens all” who allow His teachings to transform them.

In the Life of the Age to Come

St Gregory Palamas described the vision of the uncreated light, the experience of theosis, as a kind of betrothal, anticipating in this life the Light of the future Second Coming of Christ. It is the Light of the future age, which will be visible with the eyes of the heart and which will transform the hearts of those who behold it. The sight of the light of Christ in its fullness cannot but transform the beholder. At that point our divinization will be complete. As we read in the First Epistle of St John, “We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
IN OUR SCHOOL DAYS we all were subjected to “trick questions,” designed to fool us into giving an incorrect answer. Is this the kind of question which the “expert in the Law” described in Matthew’s Gospel asked Jesus to “test Him”? Was he trying to trick Jesus with this question or does “test” here mean something else? The way in which this encounter is described in the Gospel of Mark can help us understand how the lawyer was “testing” Jesus. Matthew, when reporting this incident simply says, “One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question…” (Matthew 22:35). Mark, however, gives us the man’s motivation: “Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked Him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’” (Mark 12:28) Mark’s explanation suggests that the lawyer was not trying to trap Jesus, but to probe His view of the Law because He showed a good understanding of it. The man was testing Jesus, not in the sense of trying to trap Him but to learn His understanding of the Law’s deepest meaning. He sensed that Jesus had a more profound view of the Law than the Sadducees who were debating with Him (see Mark 12:18-27). And so his question was motivated by a sincere desire to deepen his own appreciation of the Scripture.

The Lord’s Answer

The Lord did not answer this inquirer with a new teaching. He simply repeated the commandments found in the Torah. Mark quoted the preceding verse as well, “‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’” (Deuteronomy 6:4, 5). Both Matthew and Mark give us variant readings of the commandment. The Hebrew text of Deuteronomy mentions only “heart, soul and strength.” Matthew replaces “strength” with “mind”, while Mark adds “mind.” Since there were various texts of the Old Testament Scriptures in use at the time that the Gospels were written, the Evangelists may have been simply using the version known in their community. The Lord’s second commandment is also found in the Torah. In Leviticus 19:18 we read, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” The Torah here identifies one’s “neighbor” as another Jew (“anyone among your people”). The Lord Jesus would expand that definition in the parable of the Good Samaritan. There it is the Samaritan, reviled by Jews, who is portrayed as the model of the good neighbor. Clearly for the Lord, ethnicity is not the standard for judging who is my neighbor. In the Torah these two commandments are found in different books, so why are they connected here? The answer found in the Greek Fathers is both simple and profound: man is God’s image. The person who loves another as being in God’s image is, in fact, loving God who created him. A true believer cannot look at another without seeing God in him or her.

The Lawyer’s Response

The last thing the Lord says in Matthew is different from the text in Mark, but both mean the same thing. Matthew says, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (v. 40). Mark, however, simply notes: “There is no commandment greater than these” (v. 31). Commentators from the earliest centuries have thought that Matthew was writing for believers with a background in Judaism while Mark was writing in a Gentile community. It would make sense for Matthew and not Mark to cite the Hebrew Scriptures in making the same point. In Mark the scene is concluded by citing the lawyer’s reaction and Jesus’ response. “‘Well said, teacher,’ the man replied. ‘You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And from then on no one dared ask Him any more questions” (vv.32-34). The lawyer expresses what Jesus had been saying so often in other circumstances during His ministry: it is love, rather than religiosity, that expresses the will of God for us: “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:13, also 12:7). The Lord’s response is one we would all like to hear from His mouth.

The Lord’s Turn to Ask a Question

As Matthew tells it, the Lord then turned to the Pharisees with a question of His own. “‘What do you think about the Messiah?’ He asked. “‘Whose son is he?’ ‘The son of David,’ they replied” (vv.41, 42) In Jewish belief of the day the Messiah was called “the son of David.” In part, this referred to the prophecy which Nathan pronounced to King David: “When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom...  And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:12-13, 16). On one hand this prophecy referred to the physical line of David’s descendants, his own son Solomon and his sons after him. But David’s descendants did not rule forever. When the Greeks conquered the Holy Land in the third century bc, the royal house of David came to an end. When the Greeks were defeated by the Maccabees, another line, the Hasmoneans, who had no connection to the house of David, began to rule. This prompted some Jewish thinkers to see “the throne of David” in a spiritual way, referring to the presence of the Messiah. In this sense many people in Jesus’ lifetime referred to the Messiah as “the Son of David.” Jesus’ question helped nudge His followers towards a deeper understanding of His Messianic role. He quoted Psalm 110 which begins, “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool”’ (v. 1). The first “Lord” clearly referred to God, but who was the person David, the Psalmist, called “my Lord”? Jesus then posed His question, “If David then calls Him ‘Lord,’ how is He his Son?” (v. 45) Jesus’ suggestion that the Messiah was greater than King David helped His followers to understand Him as more than just a prophet. If the Messiah was not just an ordinary man, could He be the Son of God in a unique way? The reading concludes, “And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore” (v.46). To question Him might take them into unfamiliar territory – territory which even His closest disciples could not imagine until after His resurrection.
“FOR IN CHRIST JESUS neither circumcision nor un-circumcision avails anything, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15). As St. Paul was fond of pointing out, he had been raised as an observant and committed Pharisee, devoted to the observance of the Law. Yet he came to believe that the Law had served its purpose: to prepare the way for the life in Christ. The Law set forth a way of life for Israel that would be pleasing to God, in contrast to the ways of the pagan nations around them. It also showed that fallen man was unable to perfectly observe this Law. It would be for Another to reveal in His life, death and resurrection the goodness and mercy of God His Father. The Law – epitomized by its first precept, circumcision –served to divide Jews from Gentiles in the eyes of its adherents. In their view Jews, recipients of the Law, were godly; Gentiles outside the Law were condemned. In Christ, St. Paul insisted, that division no longer matters. Jews and Gentiles who united themselves to Christ were now one in Him, a new creation. As he wrote to the Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new”\ (2 Corinthians 15:17). This new creation was accomplished when a person – Jew or Gentile – believed in Christ and was baptized. He was recreated as a person in communion with God through Christ and in communion with Christ’s Body, the Church. His identity was no longer based on race, ethnicity or class, but on the newness of life in Christ.

Communion, Not Separation

Sr. Paul’s conviction that anyone could become this new creation in Christ by faith led him to see unity rather than separation as the paramount sign of holiness. As Christ has brought God and humanity together by His cross, so too He made it possible for His people to transcend any divisions of race, ethnicity or any human limitations. As St. Paul brought the Gospel to the great centers of the Roman Empire, he preached Christ’s work as a “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18) between God and all mankind. Tradesmen, military commanders, patricians and slaves all came to be united to God in Christ through one baptism to share in the one Eucharist. When, as in Corinth, new Christians assumed their distinctions of class and wealth still applied, St. Paul was quick to correct them. “Do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing?” (1 Corinthians 11:22) he wrote to those who accorded preferential treatment to the well-to-do.

Communion, Not Inclusiveness

While St. Paul fought to include Gentiles as well as believing Jews in the Church, he did insist on one criterion of separation: the members of the Church were to follow the Gospel way of life rather than the godless practices of the wider society. Paul quotes the Law and the prophets in favor of separating, not Jews from Gentiles, but unbelievers from believers: “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you’” (2 Corinthians 6:14-18). So even in the first century ad the Church distinguished between those who followed the Gospel way of life vs. those who followed the way of the unbelieving society in which they lived. The first-century instruction manual called The Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles (The Didache) shows what the first Christians saw to be godless behavior in the wider society” The second commandment of the Teaching is: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not corrupt boys; do not fornicate; do not steal: do not practice magic; do not go in for sorcery; do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant. Do not covet your neighbor’s property; do not commit perjury; do not bear false witness; do not slander; do not bear grudges. Do not be double-minded or double- tongued, for a double tongue is a deadly snare. Your words shall not be dishonest or hollow, but substantiated by action. Do not be greedy or extortionate or hypocritical or malicious or arrogant. Do not plot against your neighbor. Do not hate anybody; but reprove some, pray for others, and love still others more than your own life.” As Gentiles became more numerous in the Churches there was less need to defend their participation in the face of a Jewish majority. The Fathers would insist on not imitating the lifestyle of the godless, but on imitating Christ. Instructing newly baptized believers St John Chrysostom said: “I exhort you – both you who have previously been initiated and you who have just now enjoyed the Master’s generosity – let us all listen to the exhortation of the apostle who tells us, ‘The former things have passed away; behold, they are all made new.’ Let us forget the whole past, and like citizens in a new world, let us reform our lives and let us consider in our every word and deed the dignity of Him who dwells within us” (Baptismal Catechesis 4,16).

The New Creation in Our Baptisms

As the Church structured its baptismal rites, it expressed this same dynamic in the ceremony of accepting a catechumen. Before the candidate is asked to profess the Christian faith in the Nicene Creed, he or she is told to face the West (i.e. the world outside) and is asked repeatedly to distance himself from that world which is controlled by “the rulers of the darkness of this age” (Ephesians 6:12):
Do you renounce Satan, all his works, all his angels, all his services, and all his pride? (Three times)
Have you renounced Satan? (Three times)
Then blow on Satan and spit upon him!
Only then is the candidate asked:
Do you unite yourself to Christ? (Three times)
Have you united yourself to Christ?
Do you believe in Christ?
Yes, I believe in Him as King and God.
The Didache and other early texts refused to minimize the difference between the new creation and the ways of a broken world: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways” (Didache 1, 1). Today many people, including some religious leaders, are trying to deny this “great difference.” They seek to accommodate those with worldly lifestyles in what they call a “welcoming church” without asking them to make a choice between this age and the new creation. They sanitize what the early Church called a way of death, using terms like “choice,” “reproductive rights,” or “bringing the Church into the modern age.” The new creation, however, requires what St John Chrysostom called “A new and heavenly rule of life” (Homily on Galatians, 6); otherwise it is not new at all.

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