On this Sunday in Great Lent we commemorate St. Gregory Palamas. His Eminence, Metropolitan Kallistos observes of the saint in the English edition of the Philokalia, “his (St. Gregory Palamas’) successful defence of the divine and uncreated character of the Light of Tabor… is seen as a direct continuation of the preceding celebration, as nothing less than a renewed Triumph of Orthodoxy.” The uncreated nature of the Light of God, transforming responsive souls and bodies and indeed creation itself, is fundamental to an Orthodox understanding of salvation.
The Light is termed ‘Uncreated’ because this Light is God Himself. This is endorsed by the Nicene Creed when it speaks of Christ in these terms: ‘Light of Light, Very God of Very God.’ St. Gregory Palamas insisted on the Light being God because it is the Church’s Faith that when God acts He always acts directly and personally within creation so as to transform it. Moreover, when this Light appears and is active, He may be seen by the believers in exactly the same manner as the Light of Tabor, the Light of Transfiguration, which was seen by Saints Peter, James and John.
That “light” should be the vehicle of God’s Presence may be better appreciated by examining the properties of created light, but then by ruthlessly ridding these of all finite limitations when speaking of God.
Let’s start with a few basics. Don’t be worried by the science. I will keep it simple.
Created light has a speed that is constant in a vacuum and cannot be exceeded. This of course is Einstein’s discovery and it has been proved exhaustively countless times to this very day. In the same way God may not in any way be surpassed or exceeded. His Light, being Himself in his Energies, is far more glorious and excellent than any created light.
Created light comes in little packets of energy or quanta. These have the extraordinary property of being both waves, electromagnetic radiation, and particles or photons. Moreover, being pure energy, these quantum packets are without mass. Now, we know that God is both One and Trinity. The Fathers sometimes described God in terms of the sun together with its heat and light. Science tells us that in the physical world things can be more than one thing at once … so why do Unitarians have so many problems with the Trinity and other heresies with person of Christ? Be that as it may, even the mass-less quality of the photon may instruct us. God is without heaviness, simple in Himself and all pervading … just like light. So, the Uncreated has certain affinities in its energies with the created, in this case with the glorious light! Still even light in all its natural beauty cannot compare with the Light of God.
If that were the whole story of God as Light we might marvel but there would be no implication for our own lives. Our faith takes us much further and deeper than this. When we read in the famous story of the encounter between Nicholas Motovilov and St. Seraphim of Sarov that both shone in the Holy Spirit like the sun sparkling in the snows falling round about them, then we know that this same Gift can be ours also if we purify ourselves in order to see God. Jesus taught in the Sermon of the Mount: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8). Again, in the famous meeting between the two desert fathers, Abba Joseph and Abba Lot, we discover that all believers can become “all flame” in God, should they so wish. It is crystal clear then that we are all called to shine with the Light of Christ, lamps that must be placed on a stand and not be hidden so that all may see.
The key to being enlightened in Christ is, as I have said, purification. This is why we remember St. Gregory Palamas, not only on his feast day in November, but also in the Great Fast. In the 6 weeks before Pascha we try by God’s grace to purify our lives so that our vision of God can become clearer. In the same way that a cataracts clouds our natural sight, sin obscures both our spiritual vision and our spiritual insight. We must deal with sin if we are to be saved. Our Lord Jesus Christ has of course decisively dealt with sin on the cross and death in his glorious resurrection; but we also need to do our bit and work hard to make that victory our own. God does not honour lukewarm followers, shallow thinkers or slothful servants. Lent is a time to energise our spiritual disciplines … confession, study, almsgiving, prayer … and this in order to be progressively purified, to gain a less distorted, clearer, brighter vision of God; in a word, to be enlightened, to be (if you will) “en-God-ed” – deified. St. Gregory Palamas insists that this is the promise of God and the challenge of God to all believers. As always, the initiative to do something about it lies with us. As Abba Lot said to Abba Joseph, lifting his hand to the sun … “if you will, you can become all flame.”