Oration 39, On the Holy Lights
Preached in January, 381
Introduction: Gregory was one of the famous Cappadocian theologians, family friend of Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and their sister, Macrina. Gregory served as Bishop of Constantinople from A.D. 379 to 381, and presided over the Council of Constantinople in the year A.D. 381 (the year this sermon was preached), which re-affirmed the Creed of Nicaea, as well as expanding it to clarify the church’s doctrine of the deity of the Holy Spirit, affirming the Spirit as fully God, who receives worship together with the Father and the Son. Gregory and the other Cappadocians also clarified some explicit theological terminology, which we still use to explain the Trinity, specifically the terms hypostasis (individual personality) and ousia (substance of the Godhead). He stresses against the heresy of modalism (Sabellianism) that God is definitely Three distinct hypostases (persons) and stresses against the heresy of Arianism that all three Persons are united in one substance of Godhead, being therefore, equally God in nature.
This sermon was preached on the occasion of the Feast of Epiphany (or Theophany), celebrating the Lord’s baptism, probably on Jan. 6, 381. It also was known as the Feast of the Holy Lights, derived from the idea of baptism as spiritual illumination for the candidate, and also from the candidate’s bearing of candles or torches in a procession within the ceremony. This celebration lasted two days, therefore drawing two (lengthy) sermons from Gregory.
About the Festival of the Holy Lights, Gregory said: “It is fitting that we celebrate our salvation (and make a big deal out of it), since it’s far more important a celebration than weddings and birthdays, and namedays, and registrations of children, and anniversaries, and all the other festivities that people observe for their earthly friends.” (Oration on Holy Baptism, 1).
In the following selections, Gregory offers a theological meditation on the mystery of the Feast of Holy Lights, saying the Christian celebration differs considerably from the mystery religions current in the Empire, whose depraved so-called worship amounts to the idolatry of
Again My Jesus, and again a mystery; not deceitful or disorderly, not like Greek superstitions or drunkenness (this is how I refer to their holidays, and I think any sensible person would agree with me); but the mystery we celebrate is lofty and divine, related to the glory above. For the Holy Day of Lights, to which we have come, and which we are celebrating today originates in the baptism of my Christ, the true light that lightens everyone who comes into the world, and effects my purification and cleansing, and assists that light which we have received from the beginning from Him from above, but which we darkened and confused by sin.
Therefore listen to the voice of God, which sounds so clear to me, who am both disciple and master of these mysteries, as I hope it sounds to you: the Lord says, “I am the Light of the world.” Therefore, come near to Him and be enlightened, and let your faces not be ashamed, because you’ve been signed with the True Light. This is a season of new birth: Let us be born again! It is a time to be reformed and refashioned: Let us receive again the first, original (sinless) Adam! Let us not remain what we are, but let us become what we once were. “The Light shines in the darkness,” in this life and in the flesh, and is chased by the darkness, but is not overtaken by it. I refer to the hostile power that leaps up shamelessly against the visible Adam, but encounters God and is defeated! The Light shines on us in order that we, putting away the darkness in our lives, may draw near to the Light. This is the grace of this day: See the power of this mystery! Don’t you feel lifted up from the earth? Are you not lifted high by these thoughts? Keep listening as the Logos (the Word) Himself speaks through our words, and you will feel more uplifted still!
Because grace has been given to us to flee from the superstitions of the Greek mystery religions and to be joined to the truth and to serve the living and true God, and to rise above creation, passing by all that is subject to Time, let us think about God and divine things in a way befitting this grace given us. Let us begin our discussion of them from the most fitting point. The most fitting is, as Solomon laid down for us, “the beginning of wisdom is fear.” For where there is fear, there is obedience (keeping of commandments); and where there is obedience (keeping of commandments), there is purifying of the flesh, that cloud which covers the soul and prohibits it from seeing the divine ray (beam). Where there is purity, there is illumination (enlightenment). Illumination satisfies the desires of those who long for the greatest things, or the greatest thing, or even that which surpasses all greatness.
For the same Logos is on the one hand, terrifying to those who are unworthy; and on the other through its lovingkindness can be received by those who have prepared themselves, who have driven out the unclean and worldly spirit from their souls, have swept and adorned their own souls by self-examination, and have not left them idle and lazy, so as to be occupied again with greater force by the seven spirits of wickedness. Besides fleeing from evil, we must practice virtue, making Christ entirely—or at any rate to the greatest extent possible—to dwell within us, so the power of evil can find no empty spaces to fill up with [it]self so as to make our last state worse than the first by his more forceful attack. When we have guarded our soul with every care and have purposed to follow God’s ways in our hearts, and having broken up our fallow ground and sown unto righteousness, as David and Solomon and Jeremiah bid us, let us enlighten ourselves with the light of knowledge, and then let us speak of the mysterious wisdom of God, and in turn enlighten others. So let us purify ourselves, and receive the basic initiation of the Logos, so we may ourselves become godlike and receive the Logos at His coming; not only that, but as we hold fast to Him, we must also show Him to others.
Now, let’s talk a little about the feast, and celebrate it with joy! Because the main point of the festival is to focus on God, let us speak about God. When I speak of God, you must be illumined at the same time by one flash of light and by three. Three individuals or hypostases or persons, if you like (we won’t quibble about terms as long as they mean the same thing), but one in substance, that is, godhead. For they are divided without division, if I may say it that way, and they are united in division. For the godhead is one in three, and the three are one, in whom the godhead is; or more precisely, who are the godhead. We must steer clear as much of the confusion of persons espoused by Sabellius (modalism), as the division of godhead espoused by Arius. Both are evils, diametrically opposed yet equally wicked. The one fuses God together, while the other cuts Him up into inequality.
For to us there is but one God, the Father of whom are all things; and one Lord Jesus Christ by whom are all things; and one Holy Spirit, in whom are all things. Yet these words: of, by, in, whom do not denote a difference of nature; but they characterize the personalities of a nature which is one and unconfused. The Father is Father and is unbegotten, for He did not originate from anyone. The Son is Son, and is begotten, for He is from the Father. The Holy Spirit is truly Spirit, coming forth indeed from the Father, but not begotten as is the Son, for He comes forth not by generation but by procession (to coin a term, for the sake of clarity).
At His birth (Christmas), we duly kept the festival — I the leader of the feast and you — and all that is in the world and above the world. With the star, we ran; with the magi we worshipped; with the shepherds we were illuminated; with the angels we glorified Him; with Simeon we took Him in our arms; with Anna, the elderly and chaste, we proclaimed Him to others. Now we come to another action of Christ and another mystery. I cannot restrain my pleasure! I am rapt into God! Christ is illumined! Let us shine forth with Him. Christ is baptized! Let us descend with Him that we may also ascend with Him. Jesus is baptized, but we must pay careful attention not only to this, but also a few other points. Who is He, and by whom is He baptized and at what time? He is the All-Pure, and baptized by John; the time was the beginning of His miracles. What are we to learn from this? To purify ourselves first; to be humble, and to preach only in maturity of spiritual and bodily stature.
So, John is baptizing. Jesus comes to him. Why? Perhaps to sanctify John the Baptist himself, but certainly to bury the whole of the old Adam in the water, and before this and for the sake of this to sanctify Jordan; for as He is Spirit and flesh, so He consecrates us by Spirit and water. John does not want to receive Him. He says, “I need to be baptized by You”, says the voice to the Word, the friend to the Bridegroom. The Greatest One among those born of women says to him who is the firstborn of every creature, the one who leapt in the womb says to the One who was adored in the womb, the one who was and is to be the forerunner to Him who was and is to be manifested: “I need to be baptized by You,” and he might as well have added, “and for You.” For he knew he would be baptized by martyrdom for the sake of Christ. “And do You come to me?”
What does Jesus reply? “Let it be so for now,” for this was the time of His incarnation. He knew that in a short while, He would baptize the Baptist. To what does the winnowing fork refer? The purification. What is the fire? The consuming of the chaff and the heat of the Spirit. What is the axe? The cutting down of the soul, which is incurable, that is unfruitful, even after receiving fertilizer. What is the sword? The cutting of the Word, which separates the worse from the better and makes a division between the faithful and the unbeliever. To what does the thong of the sandal refer, which you, John the Baptist, are unworthy to loose? You who are from the desert and fast, the new Elijah, the more than prophet, because you actually saw the One whom you foretold; you, the mediator of the Old and New Testaments. What can this mean? Perhaps the latchet of the sandal refers to the message of the Advent and the Incarnation, of which not the least point may be loosed, not by those who are still fleshly and spiritually immature, but not even by those who are of the spiritual stature of John.
To continue, Jesus goes up out of the water, and carries up the world with Him. He sees the heavens open, which Adam had shut against himself and all his posterity as the gates of Paradise by the flaming sword. The Spirit bears witness to His godhead, for He descends upon one that is like Him, as does the voice from heaven.
Now, because our festival is about baptism, let us speak about the different kinds of baptism so we may come out as purified. Moses baptized, but it was in water and before that in the cloud and in the sea. This was a type, as Paul says, the sea of the water and the cloud of the Spirit; the manna of the bread of life, the drink of the divine Drink. John also baptized, but this was not like the baptism of the Jews; for it was not only in water, but also unto repentance. Still, it was not entirely spiritual, for he does not add, “and in the Spirit.” Jesus also baptized, but in the Spirit. This is the perfect baptism. I know also a fourth baptism, that by martyrdom and blood, which Christ also underwent. This one is more honorable in one respect: It cannot be defiled by post-baptismal sins and afterstains. I know of a fifth also, that of tears (penance), and it is much more difficult, received by him who washes his bed every night with tears, who imitates the repentance of Manasseh, and the humiliation of the Ninevites, upon which God had mercy, who utters the words of the tax collector in the temple and is justified; who, as the Canaanite woman, bends down and asks for mercy and crumbs.
Today, let us venerate the baptism of Christ; and let us keep the feast well, not in pampering the belly, but rejoicing in the Spirit. How shall we celebrate? “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean.” If you are scarlet with sin, become as white as snow; if you are red, be made white as wool. Purify yourselves, and you will be clean so that you may be like lights in the world, a stirring force to others around you, so you may stand as perfect lights beside that Great Light, and may learn the mystery of the illumination of heaven, enlightened by the Trinity more purely and clearly, of which even now you are receiving in a measure the one ray from the one godhead in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be the glory and the might forever and ever. Amen.