Source: Fr. Matthew Jackson’s blog
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be!
Today we celebrate the feast of St. Gregory of Nazianzus – Gregory the Theologian. I’d like us to hear something of the life of this saint this morning. I certainly don’t think we can always preach about the saints, but the legacy of the lives of the holy men and women of our Faith are very important. They show us that the way Christ has called us to live is something do-able. Christ doesn’t call us to fulfill the impossible - people have followed Christ in everything. And every step of the way, the saints always give the credit to Christ; they know that their every action is guided by the grace and love of a merciful God. And we have saints from all walks of life, again, showing us that no matter what our situation may be, Christ has called us, He’s chosen us, and we can respond and follow.
St. Gregory is such a wonderful Saint for us now because his life speaks to many things that we continue to deal with in our world today. He was raised in a Christian home, and his parents placed a great emphasis on his education. He traveled to many surrounding cities for his education, and when he was of age he went to Athens, which was an educational center at this time. He was trained in all of the secular subjects that were important – rhetoric, philosophy, math, astronomy. St. Gregory was very intelligent, and he trained his mind well. We feel a tension sometimes, today, in some circles, between secular education and being Christians. St. Gregory didn’t feel this tension – he knew some things that people believed were wrong, he knew others weren’t very useful, but since God had given him a great intelligence, he trained it, and he used it. St. Theophan the Recluse tells that we should always do our best in school, or with work training, that we should use the minds the God blessed us with to the best of our ability – always remembering to give thanks to God. To do all things for the glory of God.
But we don’t remember St. Gregory because of his intelligence or his education. We remember and honor him because of his relationship with Christ. From the time he could read, his mother made sure that he had holy books to read, especially the Holy Scriptures. He not only trained himself in the way of the world, but he focused also on the training of his heart and of his soul. We know he was intelligent, and we can assume that he had a great deal of intellectual understanding of his Christian faith. His father was a bishop, his family was very pious; he was raised in the Church and in that environment of real focus and dedication to Christ. But he understood that simply reading the Bible and believing the events wasn’t enough. He had to live the words of Christ to truly understand their meaning.
We call St. Gregory “the Theologian.” Only three saints of our Church have that title – St. John (writer of the Gospel, Epistles and Revelation), St. Gregory, and St. Symeon the New Theologian (who lived in the late 10th and early 11th centuries, and wrote extensively about the mystical and spiritual life of the Christian). To define what a theologian in the Orthodox Church means, we’ll use the words of St. Gregory – he writes that only those who are experienced can properly reason about God, those who are successful at contemplation and, most importantly, who are pure in soul and body, and utterly selfless. To reason (theologize) about God properly is possible only for one who enters into it with fervor and reverence. To be a theologian in this sense requires an absolute and uncompromising cooperation with the grace of God in every aspect of one’s lives. Knowing God, loving God and our fellowman, ascending from our baseness and sinfulness to the glory and majesty of God – this is the theologian/saints only desire. And in it, God enlightens the mind and heart of His saints.
When St. Gregory finished his training in Athens, he had a promising career ahead of him as a teacher. But he chose to return home to Nazianzus, and soon after was ordained (against his wishes) to the priesthood. As a priest he helped his father administer the diocese, but when they wanted to make him a bishop he fled to the desert monastery of his good friend, St. Basil the Great. St. Gregory’s humility is evident – he didn’t want the titles and positions in the Church. He didn’t have the desire to be a leader of the people of God. He was a man of prayer and study and solitude. But the call of the Church persisted, and several years later St. Gregory returned and was consecrated bishop. The Church was so persistent because they saw in St. Gregory what St. John mentions in the Gospel reading this morning: he would be a good shepherd, in the image of Christ, caring for the sheep and not running away when the wolves would come. We see him living up to this image during his time as bishop; St. Gregory was very active in fighting the great heresy of his day – Arianism. He even went to Constantinople (at the invitation of the council of bishops) to preach what the Church had always taught about Christ. This is what we remember him for – his teaching of theology. The hymns from Vespers last night focused almost all their praise for the saint on his teaching the people of God true theology. As an example, at Lord I Call we sang: O Father Gregory, the tomb that brings oblivion did not seal your lips; for you were revealed as the mouth of theology. Even now you utter teachings of piety to the inhabited earth. Therefore humbly pray that peace and great mercy be granted to our souls!
To study in depth the sermons and writings of St. Gregory doesn’t work for a Sunday morning homily. But we can say with certainty that it is in large part because of the dedication and the teachings of St. Gregory the Theologian, the Orthodox won a victory of the heretical Arians at the Ecumenical Councils, and we are all the beneficiaries of this great theologian and saint of God. I want to end with just another brief mention of St. Gregory’s youth. The saints always remind us that a godly upbringing is incredibly important and formative – it helps us grow up with a love for Christ and the Church. As we read in Proverbs, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (22:6). Certainly we all make our own choices, but we see the truth about the influence of a godly family in the life of St. Gregory, and in his extended family. St. Gregory is a saint, a theologian of the Church. His parents and his sister are also saints of the Church. So let us join with the voice of the Church in praise of St. Gregory the Theologian: Come, with sacred songs, let us praise the Theologian: the vigilant eye of grace and all-wise mouth of the Spirit, the radiant beacon of the inhabited earth, the magnificent voice of the Church, the all-marvelous glory of Orthodoxy, the fountain of theology, the ever-flowing river of divine doctrines, the spring gushing with divine streams of spiritual nectar!