The Wine of Compassion


The volume of Palamas homilies in my library

In 1334 Saint Gregory Palamas experienced a vision. In the vision he was carrying a vessel overflowing with milk, but the milk then turned into the finest wine. A youth appeared and rebuked Gregory for not sharing the wine with others and reminded him of the parable of the talents (cf. Matt. 25:14–30). Palamas interpreted the vision to mean that he should go from teaching simple moralistic messages (the milk) to the higher truths of faith (the wine).

In seminary classes with Fr. John Meyendorff I studied the theological writings of Gregory Palamas. But now, some 34 years later,  I’m becoming familiar with his homilies and they’re better than his theological writings. There is a homily by Gregory Palamas for this Third Sunday of Luke which, in my opinion, perfectly represents the lesson he learned from the vision. Indeed, my mouth dropped as I read this homily. Gregory Palamas is as fine a biblical preacher as I have ever encountered.

He begins his homily by quoting from the Epistle to the Hebrews, which leads him to go back to the Old Testament, to the Books of Kings, where he reflects on stories of Elijah and Elisha and compares their miracles to the miracle of Jesus that we heard today. Gregory has offered no milk to this point – only the wine of solid biblical exegesis! But the vintage of his wine grows with each paragraph. As he turns to today’s miracle story, he goes for broke:

“For the resurrection of the widow’s son serves as a pattern for the renewal of our mind. Our soul was widowed of the heavenly bridegroom on account of sin, and her mind was like her only son, who had … lost true life.” [Because of sin, we drift away from God,] “But when the Lord drew near and stood by us, He immediately renewed our mind and raised it up by His advent in the flesh. He did not, however, come to us in the beginning, but later, in the last times.”

Gregory saw the miracle of the widow’s son as a parable of spiritual renewal. But it’s a renewal reserved for the “last times” – in other words, our times. The “last times” is biblical language for the manifestation of Christ in glory. It’s not only a reference to the Second Coming. Palamas lived in the “last times” as we also live in the “last times”!

“Deaf dust, then, heard him calling into being things which have no being, heard him who upholds all things by the word of his power, heard not the voice of a God-bearing man, but of God made man.”

Gregory does not hesitate to see in this miracle an image of God’s creation of the universe from nothing. This is no ordinary miracle that can be preached in a superficial 5-minute sermon. Nothing Jesus ever did was ordinary, and to reduce the Gospel stories to trivial feel-good messages is to do a great injustice. Gregory learned from his vision not to do that.

Near the end of his biblical and theological explorations, Gregory addresses his listeners directly:

“Do you see how the Lord, pitying the widow who was mourning her son, did not just use consoling words to her, but helped her through His actions? As far as we are able, we too should do the same, and not be sympathetic to those who suffer just with words, but demonstrate our compassion for them through our deeds… For by our very nature we are bound to be compassionate and merciful one to another. If we observe God’s manifold mercies towards us, for which all He demands from us in exchange is to pardon one another, share with one another, and be charitable… how can we fail to render as an inescapable duty, forgiveness and mercy in practical ways to our brothers and sisters in need, as far as we can?”

Telling us to be compassionate sounds like the usual moralistic message preached by countless preachers. But no, this is not milk, this is the finest wine. Because Gregory says something truly profound: “For by our very nature we are bound to be compassionate and merciful one to another.” Gregory is fully aware of sin – but he is also aware that within every one of us is the original beauty – the original goodness – that God planted in us. By nature we can be compassionate and merciful to one another. Gregory presents this as self-evident, something not to be disputed or even proven! It should be self-evident to every Orthodox Christian. But we also need the reminder and the challenge: Can we live and act in harmony with the beauty that God has placed in us?

Every year this Gospel reading comes in October, the month of the feast of St. Demetrius. This saint was extremely popular in the later centuries of Byzantium. Gregory concludes his homily by bringing into his discourse the example of this saint from whose body flowed fragrant and sanctified myrrh. And the closing prayer of the homily invokes the saint:

By the intercessions of the Myrrhstreamer among martyrs, may we too, who share in the holy myrrh that flows from him, also see and partake then of that glory, by the grace and love for humankind of Jesus Christ, who is glorified in His martyrs and is God over all, to whom belongs all glory for unending ages. Amen.

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