Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Shining Face: Texts and Commentary from Gregory Palamas

There are three themes linked together in the Lectionary for the Last Sunday of Epiphany; the Shining Face of Moses, the Transfiguration of Christ, and the Shining Face of the Christian.

In Exodus we see the heartfelt desire of Moses who asks the Lord to accompany both him, and accompany Israel on their journey to the Promised Land.  The first step in transformation is desire.

Moses said to the LORD, "See, you say to me, 'Bring up this people,' but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, 'I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.'  Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.[i] 

The assurance that the Lord gives to Moses is the same assurance that He gives to his people through Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, who says to us “Lo, I am with you always.”[ii]  Moses response, and ours, reveals the central concern of God’s children.  What point is there in Christian life if the Lord does not go with us?

And he said, "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest."  And he said to him, "If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.  For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?"[iii] 

Long ago the Lord said to his people, “For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me.  I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.” [iv]  The Lord knows you personally by name!

[v]And the LORD said to Moses, "This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name."  Moses said, "Please show me your glory."  And he said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name 'The LORD.' And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 

The Psalmist prayed “Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me!  You have said, "Seek my face." My heart says to you, "Your face, LORD, do I seek."[vi]  And again he says, “Seek the LORD and His strength; Seek His face evermore!”[vii]  Other editions say, “Seek the LORD and his strength, seek his presence continually!”[viii]  Hebrew has few abstractions and tends to be very concrete; in seeking the Presence of God one seeks His Face.  The Christian cries out, “Your face, LORD, do I seek.”

But," he said, "you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live."  And the LORD said, "Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.  Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.[ix]

Palamas makes a distinction between essence and energy.  One does not see the essence of God, the Face of God with direct sight; one sees the Face of God revealed in Jesus Christ.  One beholds the outraying of His glory.  In Hebrews we are told, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”[x]  And again St. Paul says, “For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”[xi]  And again, Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”[xii]  This is why the Creed of St. Athanasius says of the humanity of Christ that he is “Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.”[xiii]  That is, in Christ Jesus Incarnate we behold not the Essence, but the energy of God visible in the Christ.

In the Transfiguration we see the radiance of the Father reflected in the humanity of His Incarnate Son.

Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray.  And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.  And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.  Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.  And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah"- not knowing what he said.  As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud.  And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!"  And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.[xiv]

What is apparent is the dullness of the disciples who are “heavy with sleep.”  The meaning of this event is lost on them and only comes into focus after the Resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost.  Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the Papal household of Pope John Paul II points out that a personal appropriation of the anointing of the Holy Spirit is an absolute necessity for a growth in transformation.[xv]  It only after Pentecost that Peter is able to say with understanding,

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,"  we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.  And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts,  knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation.  For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.[xvi] 

Here is a major point of Hesychast theology.  When you behold the face of God, you yourself become radiant.

[xvii]When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.

The Psalmist David states the principle clearly, “Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.”[xviii]   St. Gregory of Nyssa says, “We receive into ourselves a likeness of whatever we gaze upon.”[xix]

To be aglow with the Spirit is not always comfortable for those who behold a Christian radiant with the light of Christ and living in joy, peace, and grace in the midst of this world.  God grant us grace that as we begin to glow with the light of Christ that we do so unawares. Sometimes Christians are repugnant to others because their attitudes make them repugnant. 

Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.  But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them.  Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai.  And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.  Whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded,  the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses' face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him. [xx]

The shining face of the Christian is prefigured in the shining face of Moses and in the shining face of Christ in the Transfiguration.  Until we are endued with the Spirit a veil lies over our faces.  Paul instructs us, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”[xxi] 

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.  Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God,  who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.  Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses' face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end,  will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?  For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.  Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it.  For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.  Since we have such a hope, we are very bold,  not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end.  But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains uplifted, because only through Christ is it taken away.  Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts.[xxii]

Here is the secret to deification.  It is very simply beholding the glory of the Lord in prayer, worship, meditation on Holy Scripture, and in fellowship with the saints.  When we behold the glory of the Lord we enter into a process of transformation.  The phrase, “are being transformed” translates the Greek word for metamorphosis which indicates a gradual process.  That process transforms us into the image of the Lord, into the image of Christ, and it goes on from one degree of glory to another.  This metamorphosis is a work of the Spirit.

But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.  Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.[xxiii]

We do have to be clear that this takes place not in idealized human nature, but in us as we actually are, warts and all.  We whose lives began in darkness are illumined by the Light of Christ shining in our hearts, even though we are jars of clay.

For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.[xxiv]

[i] Exodus 33:12 
[ii] Matthew 28:20
[iii] Exodus 33:14
[iv] Isaiah 45:4-6  
[v] Exodus 33:17
[vi] Psalm 27:7-8  
[vii] 105:4
[viii] RSV, ESV
[ix] Exodus 33:20
[x] Hebrews 1:3  
[xi] 2 Corinthians 4:6
[xii] John 14:9
[xiii] BCP, p. 865
[xiv] Luke 9:28-43  
[xv] Raniero Cantalamessa, Sober Intoxication of the Spirit, (Cincinnati: Servant Books, 2005), p. 153-154
[xvi] 2 Peter 1:16 - 21  
[xvii] Exodus 34:29
[xviii] Psalm 34:5
[xix] “A person who welcomes passion by his taking a look gives an opening for the disease harmful to himself.” Gregory Nyssa, Life of Moses, (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 132
[xx] Exodus 33: 30
[xxi] Romans 12:1-2
[xxii] 2 Corinthians 3:4
[xxiii] 2 Corinthians 3:16
[xxiv] 2 Corinthians 4: 6