Sixth Sunday of Easter – The Measure of All Things

Remain in My Love stained glass, 1931
Church of St. Catherine of Siena (New York)

“And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”
(John 14:21)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Church Fathers
Sixth Sunday of Easter
St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 to c. 395)
May 14, 2023

Pope St. John Paul II believed that the Catholic Church breathed with two lungs: Western and Eastern. He saw clearly that they brought life to the body of Christ because they reflected different but complementary approaches to the same truth. The Western approach is based upon technological speculation and philosophy, the Eastern on the experiences of those who have best known God. In the West, we attempt to express the truth with clarity and rigor. In the East theologians seek to lead each baptized person to experience God’s reality for him or herself. For them, doctrine develops in response to spiritual experience. Pope John Paul understood that this was a matter of emphasis, Western theologians experienced what they taught and that Eastern theologians accepted that truth extended beyond their feelings and experience but nonetheless we could each learn much from each other’s perspectives. (Ut Unum Sint) In this he reflects one of the most beneficial explorations of many theologians of the last century. Theologians of the East and West read each other’s classics, sometimes with great suspicion but with great profit on both sides. St. Gregory of Nyssa who we read today was one of the first to be discovered in the West and has been especially fruitful.

St. Gregory lived in what is now Turkey in and area called “Cappadocia”. Christianity has deep roots in Cappadocia and people from there were present at the first Pentecost (Acts 2:9). They were blessed with many great theologians who became known as the Cappadocian fathers. They were particularly interested in the new life which Christ gave us at his resurrection. They went first, our course, to the Scriptures:

We find in Paul:

I have been crucified with Christ;
yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me;
insofar as I now live in the flesh,
I live by faith in the Son of God
who has loved me and given himself up for me

(Gal 2:19–20)

In second Peter:

After speaking of power and grace:
“so that through them you may come
to share in the divine nature,
after escaping from the corruption
that is in the world
because of evil desire.”

(2 Pt 1:6)

And, of course, 1 John:

Beloved, we are God’s children now;
what we shall be has not yet been revealed.
We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him,
for we shall see him as he is”

(1 John 3:2)

There are of course many more. But then they looked at their own experience to see what this meant. There answer was best expressed by a non-Cappadocian, the great theologian Saint Athanasius of Alexandria “God became man so that Man could become God.” (On the Incarnation, Section 54)

He had this insight when he was rather young, but it is one which becomes clearer with age. For Athanasius, when a Christian looks back on his or her life, they should see not that they were becoming more and more their own individual personality, but becoming more and more like Jesus. Indeed, as I can speak from personal experience, there will come a point when one should ask am I more like myself of 20 years ago or more like Jesus?

St Gregory would have agreed and wrote:

“For just as He in Himself assimilated His own human nature to the power of the Godhead, being a part of the common nature, but not being subject to the inclination to sin which is in that nature (for it says: “He did no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth), so, also, will He lead each person to union with the Godhead if they do nothing unworthy of union with the Divine.

(On Christian Perfection)

This process is called theosis in Greek or “divinization” in Latin. It is not pantheism but reflects the limitations of human language in speaking of holiness. St Gregory will develop this thought by looking at how the Eucharist participates in our divinization.

First, he like his Western counterparts believe that the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Jesus:

The bread again is at first common bread; but when the mystery sanctifies it, it is called and actually becomes the Body of Christ.”

Oration on the Baptism of Christ, No. 1062

His question is not how this happens, but how this will change the Christian. He returns to the garden of Eden and notes that, when our first parents ate the apple, we were poisoned by sin:

So that such an antidote entering within us may, by its own counter-influence, undo the mischief introduced into the body by the poison. What, then, is this remedy to be? Nothing else than that very Body which has been shown to be superior to death, and has been the First-fruits of our life.

(All further quotes from St. Gregory are from The Great Catechetical Oration, chapter 37)

As we saw last week with St. Irenaeus, true Christians hold that the person is composed of body and soul. The Eucharist will enter as purely physical but will affect the entire person. Body and Soul form the person and what effects one-part effects all. He quotes 1 Cor 5:6 “Do you not know that a little yeast leavens all the dough?”

Thus “the immortal Body, by being within that which receives it, changes the whole to its own nature … He disseminates Himself in every believer through that flesh, whose substance comes from bread and wine, blending Himself with the bodies of believers, to secure that, by this union with the immortal, man, too, may be a sharer in incorruption.”

Gregory spends considerable space on describing how this occurs and its effects. It is far too long to quote in full. Dennis Billy provides however a wonderful summary:

In specifically associating the Eucharist with the process of divinization Gregory uses the analogy of a person’s assimilation of nutrition. A person turns natural food and drink into flesh and blood through a process of assimilation. When he or she receives the body and blood of Christ, the reverse dynamic occurs. When believers partake of this food, they themselves are assimilated into Christ’s glorified body and are able to participate palpably in the life of the divine. By partaking in this sacrificial meal, the faithful thus enter into intimate communion with Christ and and embark on a journey that ultimately leads to becoming a perfect image of the divine.

The Beauty of the Eucharist: Voices from the Church Fathers (p. 197). New City Press

The wisdom of the Eastern churches was becoming better known about the time I first became interested in Theology. Although they clearly proclaimed the same faith, they asked different questions and emphasized different things. Most importantly they forced me to examine the effects of believing the doctrines I, then and now, so firmly hold. Reading them has helped me see that Jesus is the measure of all things. St. Gregory today reminds us that to attain this end we need the Eucharist and see that the Eucharist in this sense is not something we receive but someone we become. This will be revealed more clearly next week with St. Augustine but there is one further thing for us to see in Gregory.

Pope Francis also sees the church as breathing with two lungs, but his emphasis is on North and South. Essentially the North is Europe and North America, and the South is the rest of the world. Pope St. John Paul being Polish and living on the border of Eastern and Western Europe was acutely aware of the importance of Eastern—Orthodox—Christianity and eager to learn from it. Pope Francis is a man of the Global South with European roots. European theologians spoke about renewal coming from the “peripheries” the edges of the church and world. Often, they saw this clearly as a concept but did not know how to employ it. Francis must ask “Southern” questions because that is who he is. This can be disconcerting, but it is valuable especially when it concerns the poor and marginalized.

It has revealed the “default” position for Catholics often reflects a bourgeois sensibility and not Jesus. I have discovered this in myself too often for it to be an accident. No teaching of the church has been more helpful for me than theosis. Jesus is the measure and goal of all things. St Gregory shows us that being body and soul we cannot expect to attain this goal without the physical act of eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus. It unites our body and soul, heaven and earth.