Homily preached on the Feast of Gregory of Nyssa
March 10, 2020
They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.
We might call Matthew 23 a chapter of rebukes in the Bible. Jesus spends a great deal of time addressing the disciples and his followers, educating them on what truly following the law looks like — and it is not the way those in power tend to follow the law. The Pharisees and the scribes claim the very power of the law of Moses for themselves and yet impose it restrictively on those who are less fortunate, othered, whom they have oppressed and who have no possible way to free themselves from it or pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
That story sounds a bit familiar. It sounds like the abuse of power. It sounds like what minority people and those seen as “less than” or “other” have been suffering for centuries. It sounds like deception at work. I’m pretty sure Jesus was opposed to deception and abuse of power.
Today we celebrate the feast of Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, born about 334 in Caesarea in modern-day Turkey. Gregory was a great thinker and philosopher, grouped with two others (his brother Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea, and his friend Gregory of Nazianzus) to be known as the Cappadocian fathers. The Cappadocians were strong influencers in the development of early Christian theology, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, supporting the Nicene Creed, and they are highly respected in both the East and the West.
I seem to be drawn to bishops who were all but forced into their positions. Martin of Tours is my patron saint and his mentor was Hilary of Poitiers, who I preached about a few weeks ago. Both of them were pretty much dragged into being consecrated by the people because of their spiritual gifts, personalities and leadership skills. Gregory’s brother Basil made him take the call of Bishop of Nyssa to support Basil in his own struggle against the Emperor Valens. Basil was skilled politically in addition to being a strong theologian and wanted to strengthen his position by placing his brother, of like mind, nearby.
Although Gregory had the gifts of a great theologian, he knew he was a terrible administrator and, according to a Great Cloud of Witnesses, describes his ordination day as the most miserable of his life. As if fulfilling his prophecy, he was falsely accused of stealing funds from the Church and exiled for two years until Valens died. Wow, ordination isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, is it?
Despite his brother’s dominance of him, Gregory suffered when Basil and then his sister, Saint Macrina, died. As often happens as a result of crisis, Gregory was transformed. Through his loss and deep discussions with his sister in her last days, he became a soulful more philosopher and theologian.
One of his greatest contributions to theology was his writing on the Trinity. He insisted on a law of the universe that the triune God is one in three parts, all three being equally divine but bearing different roles. He was not so focused on the relationship between the roles of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but felt the urgency of making it known they were one and of the same substance.
Gregory was a contemplative and somewhat of a mystic. The focus of some of his writing was on the mystical life of Moses, not the law. In the Life of Moses, Gregory speaks of three stages of spiritual growth: ignorance, illumination, and finally a darkness of the mind in mystic contemplation of the God who cannot be comprehended. Gregory was not for using the law to oppress people or impose burdens on them too great to bear. In fact, Gregory was known as a supporter of a philosophy called universalism that to this day is controversial in Christianity (not so much in other world religions).
Unlike the Pharisees’ focus on ego and grandeur, Gregory believed that all would be redeemed in God’s time, that none is sentenced to damnation for eternity. This belief ties into psychologist Carl Jung’s assessment of the Trinity. Jung always felt that the mystery was incomplete based on the importance of numerology in the Bible and in his work with symbols, because it is three and not four, a symbol of completion and transcendence. Jung sometimes spoke of the missing fourth element as the divine feminine and sometimes as the principle of evil, according to Episcopal priest and Jungian analyst John Sanford, in his book, Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John.
Sanford writes of the practical matter behind the Trinity, “How can human nature be changed, renewed, redeemed and brought to its ultimate destination?” He goes on.. “A difficulty with the doctrine of the Trinity is that it involves such abstruse theological arguments that few people indeed are able to understand them.” There was also the idea in the early Church, according to Sanford, that the archetype of the Trinity was in the human psyche. Gregory “argued that the human being also had a triune nature, embodied in the soul (psyche), word (logos), and mind (nous). He believed that within the human psyche the nature of the triune God could be inferred. Phew, that is getting deep, isn’t it? I feel like most clergy people I know on Trinity Sunday…
Matthew Fox, in his book the Coming of the Cosmic Christ, writes of the importance the Cappadocian fathers’ work. The most important thing I learned from that book and what has followed me in my Jungian studies is what we can do to bring Christ into the world, to bring about the second coming. Our role is critical and that, according to Gregory, is to “mirror forth the presence of the creating logos,” which is Christ. In Jungian terms it would be to do our inner work – to nurture the Christ within, to make ourselves whole in order to make the world whole. Really, Pharisees and scribes, to say getting bogged down in ourselves and oppressing others is missing the mark is the understatement of a lifetime.
The Trinity is a hard concept to grasp, after all. But we are grateful to Gregory and his brother and friend for their great work and insistence on the oneness of the Trinity, for it is indeed our faith’s great life-giving mystery.
Thank you, Gregory, for your contributions to our life-giving theology, that by recognizing the divinity in each of us, all of us, not burdening or oppressing each other, we might transform the world with the force that is love.
So, I thought we’d end with storytime. I stand before a room filled with clergy and deep thinkers and hope to offer you a theology lesson from a children’s book. How many of you know this book? (Picture of God: 3-in-1). It’s really fun to pull out from time to time and rethink the metaphor of the Trinity as an apple. I think every preacher should have a copy. I invite you to close your eyes and meditate on this metaphor. Or if you like, you can keep your eyes open and take in the illustrations… (WARNING: this book contains patriarchal language and substitutionary atonement. It can be adapted in a useful way of teaching the Trinity. My hope is that you will be able to listen and appreciate the metaphor into the framework in which you best understand the Trinity).
Almighty God, you have revealed to your Church your eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love as one God in Trinity of Persons: Give us grace that, like your bishop Gregory of Nyssa, we may continue steadfast in the confession of this faith, and constant in our worship of you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; for you live and reign for ever and ever. Amen