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Gregory of Nazianzus might not be a household name for you! You may have never heard of him until this evening, but now you have heard of him, and I hope you will see how his name and life are an example of the importance of knowing the full spectrum of the Christian tradition.
St. Gregory the Theologian was a 4th century priest, theologian, and later Bishop of Constantinople at a pivotal time in the life of the Christian Church.
It may surprise you to hear that it took over four hundred years for the broader Church to really lay out what it understood by the nature of God and the reality and identity of Jesus Christ. What is “God?” How is Jesus both divine and human? What is this deep energetic force we call the Holy Spirit? These crucial foundations of our theology were not handed down instantaneously on tablets like the Ten Commandments. Rather, the Church did was the Church does as the Body of Christ—as a Body, a living Body—it reflects, discerns, listens, and wrestles with how to understand God.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus, along with two other pivotal figures, St. Gregory of Nyssa and his brother St. Basil (on whose liturgy our Eucharistic Prayer D finds its inspiration), became known as the Cappadocian Fathers—named for the region of modern Turkey in which they lived and ministered. They are honored for their work in helping the Church understand and describe the nature of God.
Their work, their energy, their insight and inspiration helped the Church articulate, in language grounded in that era, the Nicene Creed that the Church has since used for over sixteen hundred years and which we say together every time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist.
This is why Christian Tradition matters—not because it is a history lesson that describes what happened but because it is a living Tradition that holds what we have received and opens our hearts to listen for how God is calling us to embody it in the world today. We are not literalists in the sense of wanting to control and grasp; we are traditionalists in the sense of recognizing the Spirit’s ongoing work within the community of believers. The Spirit of Christ is alive and at work in our lives, drawing us into the fullness of life in God the Father. See how this language matters?
If you will, please turn in your Prayer Book to page 358. You will find the Nicene Creed there, anchored as a response to the homily during Eucharistic celebrations.
If you really look at the Church’s Creed, you will see that there are three parts. This is very important, because it isn’t exactly precise to understand Christianity as a monotheistic religion. We do confess and proclaim, place our trust in, take refuge in One God. We share this with Judaism and Islam in fact. But, there is a distinction here with Christianity.
We place our trust in, understand God to be, Trinitarian in nature. One God, Three Persons. This is absolutely essential, and it is terribly confusing on one hand.
Christianity is not just some outgrowth of Judaism, a sect of Judaism, as it were. Rather, it is proclaiming, as the Cappadocian Fathers sought to describe, that the one God that Jews and later Muslims confessed, we understand as Trinitarian in identity. There is a distinction in Christianity.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to use the language of the Creed. Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Lover, Beloved, and Love as some have imagined.
As Gregory of Nazianzus himself purportedly said, “I cannot think on the one without being encircled by the splendor of the three; nor can I discern the three without being straightway carried back to the one.”
This is who we understand God to be: One God in Three Persons. But what do we mean when we say “God” and “persons?”
And, perhaps here is a key to understanding it.
For many, when it comes to the Trinity, we immediately focus on the three persons, on trying to describe, understand—control even—the nature of the three persons as separate people, or things.
What is the nature of the Father?
What is the nature of the Son?
What is the nature of the Spirit?
What details can we understand here? How can we get our minds around this? This makes sense when we lay this desire to understand these distinct persons alongside our culture’s obsession with seeing each person as an autonomous and separate individual. Why not treat God the way we treat one another, as rigid individuals over and against each other?
The interesting thing is, in Eastern Orthodoxy and the broader contemplative tradition, this isn’t really the approach we take, to put it one way, to understanding the Trinitarian nature of God. Rather than being overly and rigidly focused on the separate identities of each Person, we are drawn to deeply reflect on the relationship between the Persons of the Trinity. This is so key, so important.
It is the relationship that is key, the union between and the dynamism between the Three Persons of the Trinity that holds the key to understanding God—and to understand what being a Christian is all about.
In God, in this Trinitarian image, we catch a glimpse of God’s being—and it is absolutely focused on relationship rather than on separate identity.
The Trinitarian image of God calls us to reflect on the deeper realities of union, of communion, of mutual abiding, of the flow and dynamism within God’s own being. In theological language, the perichoretic and hypostatic union within God’s own essential being. Fancy words that, basically mean that to understand God—and thusly understand ourselves and our own purpose for living—we should reflect more on our unity with one another and the way we are called to dance.
Dancing is key, the image of dancing with one another and dancing in the heart of God. Moving, flowing, exchanging, belonging, abiding, loving, interbeing, interconnection, dynamic. These are the best words to describe God, to understand what we mean by this word, this symbol “God” that we use, essentially, as a placeholder for that ultimate reality and Source of Life that we cannot explain nor control, and in which we become aware of the true nature of our very selves.
“I cannot think on the one without being encircled by the splendor of the three; nor can I discern the three without being straightway carried back to the one.”
It sounds not only like a wonderful image for reflecting on the nature of God, but also a powerful image for reflecting on the true potential of community, doesn’t it?
Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Evensong, Feast of Gregory of Nazianzus (observed)
May 6, 2018