What can we infer about Saint Gregory Palamas’ Mariology from him nativity and dormition homilies? Palamas has been alleged by some readers of Father Christiaan Kappes to teach the Immaculate Conception, but they appear unaware what Kappes research has stated on this very issue. Kappes asserts that only Latin theologians actually “connected all the dots” and taught the Immaculate Conception.
The question then is what did Palamas’ actually teach? This is too big a question for this article. However, we will review what he did teach in his nativity and dormition homilies.
Some ground rules. It is important to note that before doing this, we have to take into account why certain things are taught and how they are taught on certain occasions. For example, if someone were to ask an honest person what kind of man their brother was, the details and explanation of said details would sound very different if one was a deposition in a court of law and the other a eulogy at a funeral. This is despite the person being honest and making only truthful statements. The occasion demands a different tone and emphasis.
We must use basic common sense and take this into account when reading a nativity homily (which will emphasize what was exceptional about Christ’s birth) and a dormition homily (which will emphasize what was exceptional about Mary’s death.) If both were unexceptional, no one would be preaching a sermon on the topic.
In short, these homilies were not meant to be taken as straightforward, dogmatic theology treatises.
Of course, all the preceding should go without saying it is so obvious. But, because these topics are polemically charged, it is extremely important we apply some basic common sense to interpreting these documents. To take a passing statement in such a homily and universalize it so it contradicts other saints or other things that the same saint has written, without reading it contextually as emphasizing some aspect of how the event was exceptional and its application to the audience, is utterly foolish.
This is why when I debated the dormition homilies with a Roman Catholic, I was aghast at his exegesis—at it disregarded all the preceding.
Without further ado, the homilies.
The nativity homily. Palamas’ nativity homily, without any pressing Christological controversy, is in some respects unremarkable and not much different than homilies by previous saints. The chief emphasis in any nativity homily is to exalt the Virgin Birth and explain why it was necessary.
In layman’s English, “Things did not go down as they did on Christmas for the ‘heck of it,’ but Jesus came into the world in a specific way for specific reasons.”
For example, Palamas emphasizes that the means of conception (without passion and seed) ensured Jesus did not have original sin:
He is born without suffering, as He was conceived without passion, for as His mother was shown to be above the pleasure of passion when she conceived, so she is above grievous pains when she gives birth. “Before the pain of travail came upon her, she escaped it” as Isaiah says (Isaiah 66.7 LXX), and she brought forth in the flesh the pre-eternal Word. (…)
If He had been born from seed, He would not have been a new man and, being part of the old stock, and inheriting that fall, He would not have been able to receive the fullness of the incorruptible Godhead in Himself and become an inexhaustible source of hallowing. And so, not only would He not have been able to cleanse, with abundance of power, our forefathers’ defilement caused by sin, but neither would He have been sufficient to sanctify those who came later.Saint Gregory Palamas’ Nativity Homily
As we can see, not having original sin made it possible for Jesus “to cleanse…defilement caused by sin” and “sanctify” us. If He was subject to sin, the Godhead could not dwell bodily (as God is too pure to actually abide in sin, as His eyes are too pure to look upon it, Hab 1:13).
How did Jesus cleanse humanity? By correcting it, taking fallen flesh from the Virgin. This is something I have elsewhere called the “voluntary assumption of postlapsarianist flesh”:
He who shares the nature of the Father on high put on our fallen nature through His birth, nor is He subject merely to the utter poverty of being born in a wretched cave, but right from the very start, while still in the womb, He accepts the final condemnation of our nature.Saint Gregory Palamas’ Nativity Homily
Hence, Jesus did not merely become a curse for us by voluntarily accepting the Passion. He likewise did so by accepting fallen flesh and its condemnation (death). Palamas makes some observations pertaining to the nature of the Fall, as this shows the reader (and listeners) what exactly Jesus Christ’s incarnation corrected:
His [Satan’s] own fall, however, he rendered incurable once and for all, because he did not acquire his arrogance from anyone else, but became himself the principle of evil and the fulness of evil, and made himself available to anyone wishing to participate in evil. (…)
He then allowed man to be governed by his own thoughts and follow his own initiative, because he was a rational creature with a sovereign will. Left alone, deceived by the evil one’s counsel and unable to withstand his assault, man did not keep to what was in accordance with his nature, but slid towards what was unnatural to it. (…)
[H]uman nature, which was led astray through lack of counsel, enslaved to the evil one out of weakness, and laid in the deepest caverns of Hades for want of divine life, that the Lord might instill into it wisdom and power and freedom and unfailing life.Saint Gregory Palamas’ Nativity Homily
As we can see, Satan (unlike man) willed his own wickedness and will never repent. This is unlike man who either through being “deceived by the evil one’s counsel” (like Adam and Eve) or being born into sin and “enslaved to the evil one” who, through Christ, are made into new creations that can desire God’s will. Christ reconstituted human nature so it can be sinless, and in so doing, could then rightly cooperate with the grace of God instead of kick against the goads due to an enslaved temperament.
The dormition homily. Six centuries removed from the golden age of dormition homilies, Palamas’ homily clearly betrays a much more grandiose and developed Mariology. Earlier dormition homilies were written in the wake of (or during) the Christological controversies. The shadows these cast on the authors are obvious, as the homilies often emphasize not only how holy Mary was, but also have a huge emphasis on her humanity vis a vis Christ.
Palamas is not under the influence of such an environment. In his homily, the dormition is an opportunity to celebrate the Theotokos near God-like qualities and her intercession for man. For example, Palamas in a paragraph that reiterates the traditional emphasis of Mary’s greatness being that of bearing God, closes with an emphasis that exalts her role in heaven of dispensing God’s grace:
Hence, as it was through the Theotokos alone that the Lord came to us, appeared upon earth and lived among men, being invisible to all before this time, so likewise in the endless age to come, without her mediation, every emanation of illuminating divine light, every revelation of the mysteries of the Godhead, every form of spiritual gift, will exceed the capacity of every created being. She alone has received the all-pervading fulness of Him that filleth all things, and through her all may now contain it, for she dispenses it according to the power of each, in proportion and to the degree of the purity of each. Hence she is the treasury and overseer of the riches of the Godhead.Saint Gregory Palamas’ Dormition Homily
The idea that Mary “dispenses” God’s grace “in proportion and to the degree of the purity of each” is an interesting conflating of the role of her prayers with that Saints Maximus and Gregory of Nyssa presumed was God’s. Without an overt concern with Christological controversy, Palamas is free to emphasize why the Theotokos receives hyperdulia (cf Question 4 of 1672 Council of Jerusalem) and how she is above all saints in her intercessory role. He does this without the concern of glossing over some important anthropological controversy, unlike earlier saints in the first millenium.
It is helpful to remind ourselves that Palamas lived approximately 650 years ago. When he was alive, he was approximately 650 years removed from the saints who wrote the majority of the earlier homilies in the 7th and 8th centuries. So, if Palamas and his concerns are chronologically distant to us, those of earlier saints would have been distant for him.
If one were to contrast the difference between Palamas’ homily and those of the first millennium, it would be that the reader gets to learn more about Mary herself for Mariology’s sake instead of hearing about her Christology’s sake. Sometimes, this emphasis is quite jarring for the dormition homily genre (though not first millenium Marian hymnography).
For example, Palamas cites a Messianic Scripture (Ps 8:6) as applying to Mary. Several paragraphs emphasize how she is greater than angels, contrasting Mary who “stands at the right hand of the King” (Ps 44:9) compared to the angels who are merely “round about God” (Is 6:2). Palamas points out that “only [the] Queen of all is near beside Him.”
He elsewhere brings up other Scriptures to exalt the Theotokos, perhaps the best example being the Psalm about the King’s daughter:
They shall make mention of thy name from generation to generation: therefore shall the nations give thanks to thee for ever, even for ever and ever. (Ps 44:18)
Why is Palamas’ homily more akin to earlier hymnography than homilies sharing its genre? He was addressing a different controversy of his day, Barlaamism and the rejection of Hesychasm. Palamas’ audience in the fourteenth century had a highly developed Marian veneration—one that contemporary Muslims confused with polytheism. One cannot help but perceive that the high exaltation of a human being, the Theotokos, above all of creation lays waste to the Barlaamite objection. How can she, and the saints, be so Godlike if they were not in fact deified by God Himself
Palamas invokes this hermeneutic in both exalting Mary as well asserting his theology of mystical union with Christ:
If recompense is bestowed according to the measure of love for God, and if the man who loves the Son is loved of Him and of His Father and becomes the dwelling place of Both, and They mystically abide and walk in him, as it is recorded in the Master’s Gospel, who, then, will love Him more than His Mother?Saint Gregory Palamas’ Dormition Homily
In the preceding, we see Palamas teach that the degree of our divine indwelling is proportionate with our faith and love for God. Since no one loved God more than Mary, then clearly she is the most deified. This is something that Palamas asserts was the result of Hesychastic discipline beginning at a young age:
She passed not a few years in the Holy of Holies itself, wherein under the care of an angel she enjoyed ineffable nourishment such as even Adam did not succeed in tasting; for indeed if he had, like this immaculate one, he would not have fallen away from life, even though it was because of Adam and so that she might prove to be his daughter, that she yielded a little to nature, as did her Son [for a different reason], Who has now ascended from earth into heaven.Saint Gregory Palamas’ Dormition Homily
The content of the preceding episode is attested to as early as the second century in the Protoevangelicum of James. The high priest (by rotation) Zacharias “set her down upon the third step of the altar the Lord God sent grace upon her and she danced with her feet” (par 7) when she entered the Temple. She lived there “as if she were a dove that dwelt there, and she received food from the hand of an angel.” (par 8) Palamas sees the preceding as evidence of Mary reaching the highest spiritual state–seeing the uncreated Light.
In the lives of the saints, those fed (usually the Eucharist) directly from angels are thought to have attained the same spiritual state, living lives compared to that of angels.
From the preceding, we can surmise that Palamas was using the genre of dormition homily to employ the Theotokos as an example of the Hesychastic spiritual life. Hence, there was a distinct apologetic purpose in his high Mariology. When exalting the greatness of the Theotokos, humanity’s capacity to attain to divinity is of the utmost relevance. The high veneration paid to Mary, crucial as it was in the background of the Nestorian controversy in the fifth century, was likewise a theological backdoor which Palamas was going to attack the Barlaamites.
Even average laymen or simple monks listening to the homily would have immediately identified the deified state (according to God’s energies, not essence) of the Mother of God as being under attack by Barlaamite. The fact that she in some respects can be called a god (cf John 10:35) and not God betrays that her divinization is both a matter of grace and something demonstrably real. For this reason, Palamas uses the obvious example of the annunciation to take a jab at Barlaamites who reject that an unmediated union with God is possible:
He manifest His presence, but without mediation, without a veil, the Power of the Most High overshadowed the sublimely chaste and virginal womb, separated by nothing, neither air nor aether nor anything sensible, nor anything supra-sensible: this was not an overshadowing but a complete union…
Thus the Word of God took up His dwelling in the Theotokos in an inexpressible manner and proceeded from her, bearing flesh. He appeared upon the earth and lived among men, deifying our nature and granting us, after the words of the divine Apostle, “things which angels desire to look into” (1 Pet. 1:12).Saint Gregory Palamas’ Dormition Homily
Any layman schmuck, with his high veneration for the Theotokos, would immediately find a Barlaamite re-invention of grace (as something created and ontologically different from the Godhead) imposed upon the life of Mary to be objectionable. He would know that the incarnation was an obvious contradiction to such an idea (grasped ever so vaguely, I would admit).
For this reason, this emphasis on Hesychastic union is then transposed upon the history of the Theotokos’ entire holy life:
[S]he co-operated and suffered with that exalting condescension (kenosis) of the Word of God, she was also rightly glorified and exalted together with Him, ever adding thereto the supernatural increase of mighty deeds. And after the ascent into the heavens of Him that was incarnate of her, she rivaled, as it were, those great works, surpassing mind and speech, which through Him were her own, with a most valiant and diverse asceticism, and with her prayers and care for the entire world, her precepts and encouragements which she gave to God’s heralds [the Apostles] sent throughout the whole world; thus she was herself both a support and a comfort while she was both heard and seen, and while she labored with the rest in every way for the preaching of the Gospel. In such wise she led a most strenuous manner of life proclaimed in mind and speech.Saint Gregory Palamas’ Dormition Homily
Anyone from the layman to the cleric would have been familiar with these episodes of Mary’s life from Sacred Tradition. By emphasizing how God’s grace was exercised through the Theotokos in all of these, Palamas would have met no objection and would gently bring his audience into line with his way of thinking.
Regardless of the preceding, we can still perceive that Palamas was not outside the “mainstream” of anthropological assumptions of earlier Dormition narratives. For example, the reader can perceive that he nodded to the fact that the Theotokos had original sin. This should not surprise us, as in the nativity homily Palamas asserted all born of seed are under the condemnation of Adam—a condemnation Jesus voluntarily accepted. But even in asserting Mary’s original sin, he does so most delicately. Palamas purposefully downplays her dying “because of Adam…as did her Son.”
Similar to the Damascene, he poetically implies that she followed the Law of Nature voluntarily—a trope typical of saints lives based upon the death of Saint Stephen the Protomartyr (Acts 7:59-60).
This kind of death is particularly “common” for beautiful women (mostly virgins) who give up their spirits without the executioner’s axe falling upon their heads. (c.f. Saints Basilissa, Sophia, Charitina, Eulampia and Pelagia (the Virgin) are five examples commemorated in the months of September and October.) Holy Martyr Cecilia, the patroness of church music, is a (married) virgin who the executioner’s axe failed to kill, so she gave up her own spirit three days later.
One can understand the difficulty that some interpreters may have in inferring whether Mary had original sin in light of the preceding. I would assert the correct exegesis is made clear by contrasting what Palamas would accept as true of Mary and what was true of Jesus. Obviously, Jesus did not have to die because of Adam. Despite the flowery description of Mary yielding to death, ultimately her death was because of Adam. This important differentiation will be denied by polemical Roman Catholics, though no sensible interpreter of any denomination would, understanding the Patristics, fail to infer this difference.
Palamas later exhibits the same caution when in passing noting Mary shared the same sinful flesh as his listeners:
Or, if while yet three years of age and not yet possessing that super- celestial in-dwelling, she seemed not to bear our flesh as she abode in the Holy of Holies, and after she became supremely perfect even as regards her body by such great marvels, how indeed could that body suffer corruption and turn to earth? How could such a thing be conceivable for anyone who thinks reasonably? Hence, the body which gave birth is glorified together with what was born of it with God-befitting glory, and the “ark of holiness” (Ps. 131:8) is resurrected, after the prophetic ode, together with Christ Who formerly arose from the dead on the third day…There was no necessity for her body to delay yet a little while in the earth, as was the case with her Son and God, and so it was taken up straightway from the tomb to a super celestial realm, from whence she flashes forth most brilliant and divine illuminations and graces.Saint Gregory Palamas’ Dormition Homily
It is clear that Mary bore the flesh of fallen Adam. This is the whole point of stating “she seemed not to bear our flesh.” Nevertheless, the emphasis upon her immense Hesychastic holiness, which made her more excellent than even ageless angels, makes her death border on the unthinkable. The preceding is not a serious assertion that her body could not corrupt something Saint Germanus teaches happened just a little (Dormition Homily 2, Par 1). Its emphasis, obviously, is on why God did not allow it to rot and decompose in the ground so that it could be assumed and transformed into a glorified state.
For this reason, Palamas inventively asserts Mary’s body was “taken up straightaway” without “delay”—an assertion contradicting several dormition narratives that teach the Theotokos was dead for three days like Christ. The change in emphasis (as three days can be considered straightaway by some) is purposeful, as it demonstrates Mary’s holiness as one too good for death, so uninterrupted was her participation in God’s divine energies.
Conclusion. From the preceding, we can make the following Mariological inferences as being properly Palamite:
Those “born from seed” are “part of the old stock, and inheriting that Fall.”
Mary was “born from seed” like us and so “fallen away from life…that she might prove to be his [Adam’s] daughter.”
Despite this, the Theotokos’ whole life was full of immense holiness, surpassing that of angels.
This was due to God’s grace.
Due to this grace, Mary is in heaven now interceding for all mankind acting as “the treasury and overseer of the riches of the Godhead.” Hence, every man’s salvation is now through Mary’s prayers.
Through the prayers of the Theotokos O Savior, save us! Amen.
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