The Peril and Promise of Church Politics: Preaching Gregory of Nazianzus

A water liturgy invoked God's provision of seasonal rain but also celebrated God's faithful provision of miraculous water in the past, specifically his providing water from a rock during the Exodus. At the same time Israel anticipated future water, envisioned by the prophets Ezekiel and Zechariah as a metaphorical river of life. Similarly, the light liturgy also called to mind God's past provision of miraculous light during the Exodus in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. This light of God guided Israel through darkness and guarded them from harm. As to future light, the prophet Isaiah foresaw a time when, "The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the LORD will be your everlasting light and your God will be your glory."

The Tabernacle's light liturgy occurred in an area of the Temple known as The Court of Women, so named for the fact that it allowed women rather than only men inside. In the center of this court were four huge candlesticks, on top of which sat these massive bowls of lamp oil with wicks made from, of all things, the discarded trousers of priests (don't ask me why). As these four great lamps were lit, it's said that they sent such an intensity of light throughout Jerusalem that every courtyard in town reflected the brilliance. As the lamps blazed, the reputably wisest and holiest men of Israel joyously danced and praised God until dawn. Into the midst of all the dancing and praising, Jesus—the scruffy, working class carpenter from Galilee—stepped up and announced: "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

Now imagine your minister standing up at the end of the service to pronounce the benediction, but instead of saying something like, "May the Lord bless you," imagine him saying, "I, the Lord, bless you." You'd be a little surprised by that. Perhaps you'd write it off as a slip up. But imagine he went on to say it again, to say, "I am the bread of life, and the way and the truth and the life"? Well, by then you'd be ready to report him to the authorities. Same with the Pharisees with Jesus. Jesus' claim to be the Light was his claim to be God. In Scripture, light is the realm reserved for God alone. Light epitomizes the height of wisdom, the manifestation of God's presence. Light was God's calling card; his glare the sure sign of his existence. Yet here stood dull and dingy Jesus without hardly a flicker. Is it any wonder the Pharisees were skeptical?

The Pharisees' predicament in the 1st century was the Arians' predicament in the 4th and the predicament of plenty more ever since. How is it possible for a human to be divine?

Gregory of Nazianzus placed great emphasis on light as the essence, energy, and illuminating initiative of God. In one of Gregory's hymns, we read, "O light that knew no dawn, that shines to endless day, all things in earth and heaven are lustered by thy ray; no eye can to thy throne ascend nor mind thy brightness comprehend." "God is Light," Gregory wrote, "the highest, the unapproachable, the ineffable, that can neither be conceived in the mind nor uttered with the lips, light that gives life to every reasoning creature."

For Christ to be light as God is light means that we will always struggle to fully understand. As Augustine once put it, "if you can grasp it, then it is not God." What is left is for God to grasp you, which is precisely what happens when his light shines upon on you. Eastern Orthodox tradition, of which Gregory is foundational, teaches that at the Transfiguration, when Jesus shone with heavenly glory, the ones actually transfigured were the disciples themselves. It wasn't Jesus who changed, but the disciples whose eyes were opened to see Jesus as he truly existed: as eternal light.

We describe the disciples' experience as mystical, from the Greek word meaning hidden from sight. But God's hiddenness does not mean that God is concealed, but that we fail to comprehend what God has revealed. The problem is not that we can't "see" God, but that he just doesn't always look like we think he should.

Jesus again refers to himself as "light of the world" in John 9 where he memorably heals a man born blind. Afterward, Jesus asked the man whose eyes he had opened whether he believed in the Son of Man—a reference to the prophet Daniel's Ancient of Days, the Son of God. The man answered, "Who is he, sir? I want to believe in him." To which Jesus replied, "You have seen him, and he is speaking to you!" "Yes, Lord," the man said, "I believe!" And he worshiped Jesus. The Pharisees, again, were outraged that any human would make claims to be God. "For judgment I have come into this world," Jesus responded, "so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind." Furious, the Pharisees shot back, "What?! Are you saying we are blind?" Jesus said, "If you were blind, you would not have guilt, but because you say 'we see,' your guilt remains." As it turned out, seeing is not believing. On the contrary, to believe is to see.