March 4, 2014


Sermon of Bishop Gregory of Brookline (HOCNA) on the Feast of the Circumcision, 2014,
delivered at Holy Nativity Convent, Boston.
(lightly edited)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We have come, dear sisters in Christ, to the eighth day after the Nativity according to the flesh of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and on this eighth day the Saviour Who became man fulfills the covenant that He gave to His servant Abraham, one of four covenants that He gave to human beings.

The first covenant was that given to Noah, the covenant that was confirmed by the rainbow, saying that there would not be a deluge anymore to punish the iniquities of human beings. And our Saviour fulfilled this covenant because not only was there not a deluge, but water itself was transformed from a means of destruction to the means of salvation through Holy Baptism.

The second covenant He gave to His servant, the father of all the faithful, Abraham. The third covenant was given on Mt. Sinai—the law which was proclaimed by Moses.

And the fourth and final covenant was revealed by our Saviour Himself when He became incarnate of the Virgin Mary. And thus were fulfilled the words of the Prophet Jeremias who said that there will be given another law and another circumcision—not the law written on tablets of stone, but a law written in the hearts of men and circumcision not of the foreskin, but circumcision of the heart. This our Saviour fulfilled by His Incarnation, when He gave us a new law, new life, new commandments—the final covenant.

But today our Saviour is Himself submitting to the covenant that He gave to Patriarch Abraham, being circumcised and named that wonderful and blessed name—Jesus.[1]

When Abraham believed in God and fulfilled everything that God had bidden him, our Saviour gave him the covenant saying that “you shall circumcise the foreskin of all your progeny, and in your seed all nations shall be blessed.”[2] And He changed his name from Abram to Abraham. And truly, in his seed, as Paul the Apostle tells us, in his seed (he uses the singular form of the word in Greek [3]), that is, in our Saviour, all the nations are blessed.

A great thing is revealed today. If we read carefully the homily written by St. Dimitry of Rostov concerning this feast, we shall understand the depth of the wisdom of God. Our Saviour was circumcised, fulfilling the law, but also on this feast He reveals to us a great treasure—the great treasure of that Name by which He will be called from here unto eternity. By all the Angels and men, unto eternity, unto the ages of ages, God the Son will be known as Jesus, the sweetest of names, close to the heart of everyone that believes.

And St. Dimitry of Rostov most beautifully explains that until now, until this Name was revealed, it was [kept as myrrh] in a jar. But on this day of Circumcision the jar was opened, and the Name was spread abroad. And in this was fulfilled that which was written in the Song of Songs by the Prophet and King Solomon; for this whole Song of Songs is a dialogue between the bridegroom and the bride. And the Fathers say that the dialogue is really between Christ, the Bridegroom, and His beloved, the Church. And the Church, the bride, tells our Saviour, “Thy Name is as myrrh spread and poured forth. Therefore the virgins love Thee.”[4] Truly His Name is as myrrh, as fragrant myrrh spread abroad in the whole world, and this begins today.

“And therefore the virgins love Him.” Who are the virgins? They are the Saints—everybody who loved His Name and attained salvation through His Name. Today this is fulfilled. For this Name, St. Dimitry of Rostov says, was preordained in the Council of the Holy Trinity. But it was kept as in a jar, as myrrh is kept in a jar. It is there, but the fragrance is not sensed; but today it is opened and poured forth on all creation. And everybody is filled with the fragrance of this Name. This is the Name by which we are saved. This is the Name unto which all in Heaven and on earth and under the earth will bow and bend their knee. This is the Name by which salvation is brought to the world—the Name preserved from eternity, and the Name by which our Saviour will be known. This is a simple truth—a truth that is understood by all Christians.

But, alas, there are those who doubt this simple truth. They cannot understand how a name, which they consider a mere word, can in any way have such great power. How can it be wonderful, glorious, worshipful? A simple truth, but doubted by many—those who are illogical logicians of our time, who doubt the most simple truth of our Faith. What is the answer to this? What is it that they are accusing us of? That which was done by all Christians of all times—to venerate, to love the Name of our Saviour? What are we doing that is so wrong? How can we explain this? How can we make people understand the simple truth that by this Name everyone is saved? That no one is saved except by this Name. And there is no other name given to human beings by which we are saved?

The answer is this: what is a name? In today’s world a name is like a dog tag. It is identification that separates one from the other. That’s it. Is this the Biblical understanding of a name? Is that how the Fathers understood what a name is? Look at the Old Testament, dear sisters. Throughout the Old Testament the name reveals the truth about the named. The relationship between the name and the named is the truth that it tells us. This is the meaning of a name—the truth that it designates. Throughout the Old Testament we see people being named according to the sum of their characteristics. People are named, and the name reveals the truth about them. Throughout the Old Testament the name has a great meaning; it is inextricably linked with that which is named. God gave Adam the power to name, not only human beings, but also the animals. Not arbitrarily, but with the wisdom that God gave him, Adam would see the truth about each creature, and give him the proper name. That is how intricately the name is linked with that which is named.[5]

This is the Biblical understanding of what a name is:  it expresses the truth about the object. And our accusers are saying that a name is just a word that exists in our mind. It has no link whatsoever with the truth about the object. Foolish philosophers! Illogical logicians! Have not you read anything from the Scriptures? So, if the name of a creature reveals the truth about the creature, what does the Name of the Creator, the Eternal, the Uncreated, reveal about Him? If the name of a creature reveals the created truth, what does the Name of the Creator reveal? The uncreated truth about the Creator. This is the key to understanding the theology concerning the Name of God. This is the key to open the treasures of this beautiful theology handed down from the Prophets, the Apostles, the Martyrs, the Fathers, even unto this day and unto the end of the world.

“The truth of God abideth forever,”[6] the Prophet says. We should understand what this means. The truth of God is not a deduction; it is not a scientific truth that people came to think about God. It is not something that people sat down and made up about God. The truth, in the Biblical understanding, is the eternal light of God—the eternal knowledge and wisdom of God about Himself, just like the light of God is eternal light. Just like the wisdom of God is eternal wisdom, uncreated wisdom. Just like the power of God is the eternal power of God, so the truth of God, the truth about God, is eternal truth. This is the meaning of the Name of God. This is what we venerate, worship, love in the names of God—the eternal truth about God, which is expressed in created words. The truth was there from generations. “From before the sun doth your Name continue,”[7] the Prophet says. Forever it was there. This is the truth about which our Saviour says,“I came to testify to the truth.”[8] Quite a big thing for our Saviour to testify to, right? The truth of God.

This is the truth about which our Saviour says, “The truth that I heard from the Father is that which I speak to you.”[9] The eternal truth about God. The eternal truth in the names of God. This is the connection between the Name of God and God Himself—the truth that it reveals about God. How simple it is, yet how can people make such simple things so complicated and confusing! Do not we do this every day—worship the eternal through the created?

Let us take another example. Every day at the Liturgy when we come out with the Holy Gospel, we raise it up and say, “Come let us worship and fall down before Christ.” Who are we chanting to? Is it to the Holy Gospel? Why? Because our Saviour Himself is present in the Gospel; because His truth is present in the Gospel. The Gospel is made with signs—words; paper, ink. Those are the created side of the Gospel. But is that all? Is there nothing else to the Gospel but words? What is the inner meaning of the Gospel? It is the eternal truth of the Gospel, that is, our Saviour Himself.

This we do every day and do not think about it. How different is the Name of God from the Gospel? It is not only not different, but it is the same! In that beautiful book that we read (all of us love that book), The Way of the Pilgrim, there is one passage where our beloved pilgrim encounters a man who reads the Gospel constantly. Every day he reads  one Gospel. And then he gives an explanation of the relationship between the Prayer of Jesus, the Name of Jesus, and the Gospel. What does he say? How does he explain the relationship? The whole Gospel Truth, he says, is contained in the Name - Jesus!

So what does the Name Jesus mean? What is the truth that it tells us? The eternal, the uncreated truth - God saves! That is the meaning of the Name - Jesus. God saves. He is the Saviour—not  a human being, not an angel, but God Himself is the Saviour. That is the meaning of the Name “Jesus”. This meaning, this truth, that God is the Saviour, is something demons dread and cannot approach. Diseases flee, death is destroyed. Because the truth of our Saviour—His truth, His eternal and uncreated truth—shines from this Name. That is why it is salvific for us. That is why it is a flogging and a fire for the demons.

If there is nothing to the Name of God, if it only exists in our minds, as those foolish philosophers have told us on many occasions, what do the demons dread? If it is just part of our mind, if it has no real existence, from what do the diseases flee? Are the demons afraid of our thoughts? If the Name of our Saviour, by which He is known by both angels and humankind, only exists in our mind, that means that if all human beings were to forget the Name Jesus, it would disappear. It has no real existence. What a blasphemy! To imagine our Saviour without His sweetest Name which He reveals to us! By which everybody is saved that is saved. They do not even realize to what depth of blasphemy they have come to. Even if you could not understand the theology, out of dread you would simply be silent. Would not you be afraid to take up a battle against the Name of God? Have you no fear of God? Have you no trembling? That in your foolishness you take up a fight? Against what? Against the Name of God?

From true theology comes true asceticism. And from true asceticism comes true mysticism—that is, union, communion with God. Therefore, the Orthodox theology that we have described is the cornerstone of hesychasm, the true asceticism. If you open the calendar that we just published, there is a beautiful, small introduction by Saint Symeon of Thessalonika, concerning the Jesus Prayer, and he enumerates one after another the great benefits of the Jesus Prayer: salvation of the soul, redemption, remission of sins, new life, and so forth, on and on. And why? Because, he concludes, it contains within itself the saving Name of our Saviour—the only name by which we are saved. This is the strength of the Jesus Prayer. And those who understand it, have true asceticism, that is, hesychasm. And from this true asceticism flows true mysticism, that is, true communion with God.

If we know that saying the Jesus Prayer is a holy activity, from which the uncreated truth about God shines and flows forth, then all we have to do is practice it. And the Name itself does the rest. That is what all the Fathers teach us. Practice the Jesus Prayer. Make your life worthy of it. But concentrate your mind on what you are saying, not imagining anything, not letting loose your mind to imagine things, but letting the Prayer do everything. If you open the book of St. Hesychius of Jerusalem, that most beautiful part of The Philokalia, the Saint explains everything there with such clarity, that not a word more is needed to understand what the Name of God is, what the Jesus prayer is, and how it is salvific. Like the sun, when it is up, shines and radiates its light in all the atmosphere, in the same way the Name of Jesus, when it descends into the heart, enlightens the whole heart. The Name itself does everything. It burns the passions and expels demons, because it is the truth about God contained in a word. All we have to do is practice it with diligence, with dedication, making our life in everything that we can worthy of this practice. This is true hesychasm; this is true understanding of how from true theology comes true asceticism.

But there is also false theology, the one that I described, which considers the Name of God as of no consequence, as nothing, a mere human word. And from it comes false asceticism, and therefore false mysticism. If one does not believe that the Name of God is of any worth, [if one believes] that it is just a human word, what does the Jesus Prayer become? A mental exercise. I am just exercising my brain so I can think about God. Meditation, yoga, not a prayer. That is what the consequences are. From false theology you reach false asceticism. And what is the fruit of false asceticism? The Fathers have a word that we all know—delusion, prelest’. That is the fruit of false theology and false asceticism. For if we do not believe that the Prayer of Jesus contains that great treasure, if we think that it is all in our mind - we do not really come to touch our Saviour in our prayer. We just make circles in our imagination. It is all in our mind, it is all mere words, nothing else but a mental exercise. There is no presence of God. For the Saints said that the memory of God, the repetition of His Name, is the true presence of our Saviour. Without the presence of our Saviour there is no prayer. It is futile. It is a delusion. And because it is futile, and because the soul understands that it is futile, it tries to imagine things of its own, to add spice to the boring life of our imagination. And then there comes prelest’, delusion. Why? Because the soul does not believe in what it is praying.

But our Saviour Himself is present in the Jesus Prayer. There His Name is present in His truth, in His glory, in His power. Let Him do the work. Flee to His Name, and He will deliver you from your enemies.[10] This is the true understanding of prayer. And not the other one. Let us therefore hold strongly, tightly, to this true theology.

This conflict is not new—that true prayer, that the true understanding of the Name of God is contested by those who call themselves Orthodox; not only Orthodox, but they call themselves “confessors of Orthodoxy”. More than two hundred years ago,[11] St. Paisius Velichkovsky had to flee from so-called Orthodox Russia to a foreign land in order to be able to practice the Jesus Prayer. A few decades after him, St. Ignatiy Brianchaninov was wailing and lamenting that he did not see anyone practicing it anymore. Not only that, but he said that the devil has such a hatred for the sweetest Name of our Saviour, that he makes even Christians blaspheme against its power. Does that sound familiar? Truly the Church spoke through St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, saying that the teaching of the divine power of the Name of God is a dogma of the Church. That is what we hold onto. That is the teaching of the Church. And those who blaspheme against the Prayer of Jesus, against the power of the Name, do the same thing that the Pharisees did when they accused our Saviour of casting out demons by Beelzebub.[12] Great is the sin of those who are blaspheming the power, the divine dignity, the divine worth, of the sweetest Name of our Lord Jesus.

Let us hold onto it, dear sisters. It was given to us by Providence, by our Saviour, as a gift, that we should know it and confess it. Our Saviour arranged in a marvelous way to cleanse our Church from people who were not of one mind with us, and He gave us as a treasure to guard even unto the last drop of our blood this true theology, this true understanding, to vindicate the Name of God against those who are blaspheming it. Let us hold onto it. Let us thank God that He gave us this treasure. And let us never forget that no one can be saved except by the Name and through the Name of our sweetest Jesus Christ. Amen.

[1] According to the covenant that God made with Abraham (Genesis 17), Israelites were circumcised and named on the eighth day after birth. With regard to our Saviour, it is written: “And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21).

[2] Genesis 17:18, 22:18

[3] In English the word seed, like the word grass, is a collective, and thus, in English it is less clear that here it refers to one person, i.e., Christ.

[4] Song of Songs 1:3

[5] Adam’s ability to give true names to the animals before the fall showed his share, as the living image of God on earth,  in the divine prerogative of naming creatures; for by nature, it is God, the Creator, who has the prerogative to name his creatures. Our Saviour also changes names of some His righteous ones of the Old Testament (so Abram became Abraham and Jacob became Israel), and He continues to give new names to some of His apostles in the New Testament (so Simon became Peter and Saul became Paul). All the baptized also receive a new, exalted and majestic name, that of Christian, in accordance to the promise of our Saviour contained in the Book of Revelation that He will write upon His saints “His new Name.” Rev. 3:12.

[6] Psalm 116:2

[7] Psalm 71:17

[8] John 18:37

[9] Cf. John 8:40

[10] Cf. Proverbs 18:10

[11] In fact, the conflict between genuine, Orthodox and false mysticism goes back many centuries. It can be traced to the persecution that St. Symeon the New Theologian suffered from the worldly-minded church hierarchy of his time; to the defense of  the practice of noetic prayer and the hesychast theology that culminated in the Hesychast Councils of the 14th century; and in case of the Russian Church, to the struggle of St. Nilus of Sora and of  his followers (the Non-possessors), in the 16th century, to keep and perpetuate the hesychast tradition of monasticism in that land.

[12] St. Ignatiy refered to the anti-hesychasts of his time, who opposed to the practice of Jesus Prayer, claiming that it leads to delusion (!)