The following are excerpts from a sermon given by Saint Gregory Palamas to a church congregation in Thessalonica on Great and Holy Saturday some year from 1347 to 1359
The pre-eternal, uncircumscribed and almighty Logos and omnipotent Son of God could clearly have saved man from mortality and servitude to the devil without Himself becoming man. He upholds all things by the word of His power and everything is subject to His divine authority (compare Hebrews 1.3). According to Job, He can do everything and nothing is impossible for Him (compare Job 42.2 LXX). The strength of a created being cannot withstand the power of the Creator, and nothing is more pwerful than the Almighty. But the incarnation of the Logos of God was the method of deliverance most in keeping with our nature and weakness, and most appropriate for Him who carried it out, for this method had justice on its side, and God does not act without justice. As the Psalmist and Prophet says, “God is righteous and loveth righteousness” (compare Psalm 11.7), “and there is no unrighteousness in Him” (Psalm 92.15). Man was justly abandoned by God in the beginning as he had first abandoned God. He had voluntarily approached the originator of evil, obeyed him when he treacherously advised the opposite of what God had commanded, and was justly given over to him. In this way, through the evil one’s envy and the good Lord’s just consent, death became twofold, for he brought about not just physical but also eternal death.
Christ clearly had to make immortal not only the human nature which existed in Him, but the human race, and to guide it towards participating in that true life which in due course procures eternal life for the body as well, just as the soul’s state of death in due course brought about the death of the body too. That this plan for salvation should be made manifest, and that Christ’s way of life should be put before us to emulate, was highly necessary and beneficial. At one time God appeared visibly before man and the good angels that they might imitate Him. Later, when we had cast ourselves down and fallen away from this vision, God came down to us from on high in His surpassing love for mankind, without in any way giving up His divinity, and by living among us set Himself before us as the pattern of the way back to life.
O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and love of God (compare Romans 11.33)! In His wisdom, power and love for mankind God knew how to transform incomparably for the better the falls resulting from our self-willed waywardness. If the Son of God had not come down from heaven we should have had no hope of going up to heaven. If He had not become incarnate, suffered in the flesh, risen and ascended for our sake, we should not have known God’s surpassing love for us. If He had not taken flesh and endured the passion while we were still ungodly, we should not have desisted from the pride which so often lifts us up and drags us down. Now that we have been exalted without contributing anything, we stay humble, and as we regard with understanding the greatness of God’s promise and benevolence we grow in humility, from which comes salvation.
A sacrifice was needed to reconcile the Father on high with us and to sanctify us, since we had been soiled by fellowship with the evil one. There had to be a sacrifice which both cleansed and was clean, and a purified, sinless priest. We needed a resurrection not just of our souls but of our bodies, and a resurrection for those to come after us. This liberation and resurrection, and also the ascension and the everlasting heavenly order, not only had to be bestowed upon us but also confirmed. And all this was necessary not just for those alive at the time and those to come, but also for people born since the beginning of time. In Hades there were far more of such people than there were people to be born later, and far more were to believe and be saved at once. I think that is why Christ came at the end of the ages. He had to preach the gospel to those in Hades (compare 1 Peter 3.19), to reveal His great plan for salvation to them and to give them complete freedom from the demons who held them captive, as well as sanctification and promises for the future. It was clearly necessary for Christ to descend into Hades, but all these things were done with justice, without which God does not act.
In addition to what we have mentioned, the deceiver had to be justly deceived and to lose the riches he had seized and deceitfully acquired. For evil had taken control through cunning, and the originator of evil continually boasted of this fact. The devil would not have ceased from boasting if he had been subdued by God’s sovereign power and not pulled down from his authority by justice and wisdom. Since everybody turns aside to evil in deed or word or thought, or in two or all of these, we defile the purity given by God to human nature, and need to be sanctified. Sanctification is accomplished by each person’s offering and sacrifice of firstfruits, but as the firstfruits have to be pure, we are not able to offer such a sacrifice to God. This is why Christ was revealed, who alone is undefiled and presented Himself as an offering and a sacrifice of firstfruits to the Father for our sake, that all we who look towards Him, believe in Him and attach ourselves to Him through obedience will appear through Him before the face of God, obtain forgiveness and be sanctified. The Lord referred to this in the Gospels, saying, “For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth” (John 17.19). Not only did the offering have to be pure and sinless but so did the high priest who offered it. As the apostle says, “Such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens” (Hebrews 7.26).
For such reasons as these the Logos of God was made flesh and dwelt among us, appearing on earth and living with men. He took upon Himself our human flesh, which was subject to suffering and death, even though it was completely pure, and He used it in His divine wisdom as a bait to hook the serpent, the originator of evil, through the Cross, and set free the whole human race which he had enslaved. When a tyrant falls, all those he tyrannized are liberated. This is what the Lord Himself said in the Gospels, that the strong man was bound and his goods spoiled (compare Matthew 12.29). His possessions were taken as spoil by Christ, and were set free, justified, filled with light and endowed with divine gifts. As David sings, “Thou hast ascended on high,” up on to the Cross, or, if you wish, up to heaven, “thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast given gifts to men” (Ephesians 4.8; compare Psalm 68.18).
Christ overturned the devil through suffering and His flesh which He offered as a sacrifice to God the Father, as a pure and altogether holy victim—how great is His gift!—and recnciled God to our human race. He underwent the passion according to the Father’s will and became for us, who were destroyed through disobedience and saved through obedience, an example of how obedient we should be. He showed that death was far more precious than the devil’s immortality, because it procured life that was truly immortal, life that will not be subject to the second and eternal death, but stays with Christ in the heavenly dwellings. When Christ had risen from the dead on the third day and had shown Himself alive to His disciples, He ascended into heaven. He remained immortal and bestowed on us, with complete assurance, resurrection, immortality and truly blessed, eternal, incorruptible life in heaven. By means of the one death and resurrection of His flesh, He healed our twofold death and freed us from our double captivity of soul and body.
The Lord has given us rebirth through divine baptism and sealed us with the grace of the Holy Spirit for the day of redemption (compare Ephesians 4.30), but He has allowed us still to have a body which is mortal and passible. Although He has cast out the teacher of evil from the treasure houses of our soul, yet He allows him to attack from without. This is so that anybody who has been renewed in accordance with the new covenant, that is to say, the gospel of Christ, who lives in good works and repentance, despises the delights of this life, endures suffering and is trained in the enemy’s assaults, can be made ready to receive immortality and the incorruptible good things to come in the new age.
May we too attain to this through the grace and love for mankind of our Lord Jesus Christ, who for our sake was made man, suffered, was buried, rose from the dead, took our fallen human nature up to heaven and honoured it by sitting on the Father’s right hand. To our Lord Jesus Christ belong glory, honour, and worship, together with His Father without beginning and the all-holy and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
The translation from which these excerpts are taken is Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies