The Next Faithful Step
It was Easter of the year 362 and Gregory stood before his congregation in Nazianzus, Cappadocia explaining himself. Months earlier, on Christmas day, his father, Gregory the Elder, bishop of Nazianzus and the congregation of the church that Gregory the Elder had built enacted their plan to ordain the younger Gregory to the priesthood. This was not what Gregory had intended for himself as he was drawn to a life of solitude, meditation, letters, and ideas over and against people and public life. In fact, years later, Gregory would continue to understand his ordination as what he would call “an arbitrary oppression,” “tyranny.”
In an act of raw anger or sheer panic, Gregory fled the city and his responsibilities almost immediately and seemingly without so much as delivering a first sermon. He fled to Pontus, locked away with his close friend Basil the Great. Here he spent the winter months until Basil, who had originally supported Gregory’s drive to solitude, now convinced him that his ordination bound him in duty to the Church. In addition to this, Gregory’s father was being accused by local monks of lapsing into the intricacies of heresy. The church was boycotted and in schism. There was much to do and duty to fulfill and so as Easter approached, Gregory made his way home.
On Easter Gregory delivered his first sermon to the church at Nazianzus and began his defense. “Let us forgive all offences for the Resurrection’s sake: let us give one another pardon, I for the noble tyranny [he means his forced ordination] which I have suffered (for I can now call it noble); and you who exercised it, if you had cause to blame my tardiness; for perhaps this tardiness may be more precious in God’s sight than the haste of others.” Not long after this, in his famous Defense of His Flight to Pontus(which appears to have been later reworked after another flight from the demands of his duties twenty years later) Gregory wrote, “I did not, nor do I now, think myself qualified to rule a flock or herd, or to have authority over the souls of people.” And so, standing before his congregation on Easter of 362, Gregory defends himself.
I have always found this to be an odd picture. My first reaction is to say, “What is he doing here?” This is Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, the one who would come to be known to the Church as Gregory the Theologian—only one of three to be given that title throughout Church history (and one of the others being John the Apostle). And so what is he doing here standing in the pulpit of a small schismatic church defending himself? Don’t they know who he is? He is among the great intellects, orators, and poets of his time—and all this aside from being one of the great refiners of the doctrine of the Trinity for the Church for all time! And yet, here he is in this little pulpit in front of this struggling and dissatisfied congregation explaining himself.
But Gregory knows something. He knows that the real place of the theologian is standing in the service of the Church. He has done and will do, think, say, and write many important things. But his greatness does not excuse him somehow from doing the sort of grunt work that service to the Church of Jesus Christ sometimes demands. In fact, who he is makes it that much more important that we find him standing in this pulpit.
This is why Gregory the Theologian standing before his small and flailing parish is an immensely significant image for the Church today. In all that he must do, which over his lifetime will include being Archbishop of Constantinople, presiding over the Second Ecumenical Council (until being forced to resign), and clarifying the doctrine of the Trinity, he must stand in the pulpit of a little schismatic church. He has many important things that he must do for the Church, but on Easter of 362 we see that he knows that he must first and foremost be in and for the Church wherever and however it is. If even Gregory the Theologian will find himself in the pulpit of a small and difficult parish, where might I find myself? And will I find the intrinsic value in it that Gregory could see?