On the Holy Trinity, Icons, and the Cross, Death, and Incarnation of Christ

From our father among the Saints, Gregory, Archbishop of Homer (Dec. 19)

The Great Collection of The Lives of the Saints
Since we have beheld Him with our bodily eyes, we depict Him with paints in the likeness of His most pure flesh, and under the likeness of His flesh we proffer His divine nature due worship, for in that nature He is equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit.

When the crowd was completely silent, the holy Archbishop addressed Ervan, the wise teacher of the Jews, and his fellows thus: “Nighttime has ended and the Sun of Righteousness has dawned. Why do you shut your eyes to the true Light and refuse to believe in Him?

Ervan replied, “You say that we who believe in the God who gave us the Law are blind to light, but we say that you gentiles, who reject the divine Law, are much more so.”

“Tell me, who created us, the people you call gentiles?” asked the Archbishop.

Ervan said, “It is clear that God created you.”

Said the Archbishop, “If both you and we were created by God, in what way are you superior?”

“We enjoy the very same superiority over you as over the Egyptians,” answered Ervan.

“Ah, it is good that you mention the Egyptians. Explain how you are better than they,” said the Archbishop.

“Have you never read how God wrought mighty wonders through Moses in the land of Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness when Israel fled, drowning the Egyptians, but saving people?” asked Ervan.

“What difference is there between you and the Egyptians?” queried Gregory. “God drowned Pharaoh and his troops in the sea, and for their sins allowed your fathers to die in the wilderness. The Israelites of old crossed the Red Sea as though it were dry land, only to sink in harbor, perishing in the desert. Out of 600,000 people who left Egypt, just two, Caleb and Joshua, son of Nun, were deemed worthy to enter the Promised Land. You see how much more God esteems you than the Egyptians!”

“On whom did God rain down manna in the wilderness, on us or on the Egyptians?” protested Ervan.

“And what did you prefer: manna or the foods you enjoyed in Egypt?” asked the Archbishop.

“It is obvious that manna is preferable to earthly food,” replied Ervan.

The Archbishop countered, “Why then did you wish to turn back remembering the pots of meat, the onions, garlic, and foods of Egypt, but despising the gift of God?”

Following this Ervan and Archbishop Gregory exchanged arguments concerning the Most Holy Trinity. Ervan said, “You Christians believe in three deities, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the Lord declared on Mount Sinai: “The Lord thy God is one Lord, and there is no God other than He.” (Deut. 6) Why do you transgress the divine Law, worshipping three gods rather than one?”

The Archbishop denied the accusation, replying, “We worship only one God, adored in three hypostases: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Then he quoted this verse from the psalm of David:

'By the Word of the Lord were the heavens established, and all the might of them by the Spirit of His mouth', (Ps. 32)
 pointing out that by the Lord is meant God the Father; by the Word, God the Son; and by the Spirit of the Lord’s mouth, God the Holy Spirit.

Next Gregory spoke of the Cross and the Lord’s death, citing against the errors of the Jews the sayings and prophecies of the Old Testament, such as, “Ye shall see your Life hanging before your eyes”, (Deut. 28) and, “Come and let us put wood in His bread.” (Jer. 11) He enumerated the many foreshadowings of the Cross: Noah’s ark; Sabec’s thicket, where Abraham caught a ram and offered it as a burnt offering in place of Isaac; Joseph’s staff, the top of which Jacob reverenced; Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s two sons with his hands held crosswise; Moses’ staff that divided the sea; the victory over Amalek, when Moses stretched out his arms in the form of a cross; the brass serpent set upon the pole in the wilderness; the tree that sweetened Marah’s water; and many other mystical types to be found in the Law. The debate continued until nightfall with each side vigorously opposing the arguments made by the other. Nevertheless, it was clear that the Archbishop had gained the upper hand on all points, so that the words of Scripture were confirmed: “It is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.” (Matt. 12) Since dusk found the dispute unconcluded, the King rose from His throne and retired, as did the Archbishop and the others. As for the Jews, they surrounded Ervan, embracing, kissing, and praising him for having offered the Christians a spirited resistance. But Ervan said, “Entreat the God Who gave us the Law to come to our aid, for the Bishop is clearly a crafty man. It will not be easy to overcome him.”

The Jews told Ervan to take courage and continue to challenge Gregory boldly at every turn. Dawn found the people again assembled, and when the Emperor and the Archbishop were seated, the Jews, with Ervan at their head, stepped forward. Yet the controversy was not concluded that day: it continued for five days in succession. Every morning and afternoon the King and his court were present, marveling at the Godgiven wisdom and knowledge of the most holy Archbishop and delighting in his words. Truly, it was a marvel to hear how Saint Gregory expounded the prophets, clarifying the numerous mysteries in their writings! For one who wishes to be edified, it is certainly worthwhile to obtain the full account of the dispute and even commit the Archbishop’s proofs to memory.

When the discussion turned to the Incarnation of Christ and to the most pure Virgin, Archbishop Gregory cited this verse from the holy prophet Isaiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son”. (Isa. 7) Ervan then asserted that Mary gave birth to a mere man, and not to God, to which the Archbishop replied with this passage: “They shall call His name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. ( Matt. 1) Ervan objected, “How can a woman’s womb possibly serve to contain the Divinity, Whose majesty fills all creation with awe?”

The Archbishop answered, 'In the same way that Abraham's tent beneath the Oak of Mamre could accommodate God, providing the patriarch a place to offer Him hospitality.
How could it be that the fire of the divinity did not burn up the Virgin’s body?’ demanded Ervan. “As the bush on Sinai burned but was not consumed,” declared the holy Archbishop, “so the Godhead did no harm to the womb of her who gave birth as a virgin and remained ever a virgin.”

Ervan exclaimed, “Then His birth was an illusion, for it is certain that a virginal womb cannot give birth and yet remain intact!”

“You tell me how Habakkuk was able to enter and leave the lion’s den where Daniel was kept, neither opening the doors thereof, nor breaking the seals,” (Dan. 14) demanded the Archbishop.

By the end of the third day, Ervan was ready to flee, but the Jews prevented him from doing so. They pleaded, “If you forsake us, we are ruined. Stand firm and God will be our Helper. If you are overcome in debate, we shall find other ways to resist, but we will never surrender!” Ervan consented to remain, and on the fourth day attacked the Christians for venerating the holy icons, calling the sacred images idols and those who revered them idolaters and enemies of God’s Law. When he asserted that God had forbidden the making of any image or likeness, the hierarch asked, “How was Noah saved from the flood?” Ervan answered, “He made a wooden ark and found refuge in it.” The Archbishop inquired, “Was it possible for God to deliver him from the flood without the ark?” Said Ervan, “In my opinion, it was possible, since God is almighty.” “If God is almighty, why did He employ an ark to accomplish Noah’s salvation? Are we to conclude that Noah owed his deliverance to the ark rather than to God?” asked Gregory. “We ascribe praise, not to inanimate objects, but to the Creator and Lord,” Ervan replied. “Yet you will acknowledge that through a lifeless object, the ark, God brought about Noah’s salvation,” said the Archbishop. “Similarly, through other visible objects, the holy icons, God furthers man’s salvation. When we gaze at them, our minds are lifted up to their Archetype, and we are filled with desire for the Lord and with God-pleasing zeal. The holy icons are not idolatrous depictions, but portray our Lord Jesus Christ according to His human nature. They do not delineate His divinity, for this is impossible.

Once Noah brought sacrifice to God in thanksgiving for his deliverance in the ark; now we offer thanks to Christ God and depict His image.
When we gaze devoutly upon that image, we are saved from drowning in the noetic flood. The human nature of Christ is a new ark. In it He took upon Himself our infirmities and bore our sins. Then, having deified us by His divinity, He snatched us up to heaven. Since we have beheld Him with our bodily eyes, we depict Him with paints in the likeness of His most pure flesh, and under the likeness of His flesh we proffer His divine nature due worship, for in that nature He is equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit.”

The Great Collection of The Lives of the Saints

This offering of the famous Russian collection of Lives of the Saints by Saint Demetrius of Rostov (1651-1709) marks the first time any of these national collections have been published in their entirety in the English language.