PROPER OF THE SEASON
FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT
THE TRIUMPH OF ORTHODOXY
(Heb. 11:24-26, 32-40 and John 1:44-52)
Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther
The first Sunday of Lent commemorates also the Triumph of Orthodoxy. Yet for about 120 years the Church was split by conflict over the question whether the icons were a true part of worship - or a form of idolatry. The Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 laid down that the icons were a true way to show honour to the Saviour, the Holy Mother and the Saints, and for a while the icons were honoured again. Then a new period of iconoclasm followed. Only in 843 was the teaching of the Seventh Ecumenical Council finally established, and the worship of icons once more became normal for Orthodox Christians.
Why is this so important? Firstly, when we pray we relate ourselves to our understanding of God; we take a risk that what we do has an absolute value. We cannot pray with a complete understanding, because we are - all of us - incomplete persons; but we can at least pray with the right understanding. The point is that God has become man; Jesus is God; the saints are images of Christ who is an image of the Eternal Father; and we are to some degree images of the saints. It is like looking into a mirror with another mirror at our back: we see successive reflexions of our self, in endless regression. And in the end our own image becomes minute in the presence of the Light which permits us to see.
Secondly, the icon like the image in the mirror is only a temporary, briefly observed fact. When we face the mirror we make our appearance what we wish it to be. So when we face the icons in prayer, we desire to make our reflexion of God become close to that of the saint who is shown in the icon. What follows is the process of becoming and being as good as we look; acting with the right intention; achieving the sight of an image of God such as the saint himself had seen in his life of prayer and spiritual conflict.
What makes us like the icons is the Light - God himself- falling into the frame in which we present our efforts at a resemblance. We may appear to one another, to the world, to be good. Only God knows the heart; and only God perfects our attempt. It is our faith that God accomplishes more than we can, does what he chooses, gives us the freedom - the grace - which we patiently wait to receive. True, in the stadion of Great Lent, we try to become athletes of the spirit. But what makes the image appear is the Light itself. What the eye sees is the result of light.
The triumph of Orthodoxy is the faith in a permanent, full, mysterious form. A man is ordain to preach the Orthodox faith: that God is Trinity; that Christ is God Incarnate; and that the Church will live and die - as the martyrs have lived and died -for these facts, for these mysteries. The epistle describes some of the triumphs of the faith of the Jewish race. Christians must be just as faithful. If we break down now, we will throw away all past sacrifices. Moses looked forward to the Messiah and to the salvation which he would bring. The heroic men and woman described by the epistle sacrificed everything because of faith. The Epistle says that as Christians we receive the perfection of Christ's new covenant between God and man. This was denied to the ancient Jews, but even to those Christians who suffer in obscure misery, this gift is given by God.
The gospel takes us to the beginnings of Jesus' ministry. In the previous verse, Jesus has just commanded Philip 'Follow me.' John the Baptist has already introduced Jesus as the Lamb of God and as the Messiah. Philip recognizes this, looks for Nathanael, and tells him 'We have found him who Moses in the law and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.' Nathanael replies with the kind of question which one villager would raise about another villager living over the hill, 'Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?' Philip tells him to see for himself: 'Come and see.'
The gospel has already related the coming of Jesus as Messiah to the Old Testament hope for a Messiah. Philip has done this by his announcement to Nathanael. Jesus' first words to Nathanael refer to Jacob, the guileful - the cunning - man who was allowed to see God. So Jesus exclaims 'Behold an Israelite indeed in whom is no guile!' Jesus implies that Nathanael will recognize the truth about the Messiahship. When Nathanael answers with the question 'How do you know me?', Jesus replies that as Nathanael sat under the fig tree before Philip had reached him he had given Jesus the picture of the true Israelite in the days of the Messiah, as Micah the prophet had depicted such a person: 'In the latter days... they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.' (Micah 4:4) Nathanael - because he is a pious Jew - picks up this echo from his Bible, and see Jesus for what he is: 'Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!'.
This recognition shows purity of heart - the quality which our Lord was to require in his teaching, the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells Nathanael that he will 'see greater things than these.' He goes on 'Truly, truly I say to you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.' This will fulfil the vision granted to the Old Testament patriarch, Jacob. The vision would apply to the Gentiles, to all mankind.
The gospel reading is an icon with many figures. As we contemplate such an icon so the meanings of each figure and the meanings of the figures in relation to that particular one, move into stronger significance. For example, when Philip describes Jesus as the son of Joseph, he says what every one else would have said. But Philip, by being a disciple, will see that the divine Father of Jesus and the divine sonship of Jesus to that Father are the great meaning. And when Nathanael proclaims 'Rabbi, you are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel', he says what Philip has recognized; but this is again for the time being limited to the world of the Jews. And when Jesus tells Natanael that he will 'see greater things than these', he opens up a thought that goes beyond Messiahship as the Jews understood that status. And when Jesus uses the term 'the Son of Man,' we have a profound, mysterious title.
Sometimes Jesus will use this title about his Passion and his glorification after that. Sometimes he will use it about his coming to give judgement. Here he seems to use it about his taking control of the kingdom. Unlike the term Son of God, the term Son of Man emphasizes that he is fully human. In contrast to the term Son of David, it emphasizes that his teaching will be universal, not restricted to Israel. The kingdom which Jesus will reveal is one far beyond the scope of politics and power. It is the kingdom of the heart. To quote Fr. Alexander Yelchaninov, 'Man finds his true self in the Church alone; not in the helplessness of spiritual isolation by in the strength of his communion with his brothers - and sisters - and with his Saviour. The Church is a living organism, integrated by the common love, forming an absolute unity of the living and the dead in Christ.'
© Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther.
Sunday, 16 March 2003.
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