Melkite Greek Catholic Church
AT EVERY DIVINE LITURGY during the Great Fast we read from the Holy Gospel according to Mark – except for today. Why is this passage from St John’s Gospel read on this Sunday, the Sunday of Orthodoxy? The brief answer is that both the Gospel reading and the triumph of Orthodoxy we commemorate today are about seeing God. In the Gospel story we hear how Philip invites Nathaniel to see Jesus (physically); when they meet, Nathaniel sees (spiritually) that Jesus is the Messiah. In the Church we (physically) see icons and see (spiritually) that they reflect the reality of Christ’s incarnation.

Nathaniel Sees God

The story of Jesus’ encounter with Nathaniel is a brief and almost cryptic tale which many have tried to explain. Nathaniel and his friend Philip were both disciples of St John the Forerunner. They had responded to John’s announcement that One was coming “whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose” (John 1:27). The Lord Jesus had gone to the Jordan where John was baptizing and it is there that John identified Jesus as the Awaited One. “Again, the next day, John stood with two of his disciples. And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’” (vv. 35, 36) Philip may have been one of those who heard John’s testimony, so that when Jesus invited Philip to follow Him, he responded positively. In turn, Philip goes to his friend Nathaniel with the news, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (v. 45). Nathaniel replies laconically, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (v.46) Modern commentators generally see this remark of Nathaniel as a somewhat snide dismissal of Jesus because He was a Nazarene. The Fathers approach this passage differently, saying that Nathaniel was saying the exact opposite: that if Jesus was the Awaited One, then He could not have come from Nazareth. St John Chrysostom suggested that Nathaniel “thought within himself that Philip was probably mistaken about the place” and that Jesus “was not from Nazareth” (Hom. 20 on John). In any case, Philip responds with the same words that Jesus earlier said to Andrew, “Come and see.” When Nathaniel finally meets Jesus, the Lord utters another cryptic remark: “‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to Him, ‘How do You know me?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you’” (vv. 47, 48). What was Nathaniel doing under the fig tree? Again many suggestions have been offered; none of them are attested in the Scripture, so we cannot know for sure. One possibility upheld by many in our Tradition is that Nathaniel was praying at that time: O God of our fathers, send us the One whom You have promised. Send us the Messiah, the Savior. Faith in the promise of a Savior is what marks out a true Israelite. The Lord, they say, saw him at prayer and He saw Nathaniel’s heart. Nathaniel’s response marks him as one of the first disciples of Christ, whom He called before His ministry in Galilee. “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (v. 49), Nathaniel sees that Jesus is the Messiah and acclaims Him with the traditional titles of a royal Messiah: “Son of God” and “King of Israel.” At the end of His public ministry Jesus’ followers would affirm their faith in His heavenly origin: “See, now You are speaking plainly, and using no figure of speech! Now we are sure that You know all things, and have no need that anyone should question You. By this we believe that You came forth from God” (John 16:29, 30). But it would only be after His resurrection, when the risen Christ was manifested to the disciples that the full force of Jesus’ words to Nathaniel would be realized: “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Nathaniel, like the rest of the apostles, would grow to see Jesus not as the earthly conqueror devout Jews were awaiting but as a King not of this world and, ultimately, the eternal Word of God incarnate.

Icons Reveal Christ as God’s Image

In the eighth and ninth centuries some Byzantine emperors and churchmen waged a struggle against the use of icons. This conflict was ultimately ended in 843 with the restoration of icons, called in the Church the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” Today’s observance celebrates this act. Iconoclasm formally began in the 720s when certain bishops began questioning the excessive way some people were revering icons. In 730 Emperor Leo III took up their cause and issued a decree forbidding the veneration of religious images, “the evil art of painters,” as a later iconoclastic council called it. While iconoclasts saw images as a departure from the practice of the early Church, those who supported the veneration of icons did so precisely on the basis of tradition: the Church had done so for years and was not in error. It was St John of Damascus (676-749) who gave the Church the insight that the use of icons was the logical consequence of the incarnation of Christ. As he wrote in his Treatise on the Divine Images, “In former times, God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake.” St John’s teaching became normative in the Byzantine Church which, since the Triumph of Orthodoxy, has in the minds of many become identified as the “Church of Icons.”

“But I Can’t Fast”

“If there are some gathered here who are hindered by sickness and cannot remain without food, I advise them to reverse their ailment and not to deprive themselves from the fast, but to care for it even more. “For there exist, there really exist, ways which are even more important than abstinence from food which can open the gates which lead to God with boldness. He, therefore, who eats and cannot fast, let him display richer almsgiving, let him pray more, let him have a more intense desire to hear divine words. Then our physical illness is not a hindrance to our spirit. Let him become reconciled with his enemies, let him distance from his soul every resentment. If he wants to accomplish these things, then he has done the true fast, which is what the Lord asks of us more than anything else. “It is for this reason that He asks us to abstain from food, in order to place the flesh in subjection to the fulfillment of His commandments, by curbing its impetuous-ness … If we eat with moderation we should never be ashamed, because the Creator gave us such a body which cannot be supported in any other way except by receiving food. Let us only stop excessive food; that in itself contributes a great deal to the health and well-being of the body.” Abridged from St. John Chrysostom homilies "On Fasting"
TODAY IS THE SUNDAY OF ORTHODOXY, which celebrates the restoration of the Orthodox use of icons in the Byzantine Empire. But what exactly is “Orthodoxy” and what does it have to do with icons? Literally the word means “rightly proclaiming” – those who glorify God in the correct manner. The oldest use of this term in the Christian East is in reference to the understanding of the Trinity as expressed in the Nicene Creed. If you could not profess this creed, then you were not Orthodox. Thus the sixth century Code of Justinian, the compilation of laws in the empire, decreed: “We direct that all Catholic Churches, throughout the entire world, shall be placed under the control of the Orthodox bishops who have embraced the Nicene Creed.” Since then the Eastern Churches in the Roman Empire and their offshoots have called themselves Orthodox. There are two major groups of Orthodox Churches: those of the Byzantine tradition, called in English “Eastern Orthodox” and those of the Syriac and Coptic traditions, called “Oriental Orthodox.” The Armenian Church, considered one of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, does not generally use the term as Armenia was not part of the Byzantine Empire. It was only after the separation of the Greek and Latin Churches in the Middle Ages that the term “Catholic” became more identified with the Western Church and “Orthodox” with the Eastern Churches. To this day, of course, Orthodox use the term “Catholic” and vice versa. Most Greek Catholics continue to use the term “Orthodox” when it appears in their liturgical texts, as well.

Orthodoxy and Icons

As the controversy over icons developed in the Byzantine Empire, many saw the use of icons as a necessary consequence of the Incarnation of Christ as expressed in the Nicene Creed. If the Word of God truly took flesh, He could be depicted in images. As St John of Damascus wrote, “In the old days, the incorporeal and infinite God was never depicted. Now, however, when God has been seen clothed in flesh and talking with mortals, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation.” Since the Church saw icons as connected with its faith in the Incarnation, it came to see icons as an expression of the Orthodox faith. Thus the definitive restoration of icons in Constantinople on the first Sunday of the Great Fast in the year 842 was called the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.”

The Synodikon of Orthodoxy

During the Great Doxology at Orthros a procession is formed of many people carrying icons. When the procession comes to a halt the typikon prescribes the chanting of a document called the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy.” Although there are many local variants of this text, they all begin as follows:
“Let us Orthodox people, now celebrating this Day of Orthodoxy, especially glorify God, the Author of all goodness! Blessed is He forever. This is our God, who acquired and established His beloved heritage, the Holy Church, the foundations of which He laid even in Paradise, thereby comforting by His infallible Word, our forefathers who had fallen through disobedience. This is our God who, directing us to His saving promise, left not Himself without a witness, but first foretold the future salvation through the forefathers and prophets, and by manifold means gave lively descriptions of it. This is our God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke in antiquity to the fathers by the prophets, and in these latter days spoke to us by His Son, with whom also He created the ages: who declared His goodwill toward us, disclosed the heavenly mysteries, assured us the truth of the Gospel through the power of the Holy Spirit; who sent His apostles to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom to all the world, and confirmed it by various powers and miracles. Following this salutary revelation, and holding this Gospel, we believe…” And the people proclaim the Nicene Creed.
After the Creed the Synodikon continues:
“As the prophets beheld, as the Apostles have taught... as the Church has received the teachers have dogmatized... as the Universe has agreed... as Grace has shown forth... as Truth has revealed... as falsehood has been dissolved... as Wisdom has presented... as Christ awarded... thus we declare... thus we assert... thus we preach Christ our true God, and honor as Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy Icons; on the one hand worshiping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord; and on the other hand honoring them as true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them veneration.”
And the People respond in a loud voice: “This is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe.” The Synodikon concludes with the proclamation of Many Years to the living defenders of Orthodoxy, Memory Eternal to the departed and Anathema to those who deny the faith just proclaimed. When we venerate icons, then, we point in a concrete if wordless way to the truth of Christ’s Incarnation. He took on our nature completely and transfigured it completely, including our material side, which we honor in this material way. Icons of the saints point to the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Giver of life, in the Church which transformed them as well. Icons, therefore, profess without words what we proclaim verbally in the Creed.
An Ancient Synodikon
The following Anathemas are taken from an 1111 edition of the Synodikon by a monk of the Monastery of Oleni in Moroea. They show how Orthodox Christians of that age identified icons with faith in Christ’s Incarnation. “On every innovation and action contrary to the tradition of the Church, and the teaching and pattern of the holy and celebrated Fathers, or anything that shall be done after this: Anathema!… On those who accept with their reason the incarnate economy of God the Word, but will not allow that this can be beheld through images, and therefore affect to receive our salvation in words, but deny it in reality: Anathema! Those who apply the sayings of the divine Scripture that are directed against idols to the august icons of Christ our God and his saints: Anathema! Those who share the opinion of those who mock and dishonor the august icons: Anathema! Those who say that Christians treat the icons like gods: Anathema! Those who dare to say that the Catholic Church has accepted idols, thus over-throwing the whole mystery and mocking the faith of Christians: Anathema!”
WE ARE ALL FAMILIAR WITH THE IMAGE of the eight-ounce glass containing four ounces of liquid. Is it half full or half empty? The way we see it reveals more about the viewers than about the glass. The Church numbers the Sundays during the Great Fast in successive order. Thus today is the First Sunday, next week will mark the Second Sunday and so on. For many people the Fast is an endurance test and so this numbering may suggest something like, “Oh God, only one week is over. There’s another five weeks to go!” A more positive way of looking at things might number the Sundays in count-down fashion: Sixth Sunday before Pascha…Fifth… Fourth… it’s getting closer… we’re almost there! This system may be more in keeping with the vision expressed in the Scriptures read at this Sunday’s Liturgy. Scholars tell us that this selection comes to us from the days when catechumens were intensifying their preparation for baptism at Pascha. The readings suggest promise, blessing and the joy of being part of God’s plan at its most critical moment. The Epistle to the Hebrews, read every Saturday and Sunday during the Fast, is addressed to Jewish believers in Christ. It includes a number of references to Jewish history and practice, some recorded in the Old Testament and others taken from Jewish tradition. The passage read today, from chapter 11, is actually the conclusion of a longer praise of Old Testament notables renowned for their faith, from Abel onward. It is faith that sanctified all these elders in Jewish history because “…without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb 11:6). Catechumens, who would be asked to profess their faith during this season, are thus reminded to place their trust in the Person of God and in the wisdom of His divine plan for mankind. The punch line of this chapter, however, is its last verse. Despite their faith, the heroes and heroines of the Old Testament “… did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not have been made perfect apart from us.” The entire course of God’s providential care for the Jewish peoples is depicted as a kind of preparation for something more. That “something better” is, of course, the life in Christ which the catechumens will receive at baptism and the assurance of eternal life which we all will receive as witnesses to the resurrection of Christ.

The Promise to Nathaniel

While the Gospel according to St. Mark is read at all other Liturgies during the Fast today the Church turns to the Gospel of John. We hear in detail of the Lord’s first encounter with this future disciple, but again the purpose of reading it today is in the punch line, the last verse of the passage: “Most assuredly I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (Jn 1:51). Again we have the promise of “something better” to be fulfilled in the future. Whether we are catechumens preparing for baptism or faithful preparing for Pascha today, we are being told that, with faith, we will see the inauguration of the new age, the fulfillment of all promises, and the manifestation of the Kingdom, in the resurrection of Christ. A number of Fathers including St John Chrysostom said that the descending and ascending of the angels promised here was fulfilled in the Paschal mystery. As the Blessed Theophylact, eleventh-century Archbishop of Ochrid in Bulgaria, emphasized in his Explanation of the Gospel of St. John “All these things did, in fact, take place at His Crucifixion and Ascension. As the time of His Passion approached, an angel from heaven strengthened Him; at His Tomb there was an angel, and again at His Ascension, as Luke relates.” The Church reads these promises to us today saying: You catechumens will be joined to the company of the saints when you will be enlightened, taste the heavenly gift and be partakers of the Holy Spirit (see Hebrews 6:4). All of us will see heaven opened in the Garden of Gethsemane, at the empty tomb and on Mount Olivet as we enter into the celebration of Pascha. And finally we will hear another promise from the angels at Christ’s Ascension: “This same Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Those forty days don’t seem so long now, do they?

Catechumens in the Church Today

In the early centuries of the Church in the Mediterranean world the catechumens received at Pascha were adults. During the persecutions they were people who had been attracted by the unwavering faith of the martyrs. After the persecutions were ended it was often the recognition by the state that gave people the impetus they needed to join the Church. When the Church was firmly established as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, the baptism of infants began to outnumber the baptism of adults. The Byzantine Liturgy retains a number of features from the period of the adult catechumenate. At every Divine Liturgy and every Presanctified Liturgy there are the prayers for and dismissal of catechumens. In some local Churches they are still a part of every Liturgy; in others they are omitted unless there are actual catechumens present. In addition, during the last weeks of the Great Fast, prayers for those preparing for baptism at Pascha are added. In fact there has never been a time when there have not been catechumens in one or another of the Byzantine Churches. The expansion of Eastern Christianity into the Balkans and the Slav lands brought whole new peoples to the font. In the second millennium the eastward expansion of the Russian Church into Asia and ultimately Alaska did the same. More recently the Christian Churches in Africa – Catholic Orthodox and Protestant – have grown enormously. With the end of Communism, as with the end of the Roman persecutions, many came forward for baptism in those nations as well. In our country the presence of catechumens in a parish is a kind of litmus test about the life of the parish. Are there catechumens or not? Are the only catechumens we receive those who will marry into one of the parish families? If there are no catechumens is it because our parish is more club than church? Are we content with the absence of catechumens – and the absence of vocations – in the parish as long as things are done our way? If so our celebration of Pascha will be missing something critical. The catechumens – and perhaps the angels – will have gone elsewhere.
The mystery of our salvation was once announced by the divinely-inspired prophets. They foretold this illumination for us who have arrived at the last days. By it, we receive knowledge of God, the one God and Lord, glorified in Three Persons; and we serve Him alone. Having one faith and one baptism, we have put on Christ. Wherefore, we confess our salvation in word and in deed, and we restore our likeness to God. Sticheron at Vespers

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