Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40; John 1:43-51
Today is the first Sunday of Lent, which is why we switch over to the Liturgy of St. Basil with its longer prayers and different selection of hymns. Prior to the ninth century, the first Sunday of Lent was a day in which we remember the prophets, particularly Moses. We see this in the Epistle Reading for today:
Brethren, by faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. — Hebrews 11:24-25
This reading goes on to describe for us all the things accomplished by Moses and the people of God in the OT.
After the ninth century the Church added another layer of meaning on top of this first Sunday of Lent — the Sunday of the Prophets. Starting in the eighth century, the Church was wracked by the iconoclasts, who tried to destroy the icons. For 150 years, the Church fought with iconoclasm. People died — martyred for the cause of having icons in the Churches. Ultimately, the iconodules (the lover of icons) won the argument and the icons were restored to the Churches. This was deemed so important and vital to the faith that the Church declared the first Sunday of Lent to be the Sunday of Orthodoxy — of Right Belief.
If we read the proclamation that the Church says every year on the first Sunday of Lent — a passage from the Synodikon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council — we find that is says something rather remarkable:
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.
This seems to be a pretty strange thing to be saying about a piece of wood with a picture painted on it — that this is the faith of Moses when he refused to be called the son of the Pharaoh’s daughter:
This is the faith that established the Universe.
If we look at the word faith — πίστις in Greek — it comes from a root meaning to be trustworthy, to have faith in, to believe. God is trustworthy. We can put our faith in Him because we know He will do what is right and good — He will do everything in His power to make sure we can be with Him in His Kingdom. It is through Him that the world is established. In other words, we trust in Him that the world is established. We trust that despite its fallenness the world continues to exist because of God, His will and His lovingkindness. We trust that the fullness of His Kingdom will become manifest. Thus we say that this is the faith that established the Universe. This is the faith:
We have a faith that says:
YES indeed, Christ came!
YES indeed, Christ became a human being!
YES indeed, Christ is God!
If we deny the ability of the Church to depict Christ and His Saints in icons, we open the door to call into question that this ever happened:
If we can’t depict Christ, if we can’t make a picture of someone who was really there — who ate fish, who had the mark of the nail in His hands, who people touched and heard and saw — it follows that maybe all of this stuff didn’t happen. Thus, to the Church, the icon is necessary.
If we say definitively that YES we can depict Christ and His Saints, then we definitively say:
YES Christ really did become a human being!
YES Christ really did go to the Cross!
YES Christ really did rise on the Third Day!
YES He will come again!
So on top of the Sunday of the Prophets — who declared Christ and whose prophecies ultimately foresaw that which is depicted in the icons — the Church established the Sunday of Orthodoxy and the celebration of the Restoration of the icons.
In today’s Gospel reading we hear Christ telling Nathanael:
Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. — John 1:51
This is in contrast to what St. Paul tells about Moses, the prophets and all the people of the OT:
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. — Hebrews 11:39-40
So here we are, gathered as the Body of Christ, better off than Moses was when he walked the earth because we have this:
At the time of Moses you were not allowed to make any image of God because nobody knew what He looked like. We do. Christ tells us:
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. — John 14:9
We have seen the face of God. We have seen the heavens opened. We have seen angels ascend and descend upon the Son of Man. The question before us, then, is what do we do in response to this awesome gift that has been given to us by our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ?
The answer is found in the person of Philip, who was the one who sought out his friend Nathanael to tell him:
We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth… Come and see. — John 1:45, 46
Come and see the heavens opened. Come and see the angels ascend and descend upon the Son of Man. Come and see:
We are called to be like Philip. We are called to go out into the world and declare the Good News. We are to declare that we have seen the face of God and that He has become one of us in order to cross the divide that existed between us and Him in order to unite us to Him. We are to declare that that which was out of reach at the time of Moses is right here and right now.
So let us go to our friends and our families and say, “Come and see.” On April 11, we will formally open our doors to friends and families to come see our Church with an Outreach Sunday. Invite our friends and neighbors to come and see what Orthodox Christianity is all about.
But, today I pray that we don’t wait until April. I pray that all of us, as part of our Lenten journey towards Pascha, take advantage of all the things that the Church has to offer — the prayer, the fasting, the almsgiving and the extra services. In this way we can come close to God and His Christ. In this way we allow the Holy Spirit within each of us to burn brightly so that in our everyday lives people will wonder what is it that we have that they do not. Allow them to not only see us, but this:
And then invite them to come and see. Amen.