“Since the invisible One became visible by taking on flesh, you can fashion the image of Him whom you saw. Since He who has neither body, nor form, nor quantity, nor quality, who goes beyond all grandeur by the excellence of His nature, He, being of divine nature, took on the condition of a slave and reduced Himself to quantity and to quality by clothing Himself in human features. Therefore, paint on wood and present for contemplation Him who desired to become visible.”
St. John of Damascus
On the Divine Images
This Sunday is called the “Sunday of Orthodoxy” because it commemorates the restoration of the Church’s teaching on making images (icons) of our Lord and the saints in the year 843. Before that, it was the Sunday of the Commemoration of the Holy Prophets. This explains the Gospel, Phillip witnesses to Nathanael: “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets, wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” This is our goal in the Great Fast – to find our faith in Jesus. The Great Fast was the training period for those about to be baptized, and it was a time for the whole community to rediscover its faith.
Along the journey to Holy Week, we read especially from the book of Genesis and from Isaiah to guide us to Christ, who will perfect his covenant with us by his death and resurrection. This is why, in the Apostolic reading, we remember Moses, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and all the prophets. It was all for Jesus, “Yet all these, though approved because of their faith, did not receive what had been promised. God had foreseen something better for us, so that without us they should not be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:39)” How, then, should we keep the Fast? Hebrews tells us: “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
The Sunday of Orthodoxy helps us to fulfill this plan, for “keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus,” gazing upon his image, we are led to God, to faith, to life.
Meditation by Archpriest David Petras
The readings from Genesis on the Fridays of the Great Fast point like an arrow to the covenant made on Good Friday, when our Lord gave his body and blood as a new covenant for the life of the world.
The first and second Fridays tell of the breaking of covenants, of the covenant with Adam and Eve when they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and of the decision of God to destroy the human race because of its wickedness. The third Friday is the renewal of the covenant with Noah, and the fourth Friday is the covenant with Abraham. On the fifth Friday, Abraham replaces the disobedience of Adam and Eve with obedience to God in the sacrifice of his beloved son. However, God does not want this sacrifice, though he allows his only-begotten Son to die on the cross for the salvation of the human race. The sixth Friday, the funeral of Joseph, looks forward to the burial of Christ, who through his death will trample upon death.
This is our Fast, it is the making of a new covenant with God. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were expelled from paradise, and stationed a cherub with a fiery sword to guard the way to the tree of life. Four curses were imposed on Adam and Eve, on Eve, pain in childbirth, and servitude to her husband, on Adam, hard labor and death.
In the new covenant of our Lord Jesus Christ, the curse is abrogated, as the Kontakion of the Third Sunday of the great Fast proclaims, “No longer does the flaming sword guard the gates of Eden, for the tree of the cross has come to quench it wondrously. The sting of death and the victory of Hades have been driven out.”
The curse is truly abrogated, but in God’s mystical and wondrous way. In childbirth, the woman still suffers pain, but her anguish gives way to joy because of new life (John 16:21), the marital relations between man and woman are now marked by mutual love and respect, in the subtle reading of Ephesians 5:9-19, the harshness of labor is eased by the sabbath rest (Hebrews 4:9). Death remains, and even the Son of God must suffer death (“Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hands on a tree,” (Galatians 3:10, quoting Deuteronomy 21:23).
For our prayer today…
By fasting let us subdue the passions of our mind, and let us put on the wings of the spirit, so that overcoming the tempest raised by the enemy, we may be worthy to adore the Cross of the Son of God. He willed to be sacrificed for the world and we now spiritually keep the feast of his Resurrection from the dead. Let us ascend the mountain with the apostles to glorify the Son of the Father who loves all of us, and to whom all power is now given.
O faithful, while fasting bodily, let us also fast in spirit. Let us loosen every bond of injustice; let us tear apart the strong chains of violence; let us rip up all unjust assertions; let us give bread to the hungry and welcome the poor and homeless to our houses, that we may receive from Christ our God his great mercy.
I listened to this sticheron and was moved deeply in soul. It is a condemnation of me, for the fast really is about justice and charity toward one another. Who, indeed, rises to these challenges? Do we just sing this in our churches without effect? Does it really change our lives. God created a paradise for us and invites us back if only we are not deaf to his words.
Meditation by Archpriest David Petras
Today, the Church begins her preparations for the Great Fast ( aka, Great Lent).
In the coming weeks we will delve into what the Great Fast means for us.
Archpriest David Petras writes,
In our preparation for the Great Fast, we must notice a theme emerging. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Pharisee was not justified because he failed to see the image of God in the tax collector. (“I thank you that I am not like this tax collector,” Luke 18:11). In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the older son was not justified because he failed to see the image of God in the prodigal returned home. (“But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him,” Luke 15:20).
Today, in the final judgment, the Lord says to the condemned goats, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it (show charitable works of mercy) to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:45). In the popular mind, Lent is a time for self-denial. Stop, that’s it. But why? Because if we do not deny ourselves, we cannot see the image of God in the other, in each and every other human being that he has created.
Possibly the Last Judgment was commemorated on this Sunday, because it is the conclusion of a “Church Year.” Next Sunday, Cheesefare Sunday, we begin again with the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall.
The Great Fast is our journey through the Old Testament, which is concluded with the New Covenant: the Mystical Supper, the Crucifixion and the Glorious and Life-giving Resurrection of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. We then see through the lens of the Resurrection how God’s plan is fulfilled in Christ in the Gospel of John the Theologian (until Pentecost), in the Gospel of Matthew (from Pentecost to the Exaltation of the Cross), and in the Gospel of Luke (from the Exaltation of the Cross until the Sunday of the Prodigal Son).
Then on this Sunday, we celebrate the last and final and eschatological mystery of the Final Judgment, in which God brings to completion and perfection the whole human story. That may be why, on the day before the Sunday of the Last Judgment, we remember the death of each human being, which is the completion and perfection of our own individual story and our inclusion in God’s ultimate divine plan. Interestingly, the Roman Church read the Gospel of the Final Judgment on the last Sunday before Advent, which began their liturgical year.
As a preparation for Holy Week and Pascha, the Gospel of the passion of our Lord according to St. Mark is read. Today Jesus enters Jerusalem as the people exclaim, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Which we sing at every Liturgy in the Anaphora. These acclamations proved to be hollow, when the priests and elders seduced the mob to ask for Jesus’ crucifixion.
Here is a meditation of St. Gregory on the Passion:
So let us take our part in the Passover prescribed by the law, not in a literal way, but according to the teaching of the Gospel; not in an imperfect way, but perfectly; not only for a time, but eternally. Let us regard as our home the heavenly Jerusalem, not the earthly one; the city glorified by angels, not the one laid waste by armies. We are not required to sacrifice young bulls or rams, beasts with horns and hoofs that are more dead than alive and devoid of feeling; but instead, let us join the choirs of angels in offering God upon his heavenly altar a sacrifice of praise. We must now pass through the first veil and approach the second, turning our eyes toward the Holy of Holies. I will say more: we must sacrifice ourselves to God, each day and in everything we do, accepting all that happens to us for the sake of the Word, imitating his passion by our sufferings, and honoring his blood by shedding our own. We must be ready to be crucified. (St. Gregory the Theologian, Homily, 45)
Meditation by Archpriest David Petras
This weekend we are celebrating the mystery of our Lord’s accepting human nature for our salvation. The Archangel Gabriel asks Mary to receive God’s plan and become the mother of the Son and Word of God, to be named “Jesus,” “Savior.” Mary replies, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word. (Luke 1:38)” Mary’s response to God was perfect and reversed the sin of Eve. In our Lenten journey, we are asked the same question by God, “Can you be perfectly obedient to my will.” This is not to put us into slavery, but to free us from the power of sin and death. Jesus gave the power to cast out evil to his followers, but in this Sunday’s Gospel, a distraught man who has a son possessed by a demon, comes to Jesus and laments, “I asked your disciples to cast it out and they were not able. (Mark 9:18)” Jesus immediately tells the man it is because of their lack of faith, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? (Mark 9:19)”
Mary’s obedience to God was perfect, and she gave birth to salvation, our obedience is not perfect, and so we are unable to cast out evil from our lives. Why is this? It may be because of weakness, that we are not strong enough to keep God’s law, and are in need of his strength through grace. It may be that we do not fully understand God’s will, and mix up our own desires with it. In any case, our Lord asks us to become more faithful in the second half of the Great Fast, since “this kind cannot be drive out by anything but prayer and fasting.” This is true faith.
The first half of the Great Fast tells us the stories of Adam and Eve and their children, and the flood of Noah. It is a story of the creation of a perfect world and how that has been marred by human sin. It tells of the end of paradise, “The Lord God therefore banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he had been taken. He expelled the man, stationing the cherubim and the fiery revolving sword east of the garden of Eden, to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:23-24)” Today, however, begins a new story, and we sing, “No longer does the flaming sword guard the gates of Eden, for the tree of the cross has come to quench it wondrously. The sting of death and the victory of Hades have been driven out. For you, O my Savior, stood and called out to those in Hades: Enter again into paradise.”
The tree of life, which Adam and Eve attempted to seize against the will of God, is the tree of the cross. And the fruit of this tree is the Body of Christ, which we receive in Holy Communion :for the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.” We receive it together with his Holy Blood, “shed of the life of the world,” for today’s Gospel tells us, ““Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) Today we understand the words of our Lord, “ “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. (John 6:53)”
The Romans crucified thousands of people, many of whom were innocent. Yet of all these people, only our Lord Jesus Christ is remembered. This is because it is not the method of torture, nor the gruesome of his death that matters, but the infinite love that shone forth from his sacrifice on the cross. This is what is important for us, we may not have to die in such a painful or unjust way, but we do have to be united in the love that God shows forth on the cross. This is what it means “to take up the cross.” I personally think that for each and every one of us, it means denying for ourselves something that we crave very earnestly, a painful self-denial, if you will, for the sake of true deifying love for God and for others. This is why the cross, originally an instrument of torture and shame, has become for us the trophy of salvation. The joy of the Fast is that through God’s love we come to the fullness of life.