Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily for the Triumph of Orthodoxy

John 1:43-51 (§5)

In the Name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

My dear father, brothers and sisters!

I congratulate you all on reaching the end of this first week of the Fast. I hope that you have all felt something of the relief and spiritual benefit of being able to spend more time in church or a little more time focused on spiritual things, ultimate things rather than the triviality and distraction which can otherwise easily dominate our lives. Interestingly, you will note that throughout all the weekends of the Fast there is a distinct change in tone and tempo. As those who were in church this week for Great Compline and the canon would have noticed, during the week we use the more somber Lenten melodies with many prostrations and the beautiful prayer of St Ephrem. However, at the weekends, we no longer make prostrations, we no longer say the prayer of St Ephrem and we hear the familiar triumphal melodies of our Sunday worship outside Lent. Although we are still fasting from meat and dairy, in all other respects, it may surprise some of you that our Sunday commemorations during the Great Fast are in actual fact highly festive in character. The first Sunday of the Fast in particular has an especially joyful spirit as we celebrate completing the first week and commemorate the Restoration of the Holy Ikons on that joyous first Sunday of Lent in the year 843AD when the widowed Empress Theodora and her son the Emperor Michael venerated the holy ikons together with all the clergy and people after centuries of vicious ikonoclasm. For our Gospel reading on this feast we move from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke to close to the beginning of St John’s Gospel with the beautiful story of the meeting between Christ, Philip and Nathaniel. As is our custom, for the interpretation of the Gospel, we will turn to the commentary of St Cyril of Alexandria, one of the great Fathers and defenders of Orthodoxy of the 4th century.

The day following Jesus would go forth into Galilee, and findeth Philip, and saith unto him, Follow me.

In terms of the wider context, our reading today comes from the first chapter of St John’s Gospel, after his sublime Prologue, and is where we hear about the calling of Christ’s disciples immediately after his Baptism by St John the Baptist in the River Jordan. Our Lord then first fishes for the followers of His Forerunner, Peter, Andrew and, by tradition, St John the Theologian. Then, as we hear in the first verse of our Gospel reading today, he calls and nets Philip, with just two words: “Follow me”. What an immediate and profound impact our Lord’s presence must have had upon these simple fishermen, that they could respond so immediately and whole heartedly to this calling, without question, without pause.

Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.

The reference here to Moses and the prophets, alludes to the fact that this Gospel reading was originally appointed before the 9th century as the commemoration of the Holy Prophets Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. St Cyril points out how quickly Philip engages in evangelism, almost immediately, going and finding Nathanael and excitedly saying – ‘We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.

As St Cyril says –

The disciple is extremely quick to bear fruit so that he might be shown by this to have the same disposition as those before.  

And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see.

Nathanael’s reply shows that as followers of St John the Baptist they knew according to the Prophesy of Micah, that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem, hence his wryly sceptical reply – ‘Can there any good think come out of Nazareth?’. Philip’s reply: ‘Come and see’ is so simple yet such a wise pastoral and missionary response. It may have been tempting for him to try and intellectually engage with his friend’s scepticism, but instead he just asks him to come and see this Man. ‘Seeing him – St Cyril says – ‘will be proof enough, he says, and after a mere conversation with him, you will ardently confess and affirm beyond doubt that he is truly the expected one.’

Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!

In his commentary, St Cyril draws attention to the fact that at this early stage of his ministry, he was yet to use miracles, or “signs” to draw people to Him. The alternative strategy our Saviour utilizes at this point therefore is to demonstrate His divinity through what St Cyril calls, ‘God-befitting knowledge’. As God, Christ knew each of the hearts, and innermost thoughts of all of the people who came to Him and flocked around Him. He had known Nathanael since he was knit together in His mother’s womb, and here in this verse he testifies to his honest and sincere character – ‘an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile’.

Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.

Nathanael could tell that our Saviour knew something of him despite the fact they had never met. Perhaps, Nathanael may have wondered, it was Philip who had said something about him to our Lord? In St Cyril’s words – ‘

The Saviour alleviated his suspicion by saying that he saw him under the fig tree before his meeting and conversation with Philip, even though he was not there in the body.

Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel.

Although simple, it was this specific detail of seeing him beneath the fig tree, which opened Nathanael’s heart to faith. In this moment he realized that the man before him was not and could not simply be only a man, but was truly, the Son of God, God in the flesh with the God-like ability to discern the nature of human hearts.

He knows that God alone searches the heart and gives to no other human being the ability to know the mind.

Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these.

Again, this incident occurs well before Christ’s first miracle or sign took place at the wedding in Cana. But already, and despite not seeing Christ transform water into wine, walk on water, heal the sick, resurrect the dead, still Nathanael believes whole heartedly in Him.

And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.

As St Cyril says, ‘By saying that angels will be seen rushing up and down on the Son of Man, that is, ministering and carrying out his commands for the salvation of those who are going to believe, he says that he will especially then be revealed as the Son of God by nature’. We can thus see that with the coming of Christ, something of extraordinary and cosmic significance has taken place, and the way back to paradise, the way back to heaven is opened up once more.

On this day when we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the Restoration of the Veneration of Ikons, how appropriate it is that we hear this Gospel and its affirmation of the visuality of our Orthodox Christian Faith. It is because our merciful God has become Incarnate, has become flesh, has become material, that He can be seen and can therefore be depicted in images and in the holy ikons. Before the coming of Christ, the prohibition about the making of Images of God was absolute. But after His Incarnation, not only can we make images of Him, but we should, in order to fully affirm the full reality and materiality of His incarnation.

Whilst our Feast today is called the Triumph of Orthodoxy, it is not just simplistically triumphalist. On this Sunday we also realise what we could call the Mighty fragility of the Orthodox Church. We remember that for many, many years of its history the Orthodox Church has been viciously persecuted and at certain times must have almost looked like it would finally end and be destroyed. We think of course of the devastating persecution of the Church under the pagan Emperors Diocletian and Decian. Even after the Edict of Milan, when Christianity was no longer persecuted, during the time of St Gregory the Theologian in Constantinople the Arian heresy was so strong that all the churches and cathedrals in the capital city were served by Arian clergy and Arian bishops. St Gregory himself served the Divine Liturgy in a small, humble house church as the only Orthodox Temple in that whole city. Likewise, years later, the Holy Orthodox Faith was once again tried and tested by over a century of destructive iconoclasm from the time of Emperor Leo III in the year 726 up until the death of Emperor Theophilos in 842. Today’s feast of the Restoration of the proper veneration of the Holy Ikons is the triumph and joy which comes from over a hundred years of pain, suffering and persecution, when so many hundreds and thousands of Orthodox Christians, lay people, monks, nuns, priests, deacons and hierarchs were arrested, exiled, tortured, mutilated and martyred for their faithfulness to the Tradition of the Church and their refusal to abandon the faith and practice of Orthodoxy which they had received.

Well over a thousand years later, still we see that despite persecution, despite war and aggressive secularism, still the Orthodox Church, the Faith and Church of the Apostles continues just as Christ promised right down until our own times. Today, therefore, we can see the triumph of Orthodoxy in the suffering Orthodoxy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under its saintly Primate Metropolitan Onuphry where amidst the tragedy of the ongoing fratricidal war between Slavic brothers, and despite the intimidation, and direct persecution of the Ukrainian State where bishops are placed under house arrest, where priests are punched in the face, where Orthodox churches are illegally usurped and taken over and emptied by tear gas … still, despite this, the same Orthodox services continue whether outside, or in town halls or private homes. This is the Triumph of Orthodoxy: the bold confession of Faith even amidst persecution.

And we can also see the Triumph of Orthodoxy today in the Holy Land, in the devastated waste land of Gaza, where even though the Orthodox Christians there are homeless and hungry, in the ancient Church of St Porphyrios still the Orthodox Christians gather to worship and pray with faces shining with joy. This is the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

In the words of Fr Lev Gillet,

O strange Orthodox Church, so poor and weak, with neither the organization nor the culture of the West, staying afloat as if by a miracle in the face of so many trials, tribulations and struggles; a Church of contrasts, both so traditional and so free, so archaic and so alive, so ritualist and so personally involved, a Church where the priceless pearl of the Gospel is assiduously preserved, sometimes under a layer of dust; a Church which in shadows and silence maintains above all the eternal values of purity, poverty, asceticism, humility and forgiveness; a Church which has often not known how to act, but which can sing of the joy of Pascha like no other.

In this country, we Orthodox are still tiny, tiny minority surrounded by people who know nothing of True Ancient Christianity, the Faith which was once held in these Isles. Yet whilst we may be small, and it may look at times that we are fighting a losing battle, still we know that this is the Church that Christ founded, and that He will never abandon, against which the Gates of Hades will never prevail. And as we have heard each day at Great Compline this week: God is with us!

And today, to encourage us we have our own triumph of Orthodoxy, a triumph of Christ over satan, two young people have in front of us all this morning rejected satan, renounced false beliefs and spat upon the devil before turning to face Christ, prostrating themselves before Him and reciting the Holy Orthodox Creed. And now to you, my dear brother Catechumen Joshua and, to you, my dear sister Catechumen Dymphna, if I might end my homily today by addressing you both personally. On behalf of the whole community, I would like to welcome you as you make this decisive step in your journey back home into the Orthodox Church. Due to our sins, I cannot promise you a church full of perfect people, a church full of saints. Despite our unworthiness, however, we can at least confess and give to you the Holy Orthodox Faith and can point to His saints whose images shine all around us, and who are present with us mystically at this Liturgy today. I can promise you that this is Christ’s Church, this is the Pearl of great price, this is ancient, unadulterated and unreformed Christianity. This is the Faith of your fathers, this faith is your true inheritance from them. As we will say in the Moleben at the end of the Liturgy today –

This is the Apostolic Faith!

This is the Faith of the Fathers!

This is the Orthodox Faith!

This Faith confirmeth the universe!