Sunday, February 25 (OS February 12): First Sunday of Great Lent: Triumph of Orthodoxy; Venerable Mary of Egypt; St. Theophanes the Confessor of Sigriane (818). Righteous Phineas, grandson of Aaron (1500 B.C.); St. Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome (604); St. Symeon the New Theologian (1021).
Glory to Jesus Christ!
The troparion for the Sunday of Orthodoxy reminds us that Christ willingly ascended the Cross for our salvation. Jesus dies, the hymn says, to free us from “bondage to the enemy” and, in so doing has “filled all things with joy.”
We should be careful here.
We often hear in the popular American religious culture, that Jesus dies to satisfy God’s anger. Or we might hear that on the Cross Jesus balance the scales between the offense of sin and requirement of divine justice.
Assumed here is the idea that the Incarnation is motivated by human sinfulness. God becomes Incarnate, suffer and dies, because of our failings.
For the Orthodox Church, however, the Incarnation isn’t motivated by human sinfulness. For fathers like St Irenaeus and St Maximos the Confessor, the Incarnation isn’t an afterthought. It isn’t some kind of moral course correction.
No for the fathers of the Church, the Incarnation is the point of Creation. God creates in order to Himself become Man. God creates us, in other words, to become as we and so that, in turn, we can become by grace what He is.
“This is the reason why the Word of God was made flesh, and the Son of God became Son of Man:” St Irenaeus writes, “so that we might enter into communion with the Word of God, and by receiving adoption might become Sons of God” ( Against Heresies, III.19.1).
St Maximus, likewise, sees the Incarnation as the purpose of creation. He says that out of His great love for us, the Word of God for us “hides himself mysteriously” in the essence of His creature. It is as if every single thing that God creates is a letter of the alphabet which, when they are all taken together, reveal God in “His fullness” (Ambigua, PG 9 1, 1 28 5-8).
All of this is simply to repeat what we will hear in the Gospel on Pascha:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made (John 1:1-3, NKJV).
And what then of the Cross? Why does Jesus suffer and die?
We get a partial answer in the Lamentation Services that we sing on Holy Friday evening when Jesus asks us for which of His miracles have we Crucified Him?
The sobering fact is that Jesus dies on the Cross not to calm God’s anger. No, he dies because in our sinfulness we kill Him. He dies because we–I really–reject Him. I lay the burden on my sin on His shoulders.
Our Lord isn’t betrayed by Peter or abandoned by the disciples. He isn’t crucified by the Jews or the Romans. All these things I do with each and every sin I commit.
And yet, this isn’t the whole of the story. In the Tradition of the Church, while human sinfulness is taken seriously, it is never the explanation.
St. John Chrysostom says “I call him king because I see him crucified: it belongs to the king to die for his subjects.” Jesus goes to the Cross willingly because He refuses to impose Himself on us. In His great love for us, Jesus willingly accepts an unjust death.
And how could He not? To do otherwise would violate the freedom of His creature. THis respect for human freedom matters because the love that isn’t free offered isn’t really love.
All that God does, He does freely–that is to say, in love. This is the life He wishes to share with us, this is the life to which He calls us. And it is this life, and this life alone, that is the source of joy.
For God to avoid the Cross would be to undermine human freedom and so make our love a fraud and to rob us of joy. It is with all this in mind that we turn to the Gospel.
The Gospel reading today from St John is an interesting one. It isn’t a “theological” Gospel in the sense that the Prologue is. There is no lofty theology in the scant few verses the Church puts before us.
Today’s Gospel is an evangelical Gospel.
Jesus says to Philip “Follow Me” and he does. And what happens next? Philip goes and finds Nathaniel and tells his friend “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
Philip offers no argument in response to Nathaniel’s disbelief. He doesn’t try to change Nathaniel’s mind with clever arguments. He makes no appeals to philosophy or the Scripture. All he says is “Come and see.”
Much as some would have us think, the hallmark of our lives as Orthodox Christians isn’t our theological sophistication. It isn’t our sublime liturgy or beautiful music.
It rather that we are disciples and evangelists. We follow Jesus Christ and shape our lives around His teaching and–above all–His Person.
And having experienced the great love God Who accepts the Cross rather than violate the freedom of the creature we say to others “Come and see.”
“Come and see” the fulfillment your heart’s desires!
“Come and see” Divine Love in human form!
“Come and see” what it means to be love without limit by Him Who knows all about you!
And how could we do otherwise? What more does love desire expect to share its joy with others?
My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today as we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy and the Restoration of the Holy Icons, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the whole of the Tradition of the Church has only one goal: To introduce men and women to the God Who loves them without compromise.
If are faithful in this, we will transform the world around us beginning first and foremost with ourselves.