"Philip und Nathanael" - WJ Morgan
Father Vassilios Argyriadis
Today's Gospel passage told us about the first meeting of a disciple with Christ. This first meeting of Nathanael with the Lord, resulted in a promise of Christ: "I am in the sight of these" - you will see much greater things than what you saw... What was it that the disciple had seen? He had seen a teacher reveal to him that he knew where he was and what he was doing, before they met—"before we met, I saw you sitting under the fig tree." And this wonderful insight of the teacher surprised Nathanael. But Christ promises him that he will see greater things than this.
Twenty chapters later, the same evangelist, the evangelist John, will tell us about the last meeting that Christ had with another disciple, Thomas. There, the resurrected Christ will make Thomas see something wonderful, His wounds from the Crucifixion. But he will tell him something different: "Blessed are you." the unseen and who believed" (John 20:29) — blessed are those who believed without seeing. To one student he promises that he will see great things. To the other student, it looks like he's disapproving of anyone who longs to see something. Why is this happening; We will understand everything if we look for the deeper content of today's Gospel passage. For Christ not only promises Nathanael that he will see greater things than what he saw, but reveals to him what they will be: "I assure you that soon you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on to the Son of Man". What does this mean; And why is it more important?
This phrase, like all today's Gospel passage, is a reference to the story of the patriarch Jacob. Jacob was the one who had seen in a dream a great ladder extending from heaven to earth and angels ascending and descending on it. God, in this vision, promised Jacob that he would be with him and give him a whole country and his descendants would be blessed and the blessing would extend to all the nations of the earth. And Jacob was called Israel and his descendants Israelites. And now one of his descendants, a humble Israelite, Nathanael, stands in front of a teacher and sees him doing wonderful things. And the teacher reveals to him that the ladder that Jacob saw connecting earth and heaven is Christ himself. He is the one who unites man and God in one person. He is the one who bridges all the distance of heaven and earth. Now the angels of heaven have a ladder to ascend and descend—that is, all the blessings of God can become the possession of men, and men can find grace before God, deposit all their sorrows in heaven. Christ became a ladder and all heaven came down to earth. Christ became a ladder and the whole earth ascended to heaven. This is the most important thing that Christ promised that Nathanael would see: he would see and understand in himself what Christ really is and what he brought into the world.
Nathanael has since seen other things with the eyes of his body. He saw Christ teaching, healing, performing miracles, even raising the dead. But those weren't the most important things. The Pharisees also saw these things and did not believe. The disciples also saw them, and yet with the master's arrest, they scattered; to the crucifixion, they were afraid and hid. What Christ is and what he brought to the world, the disciples understood when they opened their inner eyes, on the day of Pentecost. What the eyes of their body saw was great, but they understood it when the Holy Spirit opened their other eyes. Because it is with the vision of our heart that we can know the mystery of Christ and God's love. This is also the reason why the resurrected Christ said to Thomas "Blessed are you the unseen and believers” — blessed are those who will trust not the eyes of their body, but their other eyes, the inner ones. And they are blessed, because with this vision they will be able to see Christ as a ladder to heaven. Both to Nathanael and to Thomas, Christ spoke about the same thing: about the other eyes!
But who was Nathanael who deserved so many things? He was a humble Israelite who lived with the longing to know the Messiah. He was sitting under the tree and studying the Law (this is what the interpreters tell us the reference to the fig tree means—so did the pious Israelites). And when he hears from Philip the news about the teacher, he immediately questions, doubts ("ἐκ Nazarὲτ δύναται what good is it?") he wants to know. And he leaves the theories and gets up to go see. And when he finds the teacher and hears him say "what a good Israelite!", Nathanael does not stop at the praise; he asks again: "and how do you know me?". All this shows a man full of longing and anticipation, without "easy" rests. To this longing, Christ responds with a miraculous event, for Nathanael's fleshly eyes, and with a promise, for his other eyes, his inner eyes.
All this says a lot for us today. Our other eyes, the eyes of the inner man, are opened when God wants it; when the Holy Spirit visits us and requires us to trust ourselves in Christ. But this is not done without conditions on our part. He wants us to study the commandments of God, like Nathanael. And through the commandments and their application, to cultivate our longing and desire. Even with our body to serve this search, as he came out of the shadow of the tree to search and find the teacher. On this first Sunday of Great Lent, we know that the period we are going through offers us many opportunities to cultivate our desire and longing, even with our bodies: we have before us the sport of fasting and the multiple opportunities of prayer. We undress ourselves, we leave our house and come to the temple, in feasts, presanctified, great canons, unseating hymns; we unite our voice with the voice of all Christians to God. All this is a way to cultivate our desire, to make it longing and anticipation for God. We keep the eyes of our body open, inviting Him to open our other eyes as well. To see Him, to recognize Him, to lean on Him with all of us.
Perhaps it is for these other eyes that the Church also wants to speak to us, when she calls us this Sunday, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, to celebrate the historical event of the end of Iconoclasm and the restoration of the holy icons. Because the Fathers, through this historical adventure, taught us that images have no value for their woods and colors or their pictorial representations (artistic or not), which the eyes of our bodies see, but for that to which we are referred. And what they refer us to, we can only see it in one way: with the other eyes!
Let us pray that God will enable us to understand the value of the vision of the heart and to do everything in our power to cultivate our longing and desire for God. Because then God will require us to "see" in Christ the ladder that unites heaven and earth. It will require us to understand the mystery of Christ and to entrust ourselves to the Cross and His Resurrection, which we will celebrate in forty days from today.
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