Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the First Sunday of Great Lent: Sunday of Orthodoxy

March 6, 2022
Saint Sophia Ukrainian Catholic Church
The Colony, Texas

1 Corinthians 15:45-49
Luke 6:27-38

Today as the Latin Catholic Bishop of Fort Worth, I join with you as Catholics of the Greek-Ukrainian Rite in prayer and solidarity as together we begin the start of the Great Lent, known also as the Sunday of Orthodoxy, in which we celebrate the defeat of the iconoclasts who assaulted the revealed presence of God communicated through sacred icons.

Today, as the Latin Catholic Bishop of Fort Worth and as an American, I join with you in authentic Catholic communion to pray at this Eucharist with you for peace and that God would deliver Ukraine, your friends and family members, and all of us from the unjust and violent war perpetrated upon Ukraine by the tyrant, Vladimir Putin, and his gangsters.

Our Catholic unity served and confirmed in faith among all churches by the Successor of Peter, and established in the Communion of the one Church, brings us together today not out of fear but out of faith, hope, and love. I am here with you in your parish church of Saint Sophia in The Colony, as a brother in the Catholic faith and as the Latin Bishop of Fort Worth to affirm the truth articulated by His Beatitude, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Head and Father of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church: “One of the foremost signs of the times is that our Church is found not only in Ukraine, but also in many countries beyond her borders. This requires a strengthening of the spiritual bonds between the faithful of our Church, set upon the foundation of the one Christian heritage. A profound grasp of our Christian roots aids in the discovery of our own identity in the modern world, with its challenges of globalization and assimilation, and also helps us discern the universal value of our Eastern tradition.”

We listened today to the Gospel of John and heard that Jesus called Philip to follow Him the day after Jesus had called Peter and Andrew. The Gospel continues that Philip found his friend Nathanael and shared with him the Good News that he came to know through faith in encountering Jesus, “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” But Nathanael said skeptically to Philip, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip simply replies with faith, “Come and see.”

Nathanael accepts Philip’s invitation. Jesus sees Nathanael coming toward him and says of him, “Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him.” Nathanael asks Jesus, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” To which Nathanael makes the following astounding declaration, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” Jesus asks Nathanael, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.”

Whenever we hear Jesus ask a question in the Gospel, we can be assured that He knows the answer and that in asking the question, Jesus is teaching. Nathanael sees God in seeing Jesus.  It is Jesus who brings about Nathanael’s faith and prompts Nathanael through this real encounter to profess Jesus’ true divinity as the Son of God. Jesus suggests that the simplicity of Jesus’ answer to Nathanael’s question “How do you know me?” is not in itself what brings about Nathanael’s conversion of faith. This is not brought about by mere words or concepts. Rather it is Jesus Himself — truly God and truly man, the Incarnate Word — who prompts Nathanael’s profession of faith in what cannot be discovered but can only be revealed. As Jesus will state later to Philip at the Last Supper, “Have I been with you for so long a time, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? He who sees me, sees the Father.”

In a sense, this encounter of Nathanael with Jesus, especially Nathanael’s proclamation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, is a faithful profession of the Incarnation and union of two natures in one Divine person and is the sound basis for the mystery of God’s presence as conveyed through the sacred icons — the mystery of immaterial Divinity conveyed through the material of the written and sacred icon. By means of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, man’s relationship to God is changed. Through the Incarnation, God takes matter unto Himself and makes Himself visible. For this reason, man can depict God insofar as He has made Himself seen. As Saint John Damascene writes, “Of old, God the incorporeal and formless was never depicted, but now that God has been seen in the flesh and has associated with humankind, I depict what I have seen of God. I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter, and through matter worked my salvation, and I will not cease from reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked.” This is precisely why the physical depiction of God in the form of an icon is not a lapse into idolatry.

Just as the mystery of the Incarnation changes our relationship with God who has become fully human while remaining fully divine in Jesus Christ, so also this sacred mystery changes the way we relate with each other as human beings. God truly took on a full human nature through the “fiat” of the Blessed Virgin Mary and thus elevated the dignity of every human being who is not only created in the image and likeness of God, but also redeemed and sanctified in His same image and likeness. As the Second Vatican Council taught, “He who is the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15), is Himself the perfect man who has restored in the children of Adam that likeness to God which had been disfigured ever since the first sin. Human nature, by the very fact that it was assumed, not absorbed, in Him, has been raised in us also to a dignity beyond compare. For, by His Incarnation, He, the son of God, in a certain way united himself with each human being. He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart He loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things except sin.” Thus, the direct subjugation and murder of other human beings through an unjust war of aggression becomes even more odious to God than the breaking of the Fifth Commandment, it becomes more akin to a sacrilege. As Pope Saint John Paul II wrote in the encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, “Man has been given a sublime dignity, based on the intimate bond which unites him to his Creator: in man there shines forth a reflection of God Himself.”

As we unite in prayer and response to assist the persecuted members of your families, the people of Ukraine in their deliverance from oppression and war, let us ask God to deliver us from the temptation to hate and to follow the path of the great deceiver, who is a liar. Let us be reminded of the words that we have proclaimed from the Epistle to the Hebrews, “By faith, Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; he chose to be ill-treated along with the people of God rather than enjoy the fleeting pleasure of sin.” As Moses rejected the ways of Pharoah and the complacency that could have been his and instead embraced the call of God to lead his people from Egypt and slavery to the land promised them by God, so must we turn our backs on the ways of today’s pharaohs, Putin, the unrepentant Soviet, and his thuggish minions, that would have us be enslaved to the passions of our anger and kill human beings out of revenge, thereby furthering the disfigurement of the image and likeness of God in other human beings. Let us remember the message of today’s Feast of Orthodoxy that Christ has conquered and redeemed Egypt too, as Ilarion, Metropolitan of Kyiv taught in his Sermon on Law and Grace, “As a man Christ lay in a manger, and as God He received gifts and homage from the magi. As a man, He fled into Egypt, and the graven images of Egypt worshipped Him as God.”

We pray for justice, and we ask God for wisdom to show us how to serve His justice and mercy — especially to the people of Ukraine, your families, who have been hurt and driven from their homeland, your homeland, and that of your ancestors. Only Christ can bring us true justice. We ask the intercession and protection of the Theotokos, the Pokrova, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, whose “yes” to God brought about His Incarnation and the redemption of all humanity from the power of sin and hatred, to intercede for and protect under her mantle her children in Ukraine and her children in Russia oppressed by the pharaohs and oligarchs of this world that is passing away.

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