We have come to the end of the first week of Great Lent and the first Sunday of Lent, known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy. It’s on this Sunday that we hear in the gospel reading, as we do each year, the story of Philip and Nathaniel. Two friends and how one friend wants to share his faith with the other. Yet when Philip comes to Nathaniel to tell him about Jesus who is from Nazareth all Nathaniel can say is, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
And truly, historians tell us that Nazareth was never ever mentioned outside of the New Testament until a few centuries later we see it mentioned in the writings of the Jewish Rabbis. The name also appears no where in the Old Testament. It was obviously a place of absolute obscurity. If Jesus was supposed to be the promised one, the one foretold in Scripture, it seemed to Nathaniel that the place of origin of the promised one would be a more auspicious town with more to commend itself than a place like Nazareth. Bethlehem would be a better place to claim as your home from where the great king David originated. And the Prophet Micah also prophesied that Bethlehem would be the place of origin of a coming mighty ruler of Israel (5:2).
And so perhaps it’s not all that strange that Nathaniel would question just how valid this so-called Messiah was. But all this changed in a matter of minutes. Philip didn’t try to argue with his friend, he didn’t try to prove, based on Scripture, that this was truly the Messiah. He simply told his friend, “Come and see.” And when Jesus met Nathaniel He said something to him which made all the difference: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” There is no mention of a fig tree at the beginning of this gospel reading. We read that Jesus wanted to go to Galilee and there he found Philip and further the text says, “Philip found Nathaniel…” He just found him, whether it was under or near a fig tree, the gospel doesn’t say. Jesus is the one who reveals this detail. Yet He doesn’t say what it was that He saw Philip doing when he was there. It must have been an important moment in his life; perhaps he was questioning his faith. And just as he had this “moment under the fig tree” his friend comes and gives him some news which didn’t sound all that exciting to him. He certainly wasn’t expecting this man from Nazareth to truly be the Messiah.
But that’s what this morning’s gospel reading is about: it’s about expectations. There are certain expectations we might have of our children, of our jobs, expectations we might have of one another, expectations we might have of life. What’s most strange is that, at times, we might actually have certain expectations from God. Yet God is someone we not only do not see but He is someone we cannot fully know. In fact, that’s what next Sunday’s commemoration of St. Gregory Palamas will be about: about how we can know God through His energies – His mercy and love and forgiveness, but we can’t know the essence of God. We can’t fully know or see God. At the funeral service we sing: “It is not possible for mortal creatures to look upon the face of God. That which on the angels dare not gaze…”
And ironically, it’s on this Sunday that we commemorate that which we can see: we commemorate the icons. But what’s perhaps more ironic is that while the first Sunday of this Fast commemorates the Holy Icons the last Sunday – the day on which the Fast will end, when we celebrate the Lord’s glorious and radiant Resurrection – we celebrate a feast that, in essence, has no icon. The icon that most of us associate with with the Resurrection, of Jesus standing over the gates of Hades, holding the hands of Adam and Eve and delivering out of Hades is, in fact, the icon of Christ’s descent into Hades. An event we celebrate not on Easter Sunday, but on Great and Holy Saturday. There is no icon of the Resurrection – strictly speaking, [perhaps an appropriate one is of the Myrhhbearing Women standing at the empty tomb] – because no one saw the Resurrection. There were witnesses at His Nativity, at His Baptism, when He was circumcised, when He was Presented in the Temple, when He was Transfigured on Mount Tabor – but no one saw the Resurrection. And yet everything, our entire faith, depends on it. That’s why St. Paul says to the Corinthians: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…”.
That’s what our faith is based on: something we can’t see. But then again, our faith isn’t based on us needing to see God. Rather, just as Christ saw Nathaniel “under the fig tree” we believe that it’s God who sees us – both when we are sad and when we are happy; when we are sick and when we’re healthy; when we’re good and when we’re not. Subsequently, we can’t have any expectations from God. It is God who has expectations from us.
It’s during Lent that we are to motivate ourselves and each other to meet those expectations.