by Abbot Joseph
[You can read this at Word Incarnate or continue below
This past week has been, as it is meant to be, something of shock to the system, with extra-long services, many prostrations, and heavy fasting. It is meant to wake us up to the call to repentance, so that this call doesn’t remain merely a call, but actually has an effect in our lives. Something different is happening, and we can’t help but notice it unless we are in some sort of a spiritual coma. The ascetical exercises and longer prayers are meant to help us lay aside our sins, especially those we fall into through habit or laziness, and to see that there is in fact a race set before us, which we are expected to run with perseverance. The way we are to do this is, as the Epistle implies, to see Jesus at the finish line, and to run eagerly toward Him. It says to run the race, looking to Jesus, so this can only mean that He is ahead of us; He is our goal. The Epistle says that Jesus Himself persevered even unto the Cross, “for the [sake of] the joy that was set before him.” In his race, He would have been looking to his Father at the finish line.
This looking to Jesus takes us to the mystery of this Sunday’s Gospel (Jn. 1:43-51), and also to the additional theme of the services this Sunday: the declaration by the seventh Ecumenical Council, officially re-establishing the validity of the veneration of the holy icons.
The Gospel is about looking to Jesus; indeed, in speaking of Him, the Apostle Philip actually says: “Come and see.” So, at this early stage in the Lenten season, we are invited to see Jesus, to look to Him, to discover who He is and listen to what He might have to say to us.
Philip was looking for the Messiah, at least in a general sense, but the Messiah found him before he found the Messiah. When Philip saw Jesus, however, he immediately recognized who He was, and so he began to call others to come and see the One about whom the law and the prophets wrote. There are some hidden mysteries in this Gospel that we’ll never be able to fully understand, at least not by simply reading the text. All we have in the account of the call of Philip is that Jesus went to Galilee, found Philip, and said, “Follow Me.” Suddenly Philip was telling everyone that he had met the Messiah. How did He know that Jesus was the Messiah? What did he see in that mysterious initial encounter that left him with no doubts about Jesus’ identity? Whatever it was, it must have been something unmistakable that passed secretly from the Heart of Jesus to the heart of Philip. We are given no more information.
Look to Jesus, says the author of Hebrews. Again, there must be more to these simple words than meets the eye as well. Look to Jesus—with the heart—and you will know that He is the Lord. And you will immediately follow Him and call others to do the same.
The practice of the writing and veneration of the holy icons also invites us to look to Jesus. It is precisely because Philip and the Apostles, and all those who came to know Jesus while He walked the earth, could look to Jesus, that we are able to encounter the Lord through the holy icons. They could look to Him because He, the eternal Son of God, became incarnate as man, and therefore could become, as St John later wrote: “that which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, the word of life, which was from the beginning, which was made manifest” (see 1Jn. 1:1-2). The Incarnation is the justification for the holy images. Through them we can look upon the face of God, the incarnate, human face of God, which is the face of our Lord Jesus Christ. And hopefully, as we gaze upon his image in prayer and love, his heart will speak to our hearts, and we will know something of that mysterious encounter in which Philip could look upon Him and know him at once, and follow Him with joy.
Now there’s another mystery here, both in the Gospel and in relation to the holy icons. Discovering who Jesus is and following Him is not only a matter of our looking to Him, our finding and contemplating Him. It also works the other way. This Gospel, and the icons, are also about Jesus seeing us and finding us. The seeing goes both ways. When Philip saw Jesus He recognized the Messiah. But Nathaniel didn’t recognize Him upon seeing Him. He only recognized Him when he realized that Jesus had already seenhim!
There is another mystery here that we can’t learn just from reading the text, but that should still draw us into reflection upon the inscrutable ways of God. Nathaniel recognized Jesus not only as the Messiah, but also as the Son of God, simply because Jesus said He saw Nathaniel when He was “under the fig tree.” We are not given a shred of explanation as to what that referred to, and why it was such an overwhelming revelation to Nathaniel. But again, something precious and profound must have passed between God and Nathaniel under the fig tree, and for Jesus to have been a witness of it could only mean to Nathaniel that Jesus came from God and could see things that only God could see.
So, in order for us to bear spiritual fruit by looking to Jesus, Jesus must first look to us. He must find us wherever we are, whether we’re under the fig tree or up the creek or on cloud nine or in hot water or out to lunch. When He finds us, we will know Him—if we are looking for Him. This is why the readings today encourage us to come and see, to look to Jesus. His eyes are already upon us, but He wants us to look to Him, to recognize who He is and how much He loves us, and to follow Him, running the race with perseverance all the way to his heavenly Kingdom. The Lord wants us to have the kind of profound encounter with Him that made Philip say, “We have found the Messiah,” and that made Nathaniel say, “You are the Son of God!”
The icons also help in this two-way seeing. We do not only look at Jesus in the holy images; through them, He looks back at us and invites us to intimacy with Him. We ought to adopt a contemplative, receptive position before the icons. When we come to pray, we should not try to examine or analyze or even understand them, at least not in a merely intellectual way. We should simply let Jesus look at us and thus be drawn into that relationship in which the Good Shepherd said: “I know my sheep and my sheep know Me.” There’s a story of an uneducated peasant that used to come into a certain church to pray for long periods of time, but he just sat there, didn’t use any prayer books or beads, didn’t follow any particular devotions. The pastor finally became curious and asked him what he was doing all that time. The man replied simply: “I look at Him, and He looks at me.”
I recently read something about a rather spooky new technology that also has to do with two-way seeing, but not at all like our relationship with Jesus, for it is a kind of anti-icon. In some places today, like shopping malls or large department stores, where they have advertisements on video screens, they also have little cameras that look at you while you look at the ad. As the camera “reads” you, it takes a general description of you, based on your gender and age. This information is fed into the computer that displays the ads. Suddenly, an ad appears on the screen that is likely to appeal to people of your gender and age group. But this two-way seeing is done only so that they can take something from you, that is, your money. Jesus looks at us and wants us to look at Him, so that He can give something to us, that is, his love and his grace unto eternal salvation. Jesus reads our hearts, but only for the sake of healing and transforming them. Unlike an icon, the video ad does not facilitate a personal encounter but rather is an exploitation, which is precisely the opposite of the relationship of love proclaimed in the Gospel and in the holy images.
There’s another invitation in the Gospel that is appropriate for the beginning of Lent, as a kind of call to persevere in running the race to the end. After Nathaniel recognized that Jesus saw him in the mysterious experience under the fig tree, Jesus said to him: “You shall see greater things than these.” There is much that still lies ahead of us, and if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus—and let Him look at us as well, not shrinking even from his searching light of truth and the painful revelation of our sins, of which we must repent—then we will see Heaven opened, in one way or another, and we will know the Lord in his glory. This is something that the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ is meant to communicate to us, but I think that the Lord would want us to see ever-greater things through the whole of our lives, and not only on his great feast days. The liturgical calendar is merely a tool for helping us focus on and celebrate the mysteries of Christ in some sort of orderly fashion. But Scripture doesn’t tell us to look to rubrics and liturgical prescriptions; it tells us to look to Jesus. And Jesus can open Heaven for us even in the middle of Lent, or under a fig tree, or when we least expect it.
So let us seek and find Him, follow Him eagerly, enduring even the cross of our daily sufferings or simply the demands of life in this land of exile—for the sake of the joy that is set before us. Let us look at Jesus while He looks at us, and let us grow in the love that will carry us through the pain of the Cross to the glory of the Resurrection.