March 13, 2011

The First Sunday of Great Lent Prior To the 9th Century

By John Sanidopoulos

The first Sunday of Great Lent, since the 9th century, has been called the "Sunday of Orthodoxy”. This is due to the fact that on the first Sunday of Great Lent in the year 843, (a purely historical coincidence, having little to do with our journey to Pascha per se) the icons, frescoes, mosaics and other liturgical graphic art as well as relics were restored to the churches after nearly 95 years of iconoclasm between 730 and 843 (there was a respite of about 25 years in the middle).

Prior to the ninth century, Great Lent was primarily used for catechesis, especially for the preparation of catechumens for baptism. The Sundays of Great Lent would present themes for their education and benefit and these themes were reflected through the Epistle and Gospel readings of the day.[1] The first Sunday commemorated the Prophets, especially Moses, Aaron and Samuel; on this day, the catechumen would learn how the Prophets foreshadowed the coming of Christ.

Today, the Divine Liturgy contains elements of this tradition, especially in the readings chosen for the day: both the Epistle and the Gospel suggest that Christians, now living in the time when the words of the Prophets have been fulfilled, have access to greater things than the Prophets could ever have imagined.

After speaking of the faith and sacrifices of the Old Testament Righteous, the author of Hebrews concludes: “And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:39-40).

The Alleluia verses are then chanted in Tone 4 (from Psalms 99:6; 34:17):

"Moses and Aaron among His priests, and Samuel among them that call upon His Name."

"They called upon the Lord, and He hearkened unto them."

The Gospel makes this real clear: it presents Jesus as the expectation of the Prophets, the long-awaited Messiah:

At that time, Jesus decided to go to Galilee, and he found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael, and said to him, "We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!" Nathanael said to him, "How do you know me?" Jesus answered him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you." Nathanael answered him, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus answered him, "Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these." And he said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man" (John 1:45 -51).

At the deepest level, the focus of Great Lent was (and should still be) the catechetical preparation of the catechumen for the Paschal Mystery of Baptism. Thus, the first and essential theme of the first Sunday of Great Lent is the proclamation that New Life in Christ comes after a long period of preparation. The Epistle and Gospel reading for Liturgy that day affirms — even promises — that the catechumens who are preparing themselves for Baptism at Pascha will behold great things: they will lay aside the Old Creation and embrace the New Creation; they will leave behind the Old Aeon and enter into the New Aeon; they will give up the temporal kingdom of this world, replacing it with the eternal Kingdom which the Old Testament Righteous, by faith, experienced only as a foreshadowing. The catechumens (and all the faithful) will experience these not in shadow but in truth. We are surrounded by the "cloud of witnesses" who urge us to throw off everything that clings to us and weighs us down. We will see the heavens open up and we will behold the Lord Jesus.

Now that most Orthodox Christians are baptized as infants, and Christianity has entered the mainstream, the time of Great Lent means something else. Certainly the educational practice remains – it is, of course, always helpful to remind ourselves of the truths of our faith, because each time we encounter it, the more it penetrates our lives. But the themes have changed, now emphasizing different aspects of the Christian faith - as we find, for example, with the first Sunday of the Great Fast. Now the theme is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, and it celebrates the restoration of the icons in Hagia Sophia on February 19, 842, issued by the Synod of Constantinople on that date, which went on to declare that every First Sunday of Lent this event was to be remembered. It was seen as the triumph of the true faith over heresy, because the veneration of images was not only allowed, but proclaimed, and those who wanted to explain why the practice is in accord with the Christian faith could do so without without fear of persecution. The veneration of the images became, itself, an image of Orthodoxy, for orthopraxis and orthodoxy are intricately linked: when one is rejected it entails a rejection of the other. The practice of forbidding the depiction and veneration of icons was fueled by non-Orthodox Christology and Soteriology. Rather, it sponsored a gnostic understanding, not only of the incarnation, but of the Christian life, because, by its dictates, the physical could no longer be seen as united with the spiritual.

No one could describe the Word of the Father; but when he took flesh from you, O Theotokos, He accepted to be described, and restored the fallen image to its former beauty. We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images. (Kontakion, Sunday of Orthodoxy)

1. The Epistle and Gospel readings are done at the point in the Divine Liturgy prior to the dismissal prayers for the catechumens. This ended the Liturgy of the Word in which the catechumens could participate, while the Liturgy of the Faithful was exclusively for the baptized Christians.