A HOMILY FOR THE FEAST OF SAINT ANDREW THE FIRST-CALLED
(Nov. 30/ Dec. 13)
About the Labors and Passion of the Apostle, and About the Gospel of the Feast
Brothers and sisters!
Today our Holy Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of the all-praised Apostle Andrew, the brother of Saint Peter and disciple of John the Baptist. Saint Andrew became one of the persons closest to our Lord Jesus Christ and, after the descent of the Holy Spirit, preached the Gospel in many lands. According to ecclesiastical tradition, he was the first to evangelize the Scythians, an ancient people living on the north coast of the Black Sea in what later became Ukraine and Russia. Saint Nestor, the chronicler of the Kiev Caves Lavra, writes that the Apostle Andrew followed the Dnepr River north from the Black Sea to the place where Kiev now stands and, climbing to the top of a hill, erected a cross there. He announced to the disciples accompanying him: “The grace of God will shine upon this place! Churches will be built here, and from here the true light will shine on this entire land.” According to some sources, the Apostle continued on to the north of Russia and reached as far as where the city of Novgorod would one day stand.
Saint Andrew completed his apostolic labors by undergoing martyrdom in the city of Patras in the Peloponnesus, where he was crucified in about the year 62 by the Eparch Aegeates. No matter how much Aegeates tried by flattery and threats to silence Andrew’s preaching, the Apostle persisted in proclaiming the Christian faith even to the Eparch himself and praying that the persecutor be illumined by the light of truth. Saint Andrew remained alive for three days on his cross, never ceasing to preach Christ to the onlookers. Not only did he reveal the faith to them: he also taught both by word and his example that we must be willing to confess Christ and to endure suffering for His sake, declaring that “no hardship is worthy to be compared with the reward that awaits us in heaven.”
And now, dear brothers and sisters, it is time for us to turn to the Gospel reading appointed for the feast of Saint Andrew and to try and understand it better. To this end we shall explain not just the lection itself, but also what comes just before and after it in the Gospel. The reading for this Sunday is taken from the first chapter of the Gospel According to Saint John and tells about the calling of Christ’s first disciples: Andrew, John, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael. After being tempted by the devil following His Baptism, the Lord Jesus went back to Betharaba, the place by the Jordan where John was preaching. The day before Jesus’ return, John had again openly confessed Him as the Christ, this time before priests and Levites sent by the Pharisees. The purpose of the priests’ and Levites’ coming was to ask John whether he was himself the Messiah since, according to the Pharisees’ teaching, only the Christ would have the authority to baptize. And it says: He confessed, and denied not: but confessed, I am not the Christ. When further questioned as to his identity, John declared himself to be the voice of one crying in the wilderness and made it clear that his baptizing and his entire service were preparatory to the appearance of the Messiah. Finally, to put an end to the questions, John concluded thus: “There standeth one among you, whom ye know not. His service in the world began after mine, but He has His existence before me, from before all eternity, and I am unworthy to be called His servant.” John pronounced this testimony before great crowds of people who were still coming to him at that time to be baptized.
The following day, when Jesus arrived, John openly declared Him to be the Lamb of God, Which taketh away the sin of the world, confirming that this was He Whose coming he had been preaching: the Son of God, upon Whom he had seen the Spirit descend in the form of a dove.
The day after this, John was standing on the banks of Jordan with two of his disciples, and Jesus again came to him. John repeated what he had said the day before: Behold, the Lamb of God! By referring to Jesus as the Lamb of God, Saint John was echoing the famous, profoundly moving prophecy of the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, in which the Messiah is depicted as a silent lamb led to the slaughter and our salvation by the Messiah’s Passion is vividly described.
After hearing John’s testimony again, the two disciples followed Jesus to the place where He was staying. They remained with Him for the rest of the day, listening to His teaching, which firmly convinced them that He was truly the Messiah. One of these men was Saint Andrew. The other, the narrator, was the holy Evangelist John, who characteristically refrains from naming himself in his descriptions of events in which he was a participant. Returning home after his conversation with the Lord, Andrew immediately told his brother Peter that he and John had found the true Messiah. Thus, Andrew not only became Christ’s “first-called” disciple (the title by which he is known and distinguished), but also the first of the apostles to preach Christ, guiding to the Saviour Peter, who would become the leader of the apostolic band.
Andrew then brought his brother to meet Christ, and the Lord gave Peter the name “Cephas,” which means “a stone.” The next day Jesus was preparing to leave for Galilee and came upon Philip, whom He invited to follow Him. Philip then went and found his friend Nathanael, and exclaimed to him, We have found Him, of Whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph!
Nathanael’s initial reaction was quite negative, and he replied with the question: Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Nathanael apparently shared the opinion held by many Jews that the Messiah would be a worldly king, who would come from the upper echelons of Jerusalemite society. Among the Jews Galilee, where Jesus was raised, was held in little esteem, while Nazareth is not even mentioned once in the sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament, and thus seemed a most unlikely place from which to expect the appearance of history’s greatest figure. Philip, however, who had believed readily, found it unnecessary to refute his friend’s comment and merely proposed to him: Come and see!
Despite his preconceptions, Nathanael was an open-minded and objective person and, wishing to learn the truth of the matter, followed Philip back to Jesus. No sooner had He caught sight of Nathanael than the Lord, knowing man’s every thought and feeling, and his every trait of character, proclaimed, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! Nathanael was amazed that Jesus would know anything at all about him, never having met him before. Then Jesus, wishing to dispel every doubt and draw Nathanael to Himself, revealed to him His divine omniscience more fully. Before that Philip called thee, He said, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee. When Nathanael was under the fig tree and what occurred there are unknown to us, but it is obvious from the narrative that this answer astounded Nathanael and showed him that Jesus knew or saw something private about him, something that only God could have known. This realization struck Nathanael with such force that his every doubt concerning Jesus was dispelled. He understood that before him stood not an ordinary man, but someone endowed with the ability to see and perceive all things. He immediately believed in Jesus and exclaimed, Rabbi (that is, teacher), Thou art the Son of God; Thou art the King of Israel!
While we do not actually know what happened while Nathanael was beneath the fig tree, or what he was doing or thinking there, some say that he might have been praying and that, during his prayer, he had an experience that left an indelible impression upon his soul: something which he could never forget, but which was unknown to others. This would have reinforced Christ’s words and fired Nathanael’s heart with fervent love for the One Who alone see all our secrets.
Speaking now not so much to Nathanael personally as to all who would become His disciples, the Lord replied with these words: Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? Thou shalt see greater things than these. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man. By this the Lord indicated that His disciples would be granted to behold His glory with their spiritual eyes, and that the ancient, Old Testament, prophetic dream of the patriarch Jacob, in which he witnessed heaven and earth united by a mystical ladder on which angels ascended and descended, was now fulfilled by the Incarnation of the Son of God, Who had become the Son of man. This title, the “Son of man,” Christ used for Himself with extreme frequency: in all, He employs it about eighty times in the four Gospels. By it, He irrefutably confirms His humanity, His human nature, and at the same time makes it clear that He is man in the highest sense of the word; the perfect, absolute, universal Man: the Second Adam, the forefather of the new, restored mankind: the humanity recreated by His Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension into heaven in our flesh. Thus this term at once reminds us of His humility and self-abasement, and of His exaltation as the embodied, ultimate ideal of human nature. It also points to His divinity, since only God is capable of such an exalted action as the healing and re-creation of the human race.
With this, dear brothers and sisters, concludes the story of the calling of the earliest disciples of Christ, the very first of whom was the Holy Apostle Andrew, whose blessed memory we celebrate. From it, we perceive how, from the very beginning of His public ministry, our Lord began gently, little-by-little, revealing to lost, suffering mankind the great mysteries of His true Divinity; of His assumption of our human nature; of His taking upon Himself the responsibility for our error, while yet remaining a stranger to sin; of His resolution of the tragedy of human freedom; and of the glorious, sublime end for which God has brought everything into existence. For all this, let us ceaselessly send up glory to Him, as to His unoriginate Father, and to His All-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.