Metropolitan Nektarios of Hong-Kong
Upon the Patronal Feast of the Ecumenical Patriarchate
(Phanar, November 30th, 2012).
|“Let us extol that preacher of the Faith and minister of the Word, Saint Andrew the Apostle. He fishes human beings out of the depths, holding the Cross instead of a pole, and letting down its power instead of a line. And he retrieves souls from the error of the foe, and he offers them to God as an acceptable gift. O believers, let us ever extol him, and the entire chorus of Disciples of Christ, so that he will intercede with the Lord to be merciful towards us on Judgment Day.”|
(Doxastikon, Matins of November 30)
All Holy Father and Master,
Full of spiritual joy on this great day, we have gathered in the holy and august Centre of Orthodoxy in order to honor in a god-pleasing manner “the great preacher of the faith and minister of the Word,” “the Redeemer’s first-called Disciple and Theologian, Andrew, whose name denotes manliness”. We have gathered in order to celebrate the feast of the brother of Peter and the founder and mighty protector of the Church of Constantinople.
It is an especial honour and blessing for me to have been asked to deliver a talk at today’s Synaxis of joy and thanks. It is a blessing from St Andrew the First-called Apostle and from His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who is “a participator in the customs and a successor of the Throne” of the great Apostle.
At the beginning of this talk I quoted the Doxastikon from the Matins Service for the thirtieth of November. In this wonderful hymn, the holy hymnographer describes with great mastery the work of the Apostle. St Andrew was a fisherman. As an Apostle, however, instead of the fisherman’s pole he holds in his hand the Cross, and with this “he fishes human beings out of the depths…and he retrieves souls from the error of the foe, and offers them to God as an acceptable gift.” The Cross of Christ is the foundation of the holy life as well as the great apostolic work of St Andrew. In order for us to understand the cross-inspired ethos that the great Apostle teaches us, we must look carefully at what Holy Scripture and Tradition says about him.
For our spiritual benefit I have chosen three highly important moments in the life of St Andrew.
The first moment is by the banks of the Jordan. The fisherman from Bethsaida leaves the Sea of Galilee and goes into the desert of the Jordan. Andrew was barely literate but he was devout and a man of faith, and his heart was aflame with love for God. This was why he was attracted by St John the Baptist’s preaching on repentance, and why he eagerly joined the circle of his closest disciples. At the side of St John the Baptist he learnt not only through John’s words but also through his example that repentance and the knowledge of God are fruits of ascetic striving and humility. When through divine revelation St John recognized in the person of Jesus the awaited Messiah and Redeemer, he did not hesitate to exhort his disciples to leave his side and follow Jesus. “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29); “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
John’s words did not remain beyond Andrew’s understanding. His heart, worked on by God-like humility, was now ready to sacrifice everything and to follow Christ the Saviour. That is the wondrous action of true humility. The aim of all spiritual struggle and ascetic effort is not for one to ascend spiritually, to reach some summit, but for one to descend, to be humbled. Its object is to shatter all the irrational and unnatural states of human nature, that is vanity, people-pleasing, hypocrisy, and pride—the passions that disfigure man and wreck his purpose. In particular its aim is to shatter our satanic pride which is “the deprivation of divine and human knowledge”, and “to make humility the unshakeable foundation of the human spirit, to allow ourselves to be ground between the grindstones of humility in order to become a sweet and agreeable bread for our Lord.”
The holy and spiritually ascetic experience of St Isaac the Syrian confirms that this true humility is the place of the revelation of glory and joy, of mercy and the mysteries of God. So that is why St Andrew at once understood the exhortation of St John, and why he followed Jesus. He was deeply moved by this unforgettable first meeting. But it was impossible for the humble Andrew to keep this ineffable joy and the blessing of divine revelation only for himself. “He did not keep the treasure for himself,” says the divine St Chrysostom, but he hurried quickly to tell his brother Peter. Unable to contain his fervour, he cried: “We have found the Messiah”—we have found the precious pearl, he of whom the Scriptures foretold and who was so eagerly awaited. And St Andrew is honoured doubly. He becomes the first-called disciple of Christ and also the nymphagogos(=the one who presents the bride to the bridegroom) of the Apostle Peter, later the chief apostle, whom with joy and fiery zeal he leads to the Saviour.
The second important moment in the life of St Andrew takes place on the shores of Lake Gennesaret—his birthplace and the place where he works as a fisherman together with his brother peter, and the two other brothers, James and John. There, somewhere near Capernaum, the Lord, as he was “walking by the Sea of Galilee”, saw Andrew and Simon Peter casting their nets into the sea. And he called them to be numbered among his disciples and apostles: “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19). Without a second thought they at once left everything and followed him. Andrew, together with the other apostles, now becomes a disciple of Jesus. He becomes a disciple of the Mystery of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. And after Pentecost, now filled with the Holy Spirit, he does not delay but makes haste once more with joy and holy zeal to preach Christ, to found Churches, to ordain Bishops, Priests and Deacons, to set down rules and principles of ecclesiastical order and the true Christian life.
According to tradition the Apostle Andrew preached on the shores of the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, at Nicaea, Nicomedia, Bithynia, in the land of the Goths, Scythia, Iberia, Samsun, Trebizond, Herakleia, Amastris, Sinope, Byzantium, Thrace, Macedonia, Thessaly, and finally Achaea. Despite trials and persecution he did not relinquish his task but continued his journeying and tried to support the new Churches: “As he travelled through every place, he went from city to city, preaching, giving counsel, healing the sick, ordaining priests, and leading many to the way of salvation.”
Each Church that he founded is not a human and secular organisation but the very living body of Christ the God-man, which the Holy Spirit builds up and increases. It is the new Paradise, in which henceforth man is planted, works and is perfected, it is the “God-like homeland” of man.
Within the Church the new community of life and love between God and humanity is brought about—that is, the mystery of the salvation and life of the world is worked out. The man who joins the Church must come out of his egoistic isolation, deny his every desire for individual delivery from the evil world, and allow himself freely to “become one with the Church”, to be reborn and transfigured in Christ.
The Church contains everything, while yet it cannot be contained by anything. It assumes everything, transfiguring and uniting it with God, making it a participant of the life and glory of the Trinity. That is why it is not possible for the Church to change or modify its message. For then it would deny and invalidate its very existence. A Church which conforms to the sinful patterns of this world, which yields to the many temptations it finds, changes the ontological mystery of the God-man Christ, it ceases to be a place of unity and holiness, and it becomes subjugated to various idols, to denial and folly, to irrationality, corruption, and death.
The third important moment in the life of the First-Called Apostle was on the shores of Ancient Patras in Achaea. The earthly life of Andrew was approaching its end. The Roman proconsul Aigeatis ordered him to be put to death, and, heaping extra scorn and mockery upon the venerable fisherman and disciple of the crucified Christ, he decreed for him death by crucifixion, and for the cross of martyrdom to be set up ‘by the edge of the sea sand’.
Andrew, bowed down with the weight of years, labour and suffering, stands proudly before the martyr’s cross. Behind the cross stretches the sea, with the secret voice of the waves and the soft murmuring of the salt-water, so familiar to the old fisherman’s ears. But Andrew’s heart does not stray off into barren sentiment. His clear vision does not lose itself in the sea’s infinitude, in memories and recollections of the past. Ever since the moment on the banks of the Jordan when he encountered Christ, his gaze has remained fixed on his Lord. And now, with the same eagerness with which he ran then to meet Christ, he approaches the cross and addresses it in a loud voice: ‘O good cross, which hast received comeliness and beauty from the limbs of the Lord; O much longed for, and earnestly desired, and fervently sought after, take me away from men, and restore me to my Master.’
For three whole days and nights the holy apostle hung on the cross without ceasing to discourse with the crowds who came to hear him. Indeed, he did not hesitate to astonish Bishop Stratocles, whom he had consecrated a few days earlier in prison, and the other Christians who wished to free him, saying: ‘How long heed ye worldly or temporal things? How long understand ye not the things that be above us? Leave me to die on the cross and let no man loose me, for it has been appointed to me to depart out of the body and be present with the Lord, with whom also I am crucified.’
The last words of the First-Called Apostle and his steadfast endurance of martyrdom testify to his
cross-bearing nature. As Saint Makarios of Egypt observes, ‘true Christians, those who are worthy to come to a measure of perfection and are very close to the Heavenly King, are always devoted to the cross of Christ.’
The Christian should fix his gaze each day on the cross of Christ, for the way of God is a daily cross. Let us not forget that the cross of Christ is indissolubly bound up with His Resurrection. This is why it has the power of salvation and deliverance. For the Christian, faith is not an abstract religious conviction or some act of sentiment. Faith presupposes our own death, the rejection of selfhood and escape from the trap of our own egos, an ontological transformation and raising of ourselves, and giving ourselves up to God who gave himself to us and for us.
Again according to Saint Makarios of Egypt, ‘faith is poverty of spirit and the immeasurable love for God.’ It is the love of man ascending towards the descending love of God, a total transformation of man, so that God dwells in us and we in Him. This perpetual offering of ourselves to God leads us to His perpetually revealed love and to our eternal freedom in Christ.
If today, in the difficult times in which we live, we see that the Christian life fails to influence or convince anyone, it is because we Christians have turned our faces away from Christ’s cross. Our faith has been stripped of sacrifice. Our life has denied the cross.
Orthodox spiritual tradition teaches us that the denial of the cross enfeebles and dulls the Church itself, makes it worldly, estranges it from its divine mission. Its life then becomes no more than stones turned into bread, an ease which denies freedom, an authority which throws out truth. The criterion for the authentic life of the church is achieved through historical reality, through the conscious experience of the faithful, through the tragedy of circumstance. It is here that the character of Orthodoxy is formed and preserved, for it is here that the mystery of Christ’s Cross is revealed and it is here that suffering man meets the suffering God, who endures alongside us and carries our cross.
All Holy Father and Master,
The Church of Constantinople has preserved whole and unalloyed the sacred Apostolic Heritage that the Apostle Andrew passed on to Stachys, first Bishop of Byzantium.
Today, the First-throne Mother Church deservedly celebrates her Thronal feast and honours her founder the Apostle Andrew, for she can fearlessly pride herself in the Lord that she has always kept her gaze fixed on the life-giving Cross of Christ. The grain that was planted in this place by the First-Called Apostle has multiplied over the centuries and borne spiritual fruit. With the passing of time the Church of Constantinople has undergone many external events and changes, but it has never betrayed its apostolic conscience and its universal mission. It has not identified itself with worldly authority. It has not corrupted the authentic ascetic Orthodox way. It has not been afraid of martyrdom. In times of glory and in times of persecution, it has always continued to preach the glory of the Cross of Christ and has remained a true representative of genuine freedom, peace, reconciliation and holiness in the world.
The Holy Fathers who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, convened the Ecumenical Synods, did not only bestow on the Church of Constantinople its Patriarchal significance but gifted it with special privileges, privileges not of power but of sacrificial service. The primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in relation to the other Autocephalous Churches has to do with sacrificial service and the hard struggle to preserve Orthodox dogma and the Paracletic experience of the Church. I venture to say that the Holy Fathers spoke prophetically. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has always played an important part in missionary activity, in the construction of new Churches, in the support and protection of beleaguered Churches and in the preservation of canonical order within the Orthodox world. The First Throne Church of Constantinople carries out its apostolic and ecumenical mission without arrogance or self seeking, keeping its gaze fixed constantly on the cross, on kenosis, sacrifice and offering.
Likewise, we must not overlook the fact that the Ecumenical Patriarchate, within the context of its ecumenical service, does not abnegate responsibility for the unity of the Christian world. The effort at unification constitutes for the Church a command from Christ himself, who ordered his disciples, and by extension all Christians, to be united. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is the Church of dialogue. It always does the duty of love, entering honourably and responsibly into dialogue with those who are outside the Orthodox Church, it bears apostolic witness openly and without compromises, and it fights steadily and earnestly for blessed unity. It follows the example of its founder the Apostle Andrew, who did not selfishly keep to himself the precious treasure that he had found, that is, his acquaintance with the Saviour Christ, but was willing and happy to share it with others.
Despite the difficulties which at times occur in the course of these discussions, we must never forget that the attempt at dialogue and approach is sacred because it is a command given by the Love that was crucified. No one can reject the dialogue between East and West, because if we look with humility, we will see that the altar of dialogue is based on the martyr’s cross of the chief of the Apostles, Peter, and on that of the First-Called Apostle, Andrew.
Today, then, the glad and solemn celebration of the Thronal Feast of the most venerable Apostolic and First-Throne Ecumenical Patriarchate is a reminder to all of us that the Mother Church, eternally in line with the example of her founder, Saint Andrew the First-Called Apostle, ‘fishes human beings out of the depths, holding the Cross instead of a pole, and letting down its power instead of a line. And…retrieves souls from the error of the foe, and…offers them to God as an acceptable gift.’
Come Andrew First-called Apostle and stand among us,
Come Andrew Founder and Protector of the First-Throne Church of Constantinople and stand among us,
Come Andrew Thrice Blessed and stand among us,
setting the seal upon the sermon, and beginning our feast! Amen.