September 20, 2012

“And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him”

We usually think of mystery as something secret and hidden, but in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which we begin reading today, mystery is a great and glorious wonder that is now uncovered and revealed. It is a “mystery” because it defies explanation and is so far beyond the limited perspectives of human existence. It is a “mystery” because the only appropriate response is wonder, gratitude, joy. And this mystery Paul claims and we believe is revealed in the face of Christ, in whom everything in heaven and on earth will be united.

In his hometown synagogue in Nazareth Jesus uses the words of Isaiah to speak about the mystery now being revealed to all: to the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed. This has been interpreted literally, but also to mean the formerly excluded Gentiles: the gospel is for everyone, no longer for just a little race of chosen people. Some of the Fathers saw this as a message about the dead: who is more poor, captive, blind and oppressed than the dead? In Christ death is overthrown and new life given to all.

In looking at various patristic commentaries I was most struck by Origen of Alexandria. More than a century after his death some of his teachings became suspect and he was condemned as a heretic, but he was the early church’s most prolific and respected scriptural commentator.

Here is what Origen says in a 3rd century sermon about this passage.

When Jesus had read this passage, he rolled up “the scroll, gave it to the servant, and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Now too, if you want it, your eyes can be fixed on the Savior, in this synagogue, in this assembly. When you direct the principal power of seeing in your heart to wisdom and truth and to contemplating God’s Only-Begotten, your eyes gaze on Jesus. Blessed is the congregation of which scripture testifies that “the eyes of all were fixed on him!” How much would I wish that this assembly gave such testimony. I wish that the eyes of all (of catechumens and faithful, of women, men and children)—not the eyes of the body but the eyes of the soul—would gaze upon Jesus. When you look to him, your faces will be shining from the light of his gaze. You will be able to say, “The light of your face, Lord, has made its mark upon us.”

Preparing Relics

Bishop Mark
Bishop Mark preparing relics.

Life at the Chancery is incredibly varied. On any given day we are dealing with committees, pensions, clergy transfers, services in the chapel, planning for the All American Council, the Metropolitan council and Holy Synod, addressing misconduct, interviewing people for publications and blogs, managing finances, publishing reports, fielding questions and complaints and much more. And we also have more unusual duties, such as preparing relics for placing in the antimensia used in every church of the Orthodox Church in America. This is one of the tasks Bishop Mark of Baltimore was doing yesterday.

The antimension (plural antimensia) is a cloth icon of Christ in the tomb, and in the Orthodox Church no Divine Liturgy can be celebrated without this. The chalice and paten with the bread and the wine are placed on the antimension at the Great Entrance as a reminder that the Eucharist is our participation in the one sacrifice of Christ. Sewn into each antimension is a tiny relic of a saint, properly a martyr, to underline that the church is built on the blood of the martyrs, those who gave their lives in witness (martyria) to the death and resurrection of Christ. Each antimension is signed by the bishop to signify that the local congregation is part of the wider body of the Church and is authorized to celebrate the Eucharist.

Bishop Mark
The reliquary room at the Chancery.

The OCA has a collection of saints relics from which the bishop (and only a bishop) takes a fragment and embeds in a piece of mastic (beeswax mixed with oil and spices). These are then placed into antimensia and distributed to churches when needed.

The relics used yesterday came from the New Martyr Ignatius of Bulgaria (+1814), whose feast day is October 8 (his life can be read here).