First Fruits

The fifty days from Pascha to Pentecost is known as the Pentecostarion period. Greek for fiftieth, Pentecost marks the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit and initiation of the age of the Church in human history.

Interestingly, the book that includes all the hymns for the services of this period does not end with the Sunday of Pentecost or its leave-taking (i.e. its conclusion) at the end of the week, but on the following Sunday. This Sunday is known as the Sunday of All-Saints, the gospel reading of which recounts the calling of four disciples, the two sets of brothers, Andrew and Simon (Peter) and James and John the sons of Zebedee.

This Sunday’s inclusion in the book of the Pentecostarion points up the fruit of Jesus’ saving work in his commission to his apostles’ to make disciples of all nations: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21-22) to be my witnesses in the world.

In the Old Testament reading from Isaiah 43 on Saturday at the Great Vespers for the Sunday of All Saints, God twice refers to his “witnesses” (vv. 10, 12) who would proclaim his praise (v. 21) in the face of all idolatry, even when God’s own people embraced that idolatry: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you” (Mt. 23:37). For this reason the Bible translates the Greek word ‘martyr’ as witness.

It is the martyrs who are primarily referred to in the Sunday of All Saints because of their emulation of Christ whom the book of Revelation refers to as “the faithful witness” or literally, “the faithful martyr” (1:5). From Jesus’ prototypical example have all other Christian martyrs come. For their emulation of Christ, the Church commemorates them on the Sunday of All Saints as first fruits in every generation and hence the most fitting conclusion to the book of the Pentecostarion: “In this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and be my disciples.” (John 15:8)

Although the Church commemorates those who in every generation have pleased God, many Christians are wary or even afraid to emulate them. Others are ashamed. This is precisely because the life in Christ is antithetical to man’s quest for fulfillment in the earthly life, a fulfillment that seeks the praise of man and not of God.

When it came to his mission on earth, God the Father purposed his Son’s descent to take on human flesh not to establish an earthly kingdom but to open a path for all flesh to heaven. Any opposition to this was even seen as demonic. Prophesying to his disciples of his passion, crucifixion, and rising from the dead, Peter rejected Jesus’ words as incompatible with his earthly vision of Jesus as destroyer not of the devil but of the Romans: “And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me, for you are not on the side of God but of men.”” (Matthew 16:22-23)

The incarnation of Christ, the babe born in a cave, is revealed as the glorious God-man in his transfiguration on Mount Tabor, a transfiguration that has little significance apart from Jesus’ teaching on the hike down that mount that the Son of Man must be crucified and on the third day rise from the dead, a meaning to which Peter (and all the disciples) were oblivious. They could not “perceive the paradox that Tabor and Golgotha are the same mountain” (Constas, “The Art of Seeing, p. 33): “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children … if indeed we suffer with Him that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:16-17)

This suffering requires a turning from society’s snares that attract us to a distorted and superficial attention to our bodies, to the neglect and ultimate destruction of the soul. We must acquire a change of mind (the meaning of repentance) that moves us, like Matthew the tax collector (and eventual Evangelist), to follow Jesus after he eats with the sinners and tax collectors, or like James and John (the sons of Zebedee), to leave the ‘nets’ that entangle and prevent us from following Christ and truly maturing spiritually.  

Following Christ demands a bold and radical move on our part. Just as the Virgin Mary submitted to God’s will for her by becoming the Theotokos (the one who bore God), so must we be open, vulnerable, and courageous to receive Christ in our hearts, our minds, and our very bodies, for he is at work in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13), that together with all those who in every generation have pleased God, we too may be his “witnesses [martyrs] in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)  

Fr. Stavros