Editor’s note: Fr. John R.P. Russell is a priest for the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Eparchy of Parma, an Eastern Church in communion with Rome. He offers this homily for the beginning of their Great Lent, which you can learn more about here or listen to our podcast about Great Lent at the end.
The Great Fast begins in the beginning. It is a good time to stop and reorient ourselves toward the Lord — to go back to the beginning and to remember what we humans really are and why we were created.
In our lectionary, we begin the Great Fast at the beginning of three books — at Terce-sext or Sixth Hour, we begin at the beginning of the prophecy of Isaiah. And at Vespers and the Presanctified Divine Liturgy, we begin at the beginning of Proverbs and, of course, we also begin at the beginning of it all — at the beginning of Genesis.
The beginning of Genesis in particular is a wellspring for theological reflection. Someone said that all of scripture can be regarded as a footnote to Genesis 1. Today, I would like to focus on our creation — on the beginning of us.
Because, without some understanding of who we are, all of our ascetical efforts during this penitential time may seem vain and pointless. What are we reaching for, anyway? The story of our creation gives profound insights into our created nature — of which we often lose sight and which the Great Fast may help us to see again more clearly.
So let’s look at our beginning: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Now, if we listen closely, we’ll notice some very interesting grammar and syntax going on here. The direct object is “man” – “God created man.” And then this one noun – “man” – is referred back to by two pronouns – first, “him,” and, secondly, “them” — first singular and then plural.
Now, the second creation story, which we read tomorrow and the next day at Vespers, gets rather explicit about how this takes place, and it’s really beautiful if you think about it. God creates one human – a man. And he takes out of this man a part of himself – his rib – and fashions this into a woman. Now, God, being God, could have made two people out of the earth instead of just the one, and then man would never have been alone even for a moment, but that’s not how Gods chose to proceed. And I think it’s meaningful that humanity begins as one person.
Whatever you may think of this biologically, it is theologically and anthropologically meaningful. The idea that we are all made out of one person, rather than two, shows how deeply and completely we are meant to be in communion with one another. There’s no room left for individualism when we look at it this way. We are, in the story of our beginning, quite literally one. Think of the image: all humanity is in one person — one Adam — one man taken out of the ground.
The one God made this one man in his own image. Note this: God is an image maker – a creator of his own image. God is an iconographer and we are his icons. And his first created human is somehow mysteriously both singular and plural – both “he” and “they.” That we humans are both many and one – that we are persons and also a community of persons sharing one human nature is an icon of God who is one God and also three Persons. God himself is a community of persons and, inasmuch as we are united to one another by the bonds love and by the grace of God, we are an image of that community and of God.
This is one thing we strive to realize through our prayer and fasting and almsgiving. That is, we are trying to be healed of our infirmities and strengthened out of our weaknesses so that the divisions and rifts between us can be closed. If we will draw near to God, we must draw near to one another.
Abba Dorotheos of Gaza tells of a wheel, rather like a wagon wheel. The center – the axis – is God, and each of us are somewhere along the spokes of the wheel. You see, the closer we get to each other, the closer we get to God. To be a true and perfect image of God, we must become one community of persons and not a confederacy of individuals.
Let there be no divisions or hatreds or animosities between us, but let us forgive everything and love one another. If we fast and pray and do works of mercy for one another, it will help us put an end to all division and strife.