Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christ As Hierophant

Every Sunday our little parish serves an abbreviated Matins service before the Divine Liturgy, and part of that service contains a hymn called an “Exaposteilarion” or “Song of Light”.  In the Sunday Matins, it consists of a brief meditation upon the Gospel reading narrating one of Christ’s Resurrection appearances.   In one Song of Light we read the following:
“At the sea of Tiberias, Thomas was fishing with the sons of Zebedee, Nathaniel, Peter, and two other disciples of old. Casting to the right at the command of Christ, they caught a multitude of fish. And Peter, recognizing Him, cast himself into the water. This was the third time He appeared to them and He showed them bread and fish upon the coals.”
            Every time I heard this I wondered what could be the significance of Christ showing them bread and fish upon the coals.  Note:  the hymn-writer doesn’t say that Christ provided a breakfast of bread and fish (though of course He did), but specifically that He showed them bread and fish.  This act of showing clearly seems to have been important to the hymn-writer, but I could never figure out why.
            That is, until I read recently about the important office of hierophant in the ancient world.  In the Mystery religions, anyone wanting to participate in the sacred and saving Mysteries (for example, the Mysteries of Dionysius the wine-god or those of Demeter the fertility goddess, founder of the famous Eleusinian Mysteries) had a secret initiation which culminated in being shown secret cult objects.  The person in charge of these objects of mystical significance was called a “hierophant”, literally a “sacred show-er”, someone whose task it was to show to the initiate the sacred cult objects.  It occurred to me that a Byzantine Christian hearing the Song of Light’s reference to Christ showing His disciples bread and fish would have instantly thought of the work of a hierophant.
            But what then was the significance of these sacred objects, and what was the point that the hymn-writer was trying to make?  Simply this:  that in beholding the fish and the bread, the disciples were being initiated into the Eucharistic mystery of the Church.  When they saw the fish and the bread lying there upon the coals, they were being told that henceforth all their Eucharistic meals would be hosted by the risen Christ, and as they ate the fish and bread with Him there by the sea of Tiberias, so henceforth they would eat the Eucharist with Him every succeeding Sunday.  From at least the days of catacomb art, the Church’s Eucharist was symbolized not by bread and wine (as one might perhaps expect), but by bread and fish.  The multiplication of the loaves and the provision of bread and fish for the multitudes became for the Church an image and foreshadowing of their own festal meal, especially since after the multiplication of the loaves Christ gave His teaching about eating His flesh and drinking His blood (John 6).

            We need to remember this every Sunday when we gather for the Eucharist.  We may think that the person presiding over the meal and mystery is the one we see with our physical eyes—namely, the priest standing at the altar.  But that is not so.  The real host of the meal is the risen Christ, the One whom we see invisibly with the eyes of faith.  He provided a meal of fish and bread for His disciples that cold and fresh morning by the sea of Tiberias after a long and fruitless night of fishing.  He provides a similar meal of Eucharistic bounty and grace for us now every Sunday morning.  It is okay that we come to that meal tired, and sinful, and empty, and needy.  We also have fished all night and caught nothing.  His word to us is the same as it was to them:  “Come and have breakfast” (John 21:12).  Christ provides a meal which fills and warms us, and we eat with Him in the light of a new resurrection morning.

2 comments:

  1. So Father, do we have any idea (time wise) of the when the tradition evolved - or changed from bread and fish to bread and wine?

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    1. Precise dating is difficult, but in general it was after Constantine that the church's art started to prefer the realistic to the symbolic. Thus by 692 the Quinisext Council passed a canon which said that icons should paint Christ as a man, and not portray Him symbolically as a lamb (Canon 82).

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