The Sanctification of Our Senses

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (1:43-51)

Each Sunday of Great and Holy Lent has a theme. The theme of this, the first Sunday of Lent is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, also known as the triumph of Orthodoxy. In the year 843, on the first Sunday of the Fast, The Empress, Saint Theodora and her son, Emperor Michael, venerated the Holy Icons together with the clergy and the people. This was the first time that icons were returned to the church and used for worship for many years. We are told that for more than a hundred years the Church suffered due to those who opposed the use of icons and supported the iconoclasm.

Why did the Church suffer? Is it because the icons were beautiful decorations for the church? Well, it is true that the icons are beautiful. It is also true that the icons add a layer of reverence and an atmosphere for prayer. It is our hope that very shortly, by the grace of God we will begin building the new church and will cover the walls with iconography. It is my hope that this will be a place where people get lost in prayer with the saints. A place that helps to lift our hearts to Christ and to the kingdom.

But the Church didn’t suffer simply because it was less beautiful. When icons were banned it was an attack on our beliefs and our theology. Those who banned icons did so because they believed that icons were a form of idol worship. They believed that the use of icons was a breaking of the commandment not to make any graven images. But the issue goes much deeper than that. All theology comes back to this question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” For the Church the answer is that Jesus Christ is the incarnate, only begotten Son of God. He is co-equal to the Father and to the Holy Spirit. He is one is essence with His Father and the Spirit. Yet He retains His personhood. God is one in essence, three in persons. But this statement on who Jesus really is, shapes our worldview from the moment that He enters into our world and into human history. Jesus becoming a flesh and blood man who lived with us and walked with us and talked with us and was seen among us, these facts change our understanding of icons because they change our understanding of God.

When God gave the ten commandments to Moses and Moses gave them to the people, it was with the understanding that you could not depict God because no human eye had seen God. But listen to what the Apostle John writes to us, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that ourjoy may be complete.” 1 Jn 1:1-4

The icons are a sign of the completion of our joy. They complete our joy because they remind us of the gospel in truth. Jesus Christ, became man while yet being God. It is God who was seen by the Apostle John and the rest of the disciples. It was God who taught them. It was God who raised Lazarus from the dead and gave sight to the blind. It was God who suffered and died and was buried for us. It was God who defeated death and rose again for us. Our joy is complete because our eyes “have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples.” What more do you want to see in life? What more is necessary? What could possibly bring us more joy?

For Orthodox Christians, the display of icons is a reminder and more than that, it is a declaration that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. This fact completely changed the course of human existence and it changes the existence of each person who accepts Christ and submits their life to Him. So we don’t depict a God that we haven’t seen. Rather we depict the God that we have seen and known in truth. We don’t use our imagination to do this. We use our God-given senses. In addition, we don’t worship the icons in the way that an idolater prays to an idol. We venerate the one who is depicted through the icon, in much the same way that one might carry a picture of their beloved in their wallet. It is just a piece of paper and yet it depicts and symbolizes one that we love. So also our icons, while on canvas and wood or on the walls of the church, bring our minds to the ones who are depicted.

St. John of Kronstadt reflects on the whole nature of worship and our senses when he writes, “The Church, through the temple and Divine services, acts upon the entire man, educates him wholly; acts upon his sight, hearing, smelling, feeling, taste, imagination, mind, and will, by the splendour of the icons and of the whole temple, by the ringing of bells, by the singing of the choir, by the fragrance of the incense, the kissing of the Gospel, of the cross and the holy icons, by the prosphoras, the singing, and sweet sound of the readings of the Scriptures.” + St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ

The Church, the bride of Christ, invites us to open our senses to “come and see.” These are the same words that Philip offered to Nathaniel, when he asked about Jesus. It isn’t enough that others tell you, you must desire to see His face for yourself. The Church invites us to come and see her beloved bridegroom. Come and hear His words. Come and experience all that He has offered to us through His love for mankind. This is our treasure as Christians.

Why did we spend all week in the church? Why did we spend all week praying together? Is it because we enjoy suffering? No. It is because we need to reorient ourselves and our vision back to truth, to beauty and to goodness, back to the One who is our life. He alone is our hope, our treasure and our triumph. All of this is here for you, come and see. AMEN.

Source: Sermons