The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (1:43-51)
On this, the first Sunday of the great fast, we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy. This day specifically commemorates the restoration of the holy icons into all of the churches of God. We might be asking ourselves, “why does the Church celebrate this at the beginning of Lent?” “What is the connection between the veneration of icons and this holy season?” Let me share a few thoughts with you.
The culmination of the great lenten struggle is found in the glorious events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. According to Christian teaching these are the most important events in the entire history of the universe. Yet, in order for them to be understood as more than myth or legend, something must anchor them to reality. What the Church has understood as the anchor of our understanding is the eye witness accounts of the apostles. They gave up their lives, they went to their deaths preaching and teaching that they had indeed seen and touched and heard and known the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity. They were witnesses, in the Greek language a witness is a martyr.
Icons are a necessary part of all Christian worship. In our Church, we pray what we believe and we believe what we pray. The Orthodox faithful underwent many years of hardship and persecution at the hands of those who believed that the use of icons was forbidden and was wrong according to their understanding of Scripture (an understanding that incidentally was heavily influenced by the rise of Islam). These Christians read Scripture with a narrow understanding that denied the living interpretation of the universal Christian tradition of the first few hundred years. Nevertheless, truth won the day, through the life giving breath of the Holy Spirit, as the Church came together to reason and pray and understand what is God’s will regarding this subject that had created so much controversy.
The 7thecumenical council, a universal council of the east and the west, tells us that icons are not only good, but absolutely necessary to Christian worship. They are a continual reminder that God is no longer understood as simply an invisible spirit. God is understood as having a Son, who Himself took real human flesh, real human existence. Who was born on an actual day in history, in an actual place, with an actual human mother from whom He received His actual human DNA. St. Peter writes “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” 2 Peter1:16
In the Old Testament, God forbid the making of images for worship because the people did not have a proper understanding of Him. No one had ever seen God, for God is spirit. For the people to attempt to depict or worse yet, to pray to what they had not seen or understood, would be a great blasphemy because they were bound to depict God incorrectly. They were bound to worship something false. But, the Lord Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that the day is coming when the true worshippers of God will worship Him in spirit and in truth. This indeed has happened with the coming of the savior into the world. The Apostle Paul writes that Jesus Christ “is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). His actual word from the Greek is not image but icon. It is thisrevelation of the Son of God in the flesh, that makes iconography not only proper, but necessary. Since mankind looked on the face of the Son of God and dwelt with Him and witnessed all of the events of His life, we know that He is real. To forbid iconography is to deny the incarnation, to deny the taking of flesh by the Son of God. So before the Church leads us to the cross and the resurrection of the Lord, the Church first reminds us of Christmas (the nativity). The Church reminds us that what we believe is not myth, but truth, and truth has consequences.
In today’s gospel reading Nathanael says to his brother Philip “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And how does Philip respond? “Come and see.” That is the Christian faith. It is not philosophical theory but experience that includes our senses. We don’t know God through books. We know God by experience.In the Orthodox faith we have a sensory experience every time that we enter the church. We taste the Lord’s body and blood, we smell the incense, we see and kiss the icons, we hear the hymns. It must be so! Because our redemption and healing happens not only on some far-away cosmic level, but it happens even within the individual person and within his very cells. Sanctification through the life of the Holy Spirit, transforms us at every level. As a person participates through the body, through their senses, they are healed. The Lord Jesus Christ in His abundant mercy and love for mankind, has made this healing possible by truly taking our human flesh and lifting it up to His level. Hisresurrection becomes our resurrection. Everything is healed. Everything is transformed. Everything is made new in the light of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So now you see why we remember the return of the icons into the Church. Because we can’t get to the resurrection without the incarnation. We can’t get to the life-saving faith unless the apostles had first witnessed the Word made flesh, and been so convinced of this fact that they were willing to die to proclaim the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a powerful testimony of the truth of our faith and it is this faith that gives us new life. It is this faith that we cling to and embrace as we repent and fast and attend extra services andask the Lord to open our hearts and minds and make these truths a part of our being.
Truly God is the Lord and has appeared unto us! There is no place here for formality, vainworks, or dead religion. Lent is a time to come to life byembracingthe divine life that has been shared with us through God’s grace and the holy witness of the apostles and all of the saints. This alone is real life! Glory be to God forever, AMEN.