06 - Seed and the Word, Oct 14, 2012

Hebrews 13:7-16

II Corinthians 11:31-12:9

John 17:1-13

Luke 8:5-15

Today, the Church honors the memory of the holy fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. An Ecumenical Council is a council of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church spread throughout the world, the “oikoumene” to address issues of dogma and discipline. The holy fathers are the bishops who convened at an ecumenical council to define and divide the word of truth against heresies. Heresies, as St Epiphanius noted as early as the third century, are always the introduction of, let’s say, a human word that originates in human reasoning, which is foolishness with God (I Cor 3:19f.), into the Word of Truth that originates from the Father. Heresy is a seductive and subtle deception. It has the semblance of religious truth, but in fact it sets up an idol in the place of the true God, like the golden calf worshipped by the Israelites in the wilderness in place of the true God who delivered them from Pharaoh and his armies. Heresy replaces the foundation of the Christian Faith that has already been laid, the foundation that is Jesus Christ, with the foundation of a human philosophical or religious word,

And so, for the Orthodox Church, the term “ecumenical” does not refer, as it does today, to Christians of different stripes and creeds consorting with one another looking for some consensus on those points where they might agree, and dismissing the points where they disagree as “adiaphora” or unimportant. “Ecumenical” refers to the coming together of the holy fathers of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church to divide the Word of Truth from the words of all heresies both subtle and blatant.

The Seventh Ecumenical Council took place in 787. The last of the seven great ecumenical councils, taking place in the middle of a long period of bitter and cruel persecution against those Orthodox Christians who venerated icons, it affirmed the veneration of icons as an essential element of Christian worship, and anathematized those Christians who denounce icons as idols and who do not venerate them. Why such a strong, even offensive stand against Christians who do not venerate icons? (St Paisios, e.g., would not receive Christians who did not venerate icons or Mary as Theotokos.)

The affirmation of icons as an essential element in Christian worship was the “logical” conclusion of the first six ecumenical councils of the Church. Those focused on dividing the Orthodox word or doctrine of Christ from heretical words or doctrines of Christ. With the steadfast affirmation of icons as an essential element of Christian worship, the holy fathers of the seventh ecumenical council were making the dogmatic word of Christ defined by the holy fathers of the first six ecumenical councils concrete, let’s say even incarnate. For, the icon and the veneration of icons affirm and prove in colors and images what the Church confesses about Christ in her dogmatic or verbal confession of Christ: He is the Word of God who became flesh of the Holy Spirit and ever-Virgin Mary. God, who is Spirit, became concrete, earthly.

Let’s not allow familiarity with this doctrine of the Church make us blind and deaf to the marvelous joy it proclaims. It is saying that the one who became flesh, who was crucified, dead and buried and who rose on the third day, is the only-begotten Son of God, light from light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father. He who was in the invisible form of God took on the visible form of man that can be depicted; the inexpressible Word of God allowed Himself to become expressible in human words; the uncreated clothed Himself in His creation; God became man.

In this morning’s Gospel reading from St John, the Lord Jesus prays to the Father: “The words which you gave to me I have given to them,” viz., to his holy apostles. The words of the Church’s doctrine are not words of human wisdom. Those words, says St Paul, are empty and have no power (cf. I Cor 3:20 & 4:19-20). The words of the Church’s doctrine have power because they come from the Father. The Father gave them to His Son, who gave them to His holy disciples and apostles, who gave them to the holy fathers of the Church, who have given them to us. Made up of words derived from human speech, the power that fills the words of the Church’s doctrine is the power of the Father. The words of the Church’s doctrine are but another dimension of the Word of God becoming flesh to dwell among us.. The icon is but another dimension still of the Savior becoming flesh to dwell among us.

This means that the Word that the Church teaches us – or rather proclaims to us – in the words of her doctrine, and in the colors and images of her icons, as well as in the physical gestures and movements of her liturgical and sacramental worship, is not of this world but from the heavenly Father. He, the Word of God whom the Church proclaims in words and images and liturgical ritual, continues to make Himself incarnate in the concreteness, the earthiness of His Church, which is His crucified and risen body. The Word of God becomes earthy in His Church, but in becoming earthy, He makes the earthy spiritual. He thereby raises the earthy beyond itself. He makes the earthy to transcend itself; and, He makes the words of human speech to become the proclamation of the mystery of God that was hidden from the ages – the mystery of Christ God in you! – a mystery that transcends the human mind, for it transcends creation itself. It originates not in an idea of the human mind, but in the eternal, spiritual reality of God the Word Himself. It reveals a power that fills the colors and images of the icon and the word of the Church’s doctrine and renders them into verbal and pictorial depictions of the concrete reality of the world that has been filled with God Himself and made holy, deified, made spiritual because in the wonder of the Incarnation of God the Word, creation has been united with God Himself. Earth has been united to heaven and made heavenly while remaining earthy. Human nature has been joined to God the Word and made godlike even as it remains human, or rather, as it becomes truly human.

Those who receive this Word of the Church into their heart and who, with patient perseverance live by it, receive the only-begotten Son of God Himself, full of grace and truth, the source of all beauty and joy and goodness and life and truth, the inexpressible effulgence of the Father’s glory, the exact character, the very Image and Icon of the invisible God. They become the Father’s own; they become partakers of the uncreated glory of the Son that He had with the Father before the world came to be; indeed, they become one with God in the joy of the Son’s own unity with the Father, and in the unity of that communion of love and joy, they come to know the Father in a way that is beyond all knowing; for they know Him in the love of the heart. In that knowledge of love, they behold the cave of their heart opening onto Eden. United with Christ, in love, in the likeness of His death on the Cross, the tomb of their heart becomes a bridal chamber. The corpse of their soul, made dead by sin, receives the seed of the Word of Christ like a luminous seed of Christ’s Holy Resurrection, and what was dead stirs with new life, the very life of God Himself, so that is it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us.

Such glory and power that fills the earthiness of the Church’s words and images! They have become the garments with which the crucified and risen Christ clothes Himself, so that when we touch with our hands or our minds or our souls any of the earthy things of the Church, we touch the Word of God Himself. And when we give our love to the power that fills the earthy things of the Church so that we live and walk in them, we are uniting ourselves to Christ Himself, and the form of our daily life takes on the likeness and the character of His death and resurrection that makes us one with Christ even as He is one with God

The seed in today’s parable of the sower is the “Word of God”, says Our Blessed Lord and Savior. This Word of God is falling on us all around, here this morning, in the Divine Liturgy, and in every service and office of the Church. It is falling on our eyes in the icons of the Church, on our ears in the prayers, the hymns, the doctrines and Scriptures of the Church, on the imagination of our soul in the lives of the saints of the Church, on our tongue in the Holy Eucharist of the Church. This seed of God’s Word clothes itself, in the mystery of the Incarnation, with the earth wherever it lands; but, in the soil of the Church, in the soil of Christ’s own body and blood, it falls on the heart of the world: the altar of the Church. From the altar, the heart of the Church, it fills the water, oil, bread and wine, colors and images, even the flesh and blood of the saints with the divine power of the Word’s Holy Pascha by which He destroyed death by His death and gave life to those in the tombs. It is the power of God’s own divine life that heals and makes whole, that makes to exist what before did not exist, and even makes alive what was dead. Receive this Word of God that falls on you from the heart of the Church’s altar into your own heart, there where your love originates and where you open onto the eternal Word of God, the Image of God, Jesus Christ, in whom you were made to exist, and in whom you have been raised from death to life. Receive this word and do it. Cultivate in the ground of your daily life and in the soil of your soul the seeds of repentance with the hoe of humility and the spade of obedience to the commandments of Christ, and may the power of that Word raise us up as children of God, and begin to grow in us to empower us to attain to mature manhood to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Glory to Jesus Christ! Amen.