23 - First Sunday of Great Lent, March 1, 2015

Hebrews 11:24-26, 32 – 12:2

John 1:43-51

Before it was the feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, commemorating the final victory over iconoclasm in 843 A.D., this first Sunday of Great Lent commemorated the Holy Prophets. Note that this morning’s epistle and Gospel readings focus on Christ as the fulfillment of the prophets. Both themes – Christ the fulfillment of the holy prophets, and the victory over iconoclasm – have to do with Christ as the Word of God: Christ, the Word of God whom the prophets proclaimed, and Christ, the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us.

That God would become flesh is the fundamental proclamation of the prophets; that He has become flesh is the fundamental proclamation of the Church’s veneration of icons. “In times of old,” St Paul says to the Hebrews, “God spoke to the fathers through the prophets in many different ways, but on the last of these days, He spoke to us in His Son.” (Heb 1:1-2) That is, God spoke to us directly, without any mediation of angel or prophet.

Note that at the heart of all the other ways by which the Word of God spoke to the fathers is the “word” of the prophets: “Hear, O Israel! Thus saith the LORD!” But if God speaks to us on the Last of these days through His Son, who is Himself the Word of God (Jn 1:1), then He speaks to us primarily through the “Icon”; for, Christ is the Icon of the Father (Col 1:15) who became flesh and dwelt among us. (Jn 1:14) He made the Father known, whom no one has ever seen at any time. (Jn 1:18)

Speaking to us by the “Word of the LORD”, we could say, is an essential property of the OT; but the essential property of the NT is speaking to us by the “Icon” – Christ the Word of God who becomes incarnate of the Holy Virgin Theotokos. The prophetic word of the OT becomes visible in the New Testament as the Icon of God that we can see with our eyes, hear with our ears, handle with our hands; for, He becomes flesh of the Holy Virgin and dwells among us. The New Testament itself is the Body and Blood of Christ. What we receive in Holy Eucharist as our food and drink, if it is the Body and Blood of Christ, is the Icon of the invisible God, the Word of God who became flesh and blood as we are. (Heb 2:14)

Note well how the Icon of God – Christ incarnate – is a mystery of participation or communion: God partaking of our nature (Heb 2:14) that we might partake of His nature (II Pt 1:4); or, as Christ Himself prays: “That they may be in us, Holy Father, as Thou art in me and I in Thee.” (Jn 17:21) Even the words of the Church have become icons of the Word, and in their fullness, they call us to communion with the Father in Christ, the Icon and Word of the Father, through the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father. To say, then, that God speaks to us now primarily through the Icon of His Son means that He speaks in the Church to the faithful who have passed over from the word of the OT to the Icon of the NTprimarily through the mystery of His participation in our flesh and blood and of our participation in His divine nature. That means, it seems to me, that at the heart of this “new” way of speaking to us is the same “old” principle of the prophets: obedience to the Word of the LORD in the love of God through which one passes over from the Old to the New Testament, from out of the darkness of the world into the Light of Christ’s Heavenly Kingdom (I Pt 29).

The icons of the Church proclaim the mystery that was hidden from the ages, the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory!” (Col 1:26-27) and therefore of His participation with us in our flesh and blood. (Heb 2;14) This is what the word of the prophets is all about. Therefore, we cannot say that we honor the word of the prophets if we do not honor the holy icons of the Church. Nor can we say that we honor Christ if we do not honor His Image, for then we are reducing Christ to a discarnate Word, a Word that was not incarnate, and we deny the biblical witness that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

The Icon is the heart of the Christian Faith and the essence of our salvation, for Christ Himself is the Icon. He is the Icon of the Father. And, it says that Man was created in accordance with the Image (Icon) and Likeness of God (Gn 1:27 LXX) so that he is not truly Man if he is not living “according to” the Icon and Likeness of God – i.e., Christ in the Holy Spirit.

“According to” (kata) is how the Greek translates the Hebrew “in”. Of its many meanings, let me speak only to two of those that seem to apply. The Greek “according to” carries the sense of motion or extension as in “downward”, “throughout” or “through and through”, Or, it can have a “distributive” meaning, as in the word, “catholic” (kata or kath’ holikos), which means, when applied to the Church and to her Holy Mysteries, each part is in the whole and the whole is in each part.

So, created in accordance with the Image of God means that, throughout his whole being, man is an image of Christ; and Christ, as the Image of God according to whom God made man, is in man throughout the whole of his being and in each part. This meaning is even clearer in the Hebrew where the word for “image” actually means “statue”, so that man even in his body is a statue that looks like God. In Syriac Christianity, the First Adam and Christ, the New Adam – the “image” and the “Image” – are said to look exactly alike; and, in early Christianity, man is described as the icon of the Icon.

The first meaning of “according to”, connoting motion or extension, presents man as a dynamic being moving with purpose towards a goal: viz., Christ, the Icon who is the  shape and character, the nature and destiny of Adam. Together with the second meaning, the distributive, created “according to the Image of God” presents man permeated in every part of his being with Christ, so that the whole man, not just part of him, is in movement towards Christ, the Icon of God in whom man was created. That means that we are created for communion with God, we are made to be a temple of God (I Cor 6:19), so that it is not we who live but Christ who lives in us. (Gal 2:20) This theology of the Icon, this “Christology”, reveals salvation to be nothing less than union with God in Christ, the icon of Adam wholly illumined in the Icon of God, becoming in Christ, the Son of God, a “son of light and a son of the day.” (I Thes 5:5)

Adam and Eve rejected the Word of God for the word of the serpent. Their eyes were opened and they saw that they were naked. “Come and see!” Philip says toNathanael. How could He see Christ if Christ were not incarnate? Nathanael comes, he sees Christ and hears His Word spoken to him not through a prophet but directly, and Nathanael confesses the Word of the Prophets: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!” And the Icon of the Father says to him:  “You will see” not that you are naked, but “the heavens opening and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” You will see the purposive movement of the Icon in which He created the ages. It is the purposive movement of God’s love that abides forever.

Let’s close picking up this one shade of meaning for “according to”: that of “downwards”. In the context of the Church’s liturgical life, and especially in the context of Great Lent, it would mean that we live according to the Image of God, Christ, only as we move downwards toward the dust of the ground; i.e., only as we deny ourselves and take up our cross through the ascetic disciplines of the Great Fast and move downwards toward compunction, contrition, humility. We were fashioned in the Image and Likeness of God from the dust of the ground. It is from the dust of a broken and contrite heart that we are re-fashioned in the Image (Icon) and Likeness of God, for we descend with Christ in the likeness of His death and we ascend with Him in the likeness of His Holy Resurrection. Amen!