25 - First Sunday of Great Lent, March 4, 2012

Luke 24:12-51 (Matins Gospel)

Hebrews 11:24-26, 32 – 12:2

John 1:43-51

Today we commemorate the triumph of Orthodoxy. This is the triumph of the Church over iconoclasm. Iconoclasm is a heresy that condemns icons and their veneration. Iconoclasm comes from a heretical doctrine of Christ. Iconoclasm does confess Christ, but when its tenets are more closely examined, one sees that it is deceived and deceiving. Giving the appearance of piety, it claims that because Christ is God who is invisible and who transcends all form, He therefore cannot be depicted on icons. This is heretical because it denies that God the Word became flesh as scripture bears witness. If God the Word was not incarnate, then He did not destroy death on the Cross and we are not saved. We cannot be raised to eternal life in communion with God and become partakers of the divine nature.

This heresy of iconoclasm threatened the Church in the 8th and 9th centuries. At the Seventh (and last) Ecumenical Council held in Nicea in 787, and then again in 843, the bishops of the Church came together in council and affirmed icons and their veneration as an essential element in Christian worship, for it affirms the Gospel proclamation of the Church that God became flesh and dwelt among us. He took on a human form, and in his human nature, He can be depicted in the colors and lines and perspective of icons. In the icon, God the Word is Himself truly depicted not in His divinity but in His humanity.

The icon proclaims that Christ, the Son of God, truly became flesh. God the Word who shone timelessly from the Father emptied Himself and was found in the likeness (the nature) of man. In the flesh, He made Himself one with us completely to the point that He was tempted as we are, only without sin, even to the point of sharing in our death when He voluntarily ascended the Cross for our sake. To venerate the icons of the Church, then, is to confess the Christian Faith: that God the Word truly was born of the Virgin and became man, so that the Virgin Mary is truly Theotokos – birthgiver of God. To venerate the icons of the Church is to confess that God the Word truly died in the flesh, in our humanity, on the Cross, that He was buried in the flesh, and in the flesh, in our humanity, He rose again and ascended in glory. He united Himself completely to us in the very humanity in which we exist so that we, in our humanity, can be united with Him and be made “partakers of the divine nature” through the uncreated energies of His own glory and virtue as St Peter the apostle bears witness. (II Pet 1:3-4)

As the perfection of the Church’s Gospel proclamation – perfect because the concreteness of the icon proclaims the Incarnation of Christ as a concrete reality, not as a mere abstraction or appearance – Orthodox iconography draws us into, for lack of a better word, the emotional character of the Gospel. That is to say, the icon sets before us the warmth and vibrancy of the Gospel that makes the Gospel feel so humane in its divine glory, so divine in its glorious humanity. It is an emotion that transcends emotion, a humane feeling that we feel warming us in a divine way and illumining us all the way to the marrow of our soul, making us feel quickened in heart, awakening deep within us a long-forgotten love that feels at once intimately familiar for the beauty of God, for the love of God, for God Himself.

For, in its heavenly serenity and beauty, the icon draws us into the warm goodness of the God who created the world and everything in it stamped with His Image, stamped with Christ; for, the Father made all things through Christ, the Icon, the Image of the invisible God. The sacred art of iconography unveils for us the hidden principle of the world, revealing it to be a mystery of participation in the love of God through Christ and His Holy Mother, the Theotokos. It reveals space-time as the mystical movement of the world through eternity that is measured not by the astrological movements of sun and moon but by the self-emptying and self-giving movement of the love of God for His Holy Mother and the love of the Panagia for God, the Mother and Bride of God. In all of this, the icon silently, through the artistic elements of line and color and perspective, transfigured by their having been baptized in the service of the Church, proclaims the beauty of man as God in His love created him: man was created to move and to exist and to have his very being in the loving faithfulness of God.

St Paul writes in his epistle to the Colossians that Jesus Christ is the “image” of the invisible God. The Greek word for image is “icon”. Using the same word, the prophet, Moses, writes in the book of Genesis that God created man in His own image and likeness; that is to say, in His own “icon” and likeness. The “icon” is not an idol. Idol and Icon are altogether different words and denote altogether different things. An idol is a false god. The Image of God, the Icon of God, is Jesus Christ, the true God, the Way, the Truth, the Resurrection, the Life who is of one essence with the Father, Light from Light, true God of true God. He is Himself the effulgence of the Father’s glory, the very character of the Father’s Person, writes St Paul (Heb 1:3). He is the Love of God, the Wisdom of God.

Therefore, made in the image, the Icon of God, man is brought from nothing into existence in the Personal mystery of Christ, so that man exists, from the moment of his inception, throughout the whole “process” of his passing over from nothing into being, in Christ. Made in Christ, man is made to exist in the heavenly glory of Christ. The principle of his being is to exist in communion with God. To partake, then, of the divine nature, as St Peter says, is not alien to us; it is what is most natural to us. It is the very principle of our nature. We are truly human when we can say with St Paul: it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. We find ourselves, we are made whole and truly alive when we are found to exist in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the love of God the Father, and in the communion of the Holy Spirit.

On the eve of Great Lent, the Church brings us to the gates of Great Lent, the gates of repentance, with St Luke’s Gospel proclamation of Christ’s Resurrection. In His body, in the humanity in which we exist, Christ has destroyed death by His death on the cross, which He endured voluntarily because of His great love for us. In the joy of Christ’s Holy Resurrection, the Church calls us to take up the fast as our cross. She is careful to make us understand that the fast encompasses the whole of our whole humanity. It is not just with the stomach but also with the eyes, the ears, the tongue, the hands, the feet, the mind and the soul. The fast is the cross Christ commands us to take up if we want to follow Him and become united to His own crucified and risen body. It is the cross by which we work to die in the whole of our humanity, in our soul, our body and in our mind, so that we can unite ourselves to Christ in His death and Resurrection in the whole of our humanity, not just in religious theory but in the concrete reality of Christ the Icon in whom we were made body and soul.

And now, on this the first Sunday of Orthodoxy, the Church commemorates the “triumph of Orthodoxy.” Historically, it is the restoration of icons to the worship of the Church. But theologically, it is the triumph of Christ, the Icon of God, who by His Glorious Pascha has restored the image of Adam that had fallen and grown dark and become enslaved to death and to sin, to aloneness in separation from God. By His Holy Pascha, Christ has filled all things with joy, for He who is the light of the world has illumined the Way that leads to Paradise. In shattering the iron bars and brass doors of hell, He has opened the gates of Paradise. All who want to can enter and partake from the Tree of Life.

Who, hearing this Gospel, this Good News of the Church in faith, would not feel the joy of heaven being conceived in the love for Christ that awakens in the heart when we see all that Christ has done for us out of His great love for us? Do you see in this how the Church grounds the Lenten work of taking up our cross to follow Christ, the work of the fast, in this joy that is born from our love for Christ when we hear the Church’s Good News, the Gospel, of God’s love for us; how because of His great love for us, Christ descended all the way into hell looking for us who were lost, fallen into darkness, and by His death destroyed our death; how He who is Himself the Icon, the Image of the invisible God, became flesh and restored the image of God in us, and now is calling us to Come, take up our cross, unite ourselves to Him that we may be restored to loving fellowship with the Father in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit? In this joy of the Gospel and in this love for Christ, we take up the Lenten Fast as our cross in the spirit of repentance, confessing our sins so that we may be raised up to live in the love and the joy of Christ our God. Amen.