25 - Restoration of the Icon, Mar 20, 2016 (with audio)

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Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-12:2

John 1:43-51

We commemorate today the Church’s victory over iconoclasm in the 8th & 9th centuries. The icon depicting this event is called the Restoration of the Icons. But, the icon as a sacred mirror reflects the image of our own souls as the icons needing restoration. In the spiritual deeps of the icon, the spiritual battle to restore our divine image and likeness never ceases to be our work in the mystery of Christ and His Holy Church today.

When we want to be healed of a deep wound, we take ourselves to the clinic. The first thing the doctor does is to open the wound to flush out all its impurities. The cleansing flush isn’t a squirt; it’s a sustained flush of several minutes, and it can sting. If you were to leave before the wound is fully cleansed, the wound would become infected and get much worse. After the wound has been cleansed, the doctor dresses it and binds it, and it begins to heal.

At the Monday Vespers, we heard: “Grant me tears falling as the rain from heaven, O Christ as I keep the joyful day of the Fast. Let me mourn, O LORD, and wash away the filth that comes from lustful pleasures, that I may appear before Thee purified.” Do you see? The Fast brings us into the tomb of our heart as into the Great Physician’s office; and, we begin to mourn.

The cleansing waters that flush out the deep mortal wound inflicted on our soul from our lustful pleasures are the tears of this godly sorrow. They soften the soul and the healing process of restoring the divine image in us begins. The stone that hardens our heart begins to roll away to reveal to the eyes of the soul the sweetness of the LORD’s Beauty and the humility of His Loving-kindness and Tender Mercies in the Theophany of His Cross. This is the Image of God in whom she was made. The tears of sorrow begin to fall like rain from heaven when she sees that this God is her true likeness. He is what she really wants to be like. She recognizes her true self immediately in the image of His likeness, and with ardent desire she wants suddenly to run to this God, the Only Lover of Mankind, and immerse herself in His Beauty to become one with Him; but, alas! She can’t. She sees her repulsiveness; she can smell the stench of her impurities. She has become altogether unlike Him, and her grief is deep beyond all things for she sees that she has become altogether unlike herself.

The Fast, then, is the cross we take up to follow Our Savior into the tomb of our heart as into the Great Physician’s office to mourn and, with tears falling like rain from heaven, to wash away the filth that comes from our lustful pleasures, that we may appear before the LORD on Pascha night purified, the divine image in us restored. Beloved faithful, if we do not mourn in our fasting, then our Fast is nothing more than a vegan diet on a sentimental journey that actually can make the soul sick with spiritual nausea if not self-loving prelest. Only in the tears of mourning does the Fast reveal itself as a sacred season of purification and healing, the beginning of the restoration of the divine image in us.

This blessed mourning, I have come to see, is the most critical piece of the Fast; but I fear it has been largely forgotten either through indifference or laziness or ignorance, so that even though we fast, we do not enter our soul’s inner chamber and mourn; and so, the restoration of the divine image in us never begins because there are no tears of mourning to flush out the impurities of our soul.

The way into this inner chamber of mourning is given in the words of the Church – the words of her prayers, her doctrines, her psalms and hymns, her Holy Scriptures. Let me share what I hear in these words.

The Fast is the framework for mourning. We fast with the belly, but also with the eyes, the ears, the tongue, the hands and the feet. In this, we shut the doors and windows of our soul – our eyes and our ears. We turn off the TV and the radio, e.g., all the outside diversions that draw us out of ourselves into the world. The Fast, then, turns us inward into our “closet” (Mt 6:6), into the tomb of our heart. What do we see? Do we not see that we are “naked” (Gn 3:7), empty? Perhaps we may hear the spectral fluttering of dark spirits that we opened the doors of our soul to, wittingly or unwittingly, and who now dwell in the “tomb of our heart”. This is the “wilderness” we must pass through in our Exodus to the Promised Land. Or rather, as we will hear the Word of the LORD calling out to us through the prophet Ezekiel on Great and Holy Friday evening, at the Matins for Great and Holy Saturday, it is the “grave” we must “return” to (cf. Lk 23:56) in order to be raised by the LORD from it, a new creation, and brought into our “own land”, the Garden of Eden, in the “mighty act” of His Holy Resurrection (Eze 37:11-12).

When we enter into the “tomb of our heart”, the dark inner closet of our soul, and shut all the doors and windows and face full square our inner nakedness and emptiness, do we not begin to feel, beneath the boredom that first confronts us, the sharp bitterness of thorns and thistles poking at us from seeds we have sown in our soul; and beneath that, a vague dread that has settled over our soul like a low-grade fever, rising like an acrid vapor from a profound loneliness and forsakenness?

And, when we descend into our “closet” (Mt 6:6), do we not feel an overpowering compulsion to run away from the specters in the closet and to seek refuge and comfort in the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life”, and to weave fig leaves to cover our inner nakedness, or shall we say to shield us from the terror of our inner darkness?

I have come to see that this “returning” (cf. Lk 23:56) into the closet of our heart that is effected by the Fast, the closing of all the doors and “resting” (cf. Lk 23:56) in our “nakedness”, is the beginning of that mourning the LORD calls blessed. This nakedness of our inner loneliness and fear, I believe, is the corpse of our soul we discover in the tomb of our heart. St Isaac calls the Sabbath that is in reality and not a similitude the tomb (Hom 29); St Macarius says that our own heart is a tomb (Hom 11.11). The tomb of our heart, then, is the Sabbath on which the myrrhbearing women “rested”, or rather, in which they took up the “prayer of the heart”. In this “Sabbath rest” of the Fast, we are getting ready for the Great Physician to begin flushing out the filth from the mortal wound of our soul that has come about from our conceit.

But, how can the cleansing flush begin if we do not enter our closet? How can it do its work if we flee the Great Physician’s office and run back to Egypt? Will we not only fall deeper into hell? But, how can we face the terror of our inner closet apart from the Cross of Our LORD and Savior Jesus Christ? And so we fast, not in order to fast but in order to descend into the tomb of our heart in the power of the Cross, and to mourn and to wash away the filth of our souls with the cleansing tears of godly sorrow that fall like rain from heaven.

In our fast, we also pray. Denying ourselves our usual escapes, fighting to lose our worldly life, putting to death what is earthly in us, we turn the face of our heart inward to escape into the vision we hear in the words of the Church that carry Christ, and to find our life in the “great mystery” (Eph 5:31) of the Gospel: “Christ in you, the hope of glory!” (Col 1:27) We turn to take refuge from our “nakedness” in the “garments of skin”, i.e., in the Body of “Christ in you!” and to fill our emptiness not with the emptiness of the world’s lustful pleasures but with the great and terrible, life-creating and healing mystery of Christ and His Holy Church – the mystery of “Christ in you!”

Now, beloved faithful, our tears are joined by the Living Waters of Christ’s Holy Spirit that begin to pour like a River of Joy into the opening the tears of our mourning have created in our heart. The cleansing flush now becomes a mighty torrent according to the prophet (Eze 47:1-12). The divine image in us comes into view; and, we see the Divine Image in the Beauty of His Holy Resurrection. If we see Him, so St John says, we begin to become like Him, for we see Him as He is (I Jn 3:2), and ourselves as we really are! Amen!