26 - Triumph of Orthodoxy, First Sunday of Great Lent, Mar 9, 2014

This morning, the Church commemorates the triumph of Orthodoxy over iconoclasm and the restoration of icons in the worship of the Church. This took place at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 A.D., and again in 843 A.D. On this occasion, I would like to share with you some reflections on the theological vision that the icon “shows forth”.

We should know well by now the theological reason for icons. Because God became flesh so that He could be seen with the eyes, heard with the ears and touched with the hands, we can draw icons of Him in the flesh. Icons of the Savior and of His All-Holy Mother, the most-blessed Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary, drawn according to strict canons, proclaim that God the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Icons of the saints proclaim that, in the Holy Resurrection of Christ, man can be glorified and restored to his original beauty in the image and likeness of God. The glorification and transfiguration of the body that is portrayed in the holy icons tells us that the body and therefore the material world is good. It is spiritual because it can receive the uncreated God to become His body. Far from being destroyed when it is united with God, the material world is transfigured and glorified.

The Church affirms that the veneration offered to the icon passes on to its prototype who is in Heaven. This tells us that the spiritual world of Heaven exists not on a separate plane parallel to the world but in the world even as it is not of the world. The Kingdom of Heaven is within you, says the LORD. The many weeping and myrrh-streaming and miracle-working icons show us that heaven and earth meet in the icon.

An ordinary work of art is drawn according to rules of perspective so that the viewer looks as a spectator on the drawing. The icon, however, is drawn according to “inverted perspective”. Instead of receding into the distance, the subject of the icon gently tugs at the viewer to draw him into the icon. If you submit to the pull of the icon, it draws you out of yourself and into the icon.

Perhaps this is why many nowadays call the icon a “window” into heaven. But, the holy fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council in 787 A.D. called the icon a “mirror”, not a “window”. This tells us that when we look into the icon we are seeing the reflection of a heavenly mystery that is within us, not outside of us. So, when we feel ourselves drawn out of ourselves and into the icon, we are being drawn into ourselves. Here is a riddle, an evangelical koan: how can you be drawn into yourself by being drawn outside of yourself?

Here’s my answer: the icon is drawing us out of our worldly selves that we, like Narcissus, are enamored with – our prosopa or outer faces or “masks”, to use the Greek (persona in Latin) – and into our true self, our hypostasis: i.e. our “ontological” or “spiritual” or “real” or “personal” center that “stands underneath” (hypo-stasis) our “outer faces” as our “personal” foundation (the hypostasis) or principle. This is the heart, or the mind in the heart, as we are taught by the holy fathers. But, the heart, brothers and sisters, is mystically one with the tomb of Christ (cf. St Macarius the Egyptian, Homily XI.11).

I see in this inner movement effected in us by the icon the same movement of the incarnate God. It is the movement of the Church, as we should expect because the Church is the body of Christ. It is the movement we enter into when we pass through the waters of our baptism and when we take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church as our cross to follow Christ, especially in Great Lent. It is the movement of Christ to Jerusalem, to His Cross on Golgotha and to the tomb in the Garden.

This movement of the icon, drawing us out of our worldly masks and onto the inner path that descends into the tomb of our heart, embodies or makes incarnate the call of Christ and His Bride: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Come; let him who is thirsty come! Let him who desires, come and receive the water of life that is priceless!” (Jn 7:37 & Rev 22:17)

I would say, therefore, that the icon is the very Church herself. Christ Himself, says St Paul, is the icon of the invisible God. (Col 1:15) The Church in Greek is the ekklesia – She who has been called out from darkness to light, from death to life in the incarnate LORD’s Holy Pascha. The icon makes the call of Christ incarnate in wood and paint; but, also in dogma, in liturgical ritual and hymnody; for, all of these are “icons” that proclaim the incarnate crucified and risen God in intellectual concepts, speech and music, in bodily movements and gestures. The icon is the “epiphany” of the call of Christ sounding forth from His tomb; i.e., from the tomb of our heart, coming to us living on the surface in our worldly masks from deep within our heart, from within the image of God that weare in the original principle of our being.

The movement, or let’s say, the call of the icon, or, let’s say, the call of the Church, of the ekklesia is calling us out of ourselves and into our heart as into the tomb of Christ. It is the call of repentance, the call of Christ: whoever would follow Me and be My disciple, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me! All the icons of the Church, then – her icons of preaching and teaching, of liturgical hymnody, ritual and gesture – all together are the letter of invitation, let’s say, to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb of Christ and His Bride: the invitation to become partakers of the divine nature by uniting ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death so that we may be united to Him in the likeness of His Resurrection and pass over with Him into the Garden of Eden, the Kingdom of Heaven that is within us.

Orthodox worship is not entertainment. It is iconic. That is to say, imbedded in all her icons – her icons of wood and paint, her icons of hymnody, of liturgical movements, of preaching and teaching – is the call of the Spirit and His Bride coming to us not from worldly sentiment, however sublime that may be, but from the Garden of Christ’s Holy Resurrection that the tomb of our heart opens onto. It stirs the soul; it raises her up so that she can begin to sense the presence of a beauty, a goodness, a light that are not of this world, which eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered the heart of man. And yet, the heart recognizes it immediately, as though she knows it, intimately. I do wonder if we are at all right to believe that this inner experience generated by the Church’s holy icons of sight and sound, noetic concept and bodily movement might be the risen LORD Jesus Christ Himself piercing us all the way to the division of our soul and spirit (Heb 4;12) in the tomb of our hearts and breathing His Holy Spirit on us, shining the light of His Glory on our eyes, so that we are beginning to awaken from a long, deep sleep, the sleep of death, (Psa 13:3, (12:4 LXX)) to life – not the life of the world, but the life of the Holy Spirit of God who was our original inspiration.

 If Orthodox worship is the icon, the embodiment of the call of heaven coming to us from out of the depths of our heart, then the ascetic, Lenten disciplines of the Church – praying and fasting, the sincere confession of our sins in humility and contrition, the acts of mercy – are the Cross we are called to take up in response to that call. Taking up the Church’s ascetic disciplines is how we do the work of repentance that the LORD Jesus Christ gave to Adam and Eve in their transgression as their way back to Eden when Christ, the seed of Eve, should come and crush the head of the serpent even as the serpent bites His heel. It is how we turn away from our worldly masks and set our eyes on the tomb of our heart that opens onto the Kingdom of Heaven that is within us. It is the way, brothers and sisters, to the LORD’s Holy Pascha.

So we celebrate the restoration of icons on this First Sunday of Great Lent as the Triumph of Orthodoxy, and rightly so! It is for us a feast of joy and gladness because the holy icons lead us to union with the LORD whom we love and desire. (LT, p. 310) In that joy, we set out upon the Second Week of the Fast, putting the enemy to flight and gaining the victory by the Cross (LT p, 312) of Christ as we draw near the tomb of our heart to the gates that open onto the Garden of Eden. Amen!