|29 - First Sunday of Lent, March 24, 2013|
Hebrews 11:24-26, 3 – 12:2
This year, we have the rare occurrence when the first Sunday of Great Lent – when we commemorate the affirmation of the holy fathers of the Church in 841 AD, viz., that icons are not simply permitted but even essential to Christian worship – falls on the eve of the Annunciation, when God was conceived as man in the womb of the blessed Virgin; and so we have on this Sunday the rare opportunity to reflect on the theology of the icon in the festal light of the Annunciation.
St Paul writes: “Christ is the icon of the invisible God in whom all things were made.” (Col 1:15) He is “the radiance of the Father’s glory who holds all things by the word of His power.” (Hebr 1:3) The image of God in which Adam was created is therefore Christ Himself. Created in Christ – in the Image of God – Adam as male and female “puts on Christ”, wearing Him as a Radiant Robe of Light as he comes into existence.
St Paul in his letter to the Hebrews goes on to say that Christ is the very character of the Father’s Person (hypostasis); the image here is that of the impression left by the stamp of the Father. Christ is the “spitting image” of the Father, so that He can say to Philip, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” (Jn 14:9) The earliest teaching of the Church took from this to teach that Adam’s creation in the image of God meant not only that he was clothed in the radiance of Christ, but that, as male and female, Adam also looked like Christ, so that Adam was the “spitting” image and likeness of Christ even as Christ is the “spitting” Image and Likeness of the Father.
So, when Christ God was conceived of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, He received our humanity from the Virgin and clothed Himself with it as with a garment. The Image of God, Christ, clothed Himself with the image of God, Adam, when He became man, just as the image of God, Adam, was clothed with the Image of God, Christ, when he, Adam, came into existence as male and female.
The theology of the icon, then, is much, much more than the justification of iconography as religious art. It is the theology of man’s destiny that is nothing less than union with God because of man’s natural “kinship” with God. The icon proclaims in images and colors the Gospel of Christ’s Incarnation by which God has restored us to our natural destiny of existing in God, of living in God. The icon proclaims our salvation; it has been accomplished in the loving mystery of God clothing Himself in the garment of our humanity so that we can clothe ourselves in the garment of Christ’s divinity and become partakers of His divine nature, radiant in the Robe of Light that shimmers and dances with the glory and virtue of God.
“The infinite and inconceivable God in His kindness diminished Himself,” says St Macarius (Homily IV), “and put on the members of this body, and gathered Himself in from His inaccessible glory; and through His love of man transforms and embodies Himself and mixes with and assumes holy, well-pleasing, faithful souls and becomes one Spirit with them (I Cor 6:17), soul in soul, if I may put it so, substance in substance so that the soul may be enabled to live in newness and to feel immortal life and may become partaker of glory incorruptible.”
The celebration today of the restoration of icons and the dogma of Christ’s Annunciation puts this glorious proclamation of our being saved, our being restored to oneness with God, in the setting of the Great Fast, when we take up the ascetic discipline of the Fast to prepare ourselves for Christ’s Holy Pascha.
The Fast is the extension of the Cross of Christ. From the Matins service of this last Wednesday, for example, we hear that the Fast is the “flower of abstinence that grows from the tree of the Cross.” (Lenten Triodion, p. 230) so, by taking up the Fast, we take up the Cross Christ commands us to take up if we would follow Him. We take up the Fast and we lose our life for Christ’s sake; we lose the life of the world that is death, and we find the death of Christ that is life. By the Fast, the “flower of abstinence” that grows from the tree of the Cross, we “crucify our members through abstinence,” as it says in the Lenten Triodion. We fast, we abstain from the passions (gluttony, lust, greed, anger, vanity, pride, etc.) and “for the Lord’s sake, crucify our flesh.” We live according to Christ’s commandments, and we “show that the pride of the flesh is dead” in us. (Ibid.) Do you see that taking up the Fast is how we set out to fulfill our baptismal oath to unite ourselves to Christ; for, by the fast we participate in a concrete way, we make incarnate the mystery of our baptism by which we were united to Christ in a death like His?
The flesh that we crucify by means of the Fast is the flesh of the old Adam. We are not doing this in thought. In a very concrete, physical way, we are putting to death the death that reigns in our members because of the passions. The iconography of the Gospel shows us that the Fast is how we unite ourselves to Christ in a death like His, and are buried with Him in a burial like His. If, by the “Cross of the Fast”, we put to death the old Adam in us, are we not buried with Christ in the tomb of His Holy Pascha? And, when we are buried with Christ, we take off the burial clothes of the death that clothed us like a shroud just as Christ took off the burial clothes that clothed His body as a shroud in the tomb. And, if through the Fast we are united with Christ in the likeness of His death, we are united through the Fast also to Christ in the likeness of His Holy Resurrection. Through the Fast, we are taking off the burial clothes of the old Adam and we are putting on the Robe of Light that is Christ Himself, so that clothed in Christ, we are clothed in the radiant glory of the Father in the joy of Christ’s Holy Resurrection.
Now perhaps we begin to understand why the Church enjoins us to wash our faces in a heavenly joy when we take up the Fast; and why there is joy when we confess our sins in a broken and contrite heart. It’s because by taking the Cross of the Fast we are taking off the burial clothes of the old man and we are putting on the radiant garment of the new humanity that Christ took from the Virgin, and that He made alive and godlike in His Holy Pascha. Through the Fast, we are dying to death, and we are being saved, we are coming to life in Christ, we are being clothed in Christ not just in thought but in our bodies. Dying to death, we are waking up to our real “name”, the “person” we really are: men and women naturally “kin” to God.
When we process with our holy icons at the end of this morning’s Divine Liturgy, let’s understand that by this procession of icons we are making an icon of our following Christ to His Cross through the “Cross of the Fast”. And, we are holding in our hands the glorious proclamation of the Gospel, given in the form of words in the Holy Scripture, given in the form of images and color in the holy icons: viz., that by becoming flesh and dwelling among us, God has clothed Himself in our humanity so that we can be clothed in the glory of His divinity.
Our bodies, then, are the icon that we carry at all times, for it is the glory of our bodies clothed with the Garment of the Glory of Christ through the mystery of the Annunciation, His Incarnation and Holy Pascha that the Church proclaims in the word of Holy Scripture and in the image of the icon. That means that our soul is the “nave” and our heart is the “sanctuary” of the temple of our body; and that means that we are made to be the temple of God, we are made to be those in whom God dwells. Our body is the “Garden” of Eden where God would walk with us in “the cool of the evening”.
Through the Cross of Christ, given to us in the form of the Great Fast, we are “changing our clothes” from the burial clothes of the old Adam to the Radiant Robe of the New Adam’s Glorious Resurrection. Through the Fast, we are attaining to the likeness of Christ, the Icon of the invisible God, in whom we were made. Through the Fast, we are attaining to the joy of Christ’s Holy Resurrection; we are preparing ourselves for the festal joy of Pascha. May it be so! Amen.