For audio, click here
Hebrews 13:7-16 (Fathers)
John 17:1-13 (Fathers)
We celebrate this morning the holy fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council in the year 787 AD. This Council affirmed icons as central to the Orthodox Faith of the holy apostles (St Luke was the first iconographer, drawing an icon of the Blessed Virgin). For, Christ Himself is the Icon of the invisible God (Col 1:15). Man is an icon of the Icon of God. Thus, man is naturally kin to God. As an icon of the Icon of Christ, man exists by nature in the capacity to receive God and to become one with Him, to become himself, through the grace and love of God, a son of God.
To become one with God through faith and love: this is what we understand the fullness of salvation to be. And so, when the Icon of God became flesh and dwelt among us, emptying Himself to become one with us even to the point of death on the Cross in His love for us – this was but the fulfillment of the mystery of God hidden from the ages and generations, the mystery, as St Paul says, of “Christ in you, our hope of glory!” (Col 1:27)
This “Glory”, moreover, we understand to be of God. It is an uncreated glory that is of the uncreated Light, eternal Life, Love and Joy that are of the very “substance” of the immaterial and uncreated riches of God. This is the Glory that clothed Adam in the beginning. It is our “original beauty” – i.e., the beauty native to us, having been created in the image and likeness of God – Church’s liturgical texts refer to. It is the Robe of Light with which the Church clothes us at our baptism. And, it is because Christ, through the mystery of His becoming flesh and dwelling in us – suffering death on the Cross in His obedience to the Father and so destroying our death, the consequence of our sin and disobedience, and so becoming one with us – that we have this hope of Glory: this hope of being restored to our original beauty, clothed in the “wedding garment” of the uncreated Glory of God.
This “hope of Glory” is spiritual, and so it is mystical or unseen. Yet, this Glory, full of Grace and Truth, in the Glory of God the Father became flesh of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit, and was seen and heard and handled by the holy apostles. His flesh was real; it was not a mirage or in appearance only. It was our human nature in its fullness, and it became the flesh of God so that it was God who became man; it was God who was conceived and born of the Virgin; it was God who was crucified on the Cross; it was God who was dead and buried in the Tomb. And, it was His Burial in the Tomb that was, in fact, the “Sabbath Rest” that Moses was talking about in Genesis (2:1-3).
But, the Church is herself this mystery of the incarnate God who was crucified, dead and buried. For, she is the Bride, even the Body of Christ, the fullness of Him who is all in all. And He is her Bridegroom, the Head of this Living Body that is both divine and human, both seen and unseen. And so, the Church we do not understand or experience as a mere human organization but as a divine-human (a theanthropic) organism, an organic mystery of God having becoming one with man and of man becoming one with God in the fullness of salvation. Thus, in the mystery of the Church, we can say today with the holy apostles of old, “What we have seen, heard and handled with our hands, this we proclaim to you, the WORD of Life who was in the beginning!” We proclaim this through “icons”: icons of words and dogmatic concepts, icons of liturgical movements and gestures, icons of wood and paint. All of these icons of the Church together form the lineaments of the Body of Christ; they show truly the shape of Christ even as they carry Christ. They show the true Christ because none of these icons are generated from the imagination of man. They are given to us by the Holy Spirit in the Church that is the Body of Christ; and so, these “icons” show Christ as He is; they do not show Christ as man imagines Him to be. They are not the shape of some human’s idea of Christ; they are the shape of Christ Himself.
That means that they are all witnesses to the Icon of God who alone is Himself the Resurrection and the Life, who was raised from the dead and whose death and burial alone have transfigured death into the beginning of life, and the tomb as the entrance into life. This is why St Paul thunders: “If I or even an angel from heaven should teach a different Gospel than what I gave to you – this Gospel that I received not from man but from God – let him be anathema!” Eternal life or death is at stake! And so, for the Church – the Orthodox Church of the holy apostles – Orthodox iconography is critical and essential; for, it proclaims Christ, not man’s ideas of Christ. It proclaims Him who alone is the true Resurrection and the Life; it sets before us, following St Paul (I Thes 4:1), the “how” it is necessary for us to walk that we may ascend the holy mountain of Eden and attain the summit to the Tree of Life who is Christ our God, Christ our LORD, who became one with us that we might become one with Him not just in theory, but truly and thoroughly one with Him by eating His Body and drinking His Blood as our food and drink, so that even as we carry in our mortal bodies the death of Jesus, we in fact are living in the life of His holy Resurrection, for it is by His death working in us that our death is destroyed, and our descent to the tomb is transfigured into our ascent into heaven.
All of this is proclaimed in the Icon. As the icon is not a “theory” but a concrete image, so the proclamation of the Church is not theoretical but concrete, comprehending not just our mind but our body and our soul as well. And, even as Christ is the Icon of God and the WORD of God, so these icons of the Church are so many “words” of the WORD of God. And so, when the LORD explains this morning that the “seed of God is the “WORD of God”, we understand Him to mean that all the icons of the Church constitute together the Seed of God that rains on all of us like the spring rain falling and moistening the whole earth. They are the words – the doctrines and prayers and hymns of the Church – of the WORD of God that shine and illumine the earth as do the rays of the sun.
This life-giving Seed of God shines on everyone; it rains on everyone. This WORD of God, says St Paul, is living and active (Heb 4:12). It is sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the division of soul and spirit to discern the thoughts and intentions of our heart – not to condemn us, but to cleanse and heal us of our sins, our sicknesses and infirmities of soul and body deep within, at the very root, in our hearts.
Let’s not pretend that our soul is the good soil. Let’s acknowledge and confess that our soul is the ground choked by the weeds, the cares and pleasures of the flesh, that it is hardened by our egotism, self-righteous conceit, anger and cynicism, resentments, self-pity, laziness, fear of coming into the Light. But, the soil represents not only our soul but also the spiritual climate our family lives in. What spirit reign in our home? Whose words reign? Our own words, the world’s words, or the words of the WORD of God? May I again call on all of us to center our lives and the rhythm of our home on the liturgical rhythm of the Life of the Church, the Body of Christ so that we live in Christ and not in the world, so that we can be healed of our sins and our death and the soil of our soul be transfigured into good soil that receives the WORD of God into our hearts, raising us to live in the joy, the love, the Life of our baptismal garment, the Robe of Glory in which the image of God that fell of old has been renewed, and in which we walk in the Light of Christ to become like our Father in Heaven? Amen!