Today, in addition to observing the First Sunday of Lent, we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy – a good time for us to reflect on the significance of the Orthodox faith, the faith that should always guide our lives. Our celebration today recalls a time, over a thousand years ago, back in the eighth century, when the Emperor Leo III issued an edict in Constantinople which declared that all icons were idols and should be destroyed. There were a number of factors which led to this: some declared that divinity could not be represented in material form, some claimed that people were worshiping the icons, and then both Islam and Judaism forbade the use of images in worship. The controversy raged for some sixty years, becoming violent and deadly at times. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in 787, declared that it was good and right to venerate the icons, while our worship is reserved for God alone. This should have ended the fight, but it continued until the year 843 when the Empress Theodora, together with the Patriarch Methodius caused the icons to be restored to the churches on the First Sunday of Lent. Since that time the church has celebrated the Triumph of Orthodoxy on this date. While our focus is on the return of the icons, this day has also become a time to rejoice in the triumph of the Orthodox Faith over all that is wrong and harmful.
It was wrong and harmful for people to say that God – divinity – could not be portrayed in material form. They were, in a sense, saying that all matter was bad and only the spirit was good, rejecting what we read in Genesis, that God looked at all that He had made and declared it good. However much we have messed things up, obscured the beauty and corrupted creation, it is still true that what God has made is good – even good enough to convey divinity to us. St. Paul said that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God;” the Greek word here is icon. In Christ, God has made an icon of Himself. God became man – took material form – He became an icon. St. John of Damascus called icons, “open books to remind us of God.” In this way Jesus shows us God in a form we can begin to see and hear and understand. In addition to being a icon of God, Jesus is also an icon of perfect man, showing us how we are to be, showing us what we were created to be. It is also good and right for us to make and venerate icons of the Mother of God and of all the saints, for they too have been images of God, showing us how to live the Christ-like life and what it means to be a Christian. Again St. John of Damascus said “The icon is a hymn of triumph, a manifestation, a memorial inscribed for those who have fought and conquered, humbling the demons and putting them to flight.” He went on to say: “I do not worship matter; I worship the creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter.” Today when we venerate an icon we are not worshiping a painted board, rather we are showing our love, our respect, our desire to follow the path shown by the icon. When we kiss an icon of Christ, in our hearts we are kissing Christ Himself.
We too are to live as icons of Christ, showing the image of God within us to all those around us. Most of us, when we are honest with ourselves, realize that we have not done such a good job of being icons of Christ, instead what we show to those around us is far from Christ-like. The image of God is still there within us, but it is tarnished and dirty. It needs to be cleansed and restored. We have become sick and we need to be healed. Aware of this, the Church calls us to the observance of a holy Lent. As we typically do not spend enough time with our hearts focused on God, we are now called to spend more time in prayer. As we typically allow our physical appetites to have control over us, we are now called to fasting, putting certain foods aside and eating less. As we typically are more focused on ourselves, rather than others, we are now called to almsgiving, remembering those in need. As we typically forget how harmful influences in the world around us can be, we are now called to watchfulness, guarding our hearts and minds, our eyes, ears and tongues. As we typically give little thought to how we have missed the mark of living the Christ-like life, we are now called to self-examination, repentance and confession. Each of these things: prayer, fasting, almsgiving, watchfulness and confession – are medicine for our souls. They cleanse and restore us, helping to uncover that beautiful and marvelous image of God within each of us. This Lenten medicine also reminds us how we should be throughout the year, serving more effectively as icons of Christ.
The Orthodox faith is also medicine for our salvation. Most often we think of the word “orthodox” as meaning what is right and true, particularly in terms of the teaching of the Church. This is certainly true of the Orthodox Church which has faithfully and obediently kept the teaching of Christ and His apostles – and this is why so many of us have been led to seek out and join ourselves to the Orthodox Church. But there is more to being Orthodox than simply holding the right doctrine. The word “Orthodox” literally means “right praise, right glory, right worship.” To be Orthodox means to worship the One, true and living God revealed to us in Scripture and in the life of the Church. Yes, we do this by entering into the liturgies of the Church, but we also do it by the way we live, by offering “ourselves, our souls and bodies” as a living sacrifice to God. We worship God by “ortho-praxis,” by right living – by following the example of Christ and the saints – by following the example shown to us in the holy icons.
At Vespers this evening we will hear from the Synodikon for the Sunday of Orthodoxy. In that reading we will hear praise for the Orthodox Faith, “this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe.” This is an astounding claim. It would just be rather silly, if it were not completely true. Our faith holds that God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – created all things in love; that all that God created is good; that even after we had turned away from God, turned away from life itself, that God still loved us enough to become one of us and share our life in order to show us how to live; that God took our life, our sin, even our death upon Himself to cleanse, restore and heal us – so that we may live with Him for eternity. Our faith holds that God has called His Church into being, to be a holy people, fed and nourished by unchanging Truth and the wondrous Holy Mysteries. This is what we celebrate today. This is why I rejoice to be Orthodox. “This is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe.”