|*** New: Homily for Sunday of Orthodoxy 2017|
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit: Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory Forever!
On this day, we celebrate the triumph of Orthodoxy... and more specifically, the restoration of the icons in the worship of the Orthodox Church. This predates, by the way, the divisions of the Eastern and Western Church and should be a celebration that would include all of us.
So, why would the restoration of icons be a triumph of the Orthodox, that is the correct believing, faith (both East and West)? It is an affirmation of the Incarnation of the Lord Himself. In the original prescriptions against images in the Old Testament, we know that this was because God, a spirit, could not be depicted. Any image of God from the Old Testament would be, in essence, an idol, a false image. With the incarnation, now we can depict God in the flesh. We can depict the Incarnate Lord. While we cannot depict His Essence, we can depict Christ in the flesh. Jesus Christ, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, is indeed a Person. To depict his flesh is to depict Him. This is also part of the triumph of Orthodox thought in that we understand that there is only one person in the Incarnate Christ. Ancient heresies abounded one which said that Christ did not appear in the flesh, but that His appearance was an illusion of a real incarnation; another said that in Christ there were two persons, as it were, the Logos of God and the man, Jesus Christ. Because we understand that Christ is one person in two natures, that to depict the man, Jesus Christ, is to depict the person as well.
That’s well and good concerning Christ, but what about the saints? Why do we have icons of the saints and why do we venerate these icons? It is fairly simple: because each of the saints is an icon of the Lord as well. They were historical figures, real people who could be depicted, but they are also images of Christ…or rather I should say, they are persons who have attained unto the likeness of Christ.
Then we can ask ourselves how can we offer veneration (not worship!) to an image? How does that work? How does the veneration pass on to the prototype, as it were? One thing that I’d say is: it’s a mystery! I could leave it there, but that wouldn’t satisfy many people who are non-Orthodox. There is a way that we can understand this that might help in explaining to non-Orthodox how the veneration passes on to the subject of the image. I say this because our use of icons is one of the major stumbling blocks for many non-Orthodox in approaching our faith.
If we are asked about this (or confronted… sometimes it can be like that… but it’s important to be calm when confronted), ask if the person says the pledge of allegiance to the flag. It works much the same way. We are not really pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth, but to country. How do we feel when the flag is burned? We feel upset and attacked. How do we feel when the flag is honored? We feel honored. It’s the same with the images of the saints…. But it goes deeper too.
We are lucky that we have computers these days. They can be a great tool in teaching others about how icons work…. And I don’t mean because of Google or all the information on the internet. I mean specifically the computer programs themselves: their very nature. If we look at a desktop on a computer, we see a lot of little pictures. What are those pictures called? Icons! What happens when we click on an icon? We open the program. We can show this to a non-Orthodox and ask this question: is the icon on the computer, the program itself, or a means of opening the program? They are a means of opening the program. We call icons windows into heaven and this is accurate. They are not the saints themselves, they are not Christ or the Theotokos. They are windows to them. Remember the days before cell phones when mom would stick her head out a window and call for you to come in to supper or to come home? I do. So when we click on an icon in a computer we open that program, when we kiss an icon in a Church or our home, we open the window to them an call out to them.
And they can call back! We’ve seen this in the numerous icons that have wept myrrh or been wonder working. The icons themselves are not wonder working, but the Lord works through the image and through the saint to reach us.
The Lord works through icons to reach others. This is very important for us to remember, because we are also icons of the Lord … and other people are icons of the Lord for us.
In today’s Gospel, we heard St. Philip say “Come and see” when Nathanael questioned him about Jesus being the Messiah. Philip had said, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” This tells us that Philip (and others) had been diligently seeking the messiah. They had been seeking and the Lord found them first and called them to Himself. When Philip had heard, “Follow Me.” He immediately did so and then went to find his friend to bring him along. He and the other Disciples had a distinct advantage. They knew the Scriptures and were looking for the Messiah, and when Christ came in the flesh, they could “Come and see.” They could meet Christ face to face. They could touch Him. They could hear His voice, as we see that Nathanael did and he believed in Christ based on that meeting.
They were even witnesses to the Resurrection of the Lord. The Lord even said to Thomas, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” The Lord knew, of course He did, that there would be generations of believers who would not have the advantage of being eye witnesses to the Resurrection; who would not have been able to touch the side of the Risen Lord.
But we still say to this day, “Come and see.” We say it to those who do not know the Old Testament, we say it to those who do not know about Christ. We say it to those who may think that they know Christ and His Church but have received a twisted version of it and because of this reject the Church (how many times have I heard of people who were abused or harmed supposedly in the name of Christ…. It is heart breaking… and this includes all the religious – so called – wars of the past). We say it because, as St. Paul wrote in Romans, “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” People need to hear the Good News. They need to hear that invitation, that “come and see.”
What are they going to see? With us they will see the icons which can bring them closer to the Lord and His saints; which can be that window to heaven. But more than that, they need to see Christ in each one of us. We are also icons of Christ. We are also His flesh and bones since we partake of His Body and Blood.
I heard on the radio and then confirmed it on the computer (thank you Google) that when a mother is pregnant some of the cells of the baby migrate through the placenta and enter her brain. There is a lifelong physical connection between a mother and child. Just think of the implications for the Theotokos and Christ! Now, in out theology we believe that we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. We too become connected with Christ in this same physical, though mystical way. Our flesh becomes Christ’s flesh. We are one with Christ and with each other in a deeply profound manner. When we say come and see to a person outside of the Church, then we had better have something for them to see! We can give them the incense, the beautiful worship, and, of course, the beautiful icons; but most of all we are called to give them the love of Christ so that when they come and see us they will have truly seen Christ living and working through us. On this Sunday of Orthodoxy, let us remember our high calling to be icons ourselves. Let us heed the words of St. Paul in today’s Epistle:
“let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
© 2017 Fr. Philip Kontos