What Great Lent is All About: Becoming a Living Icon of God’s Love for Humankind (Homily for the Sunday of Orthodoxy or First Sunday in Lent in the Orthodox Church)


           During this season of Great Lent, much changes in the services of the Church and much should change in our lives also.  We may be tempted to think that the point of these weeks is found simply in the liturgies themselves:  different colors, longer prayers, and more services.  For example, we serve the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great on Sundays in Lent with its longer anaphora or Eucharistic prayer.  We also carry icons in a procession at the end of Liturgy today to celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy, which commemorates the restoration of icons after the period of iconoclasm many centuries ago. But instead of thinking that we have started Lent well simply by participating in these services, you and I must also become what we celebrate, what we enact in them.  Otherwise, we will miss entirely the point not only of the services, but of Lent itself.    

            In St. Basil’s lengthy Eucharistic prayer, there is great stress on God’s philanthropiaor love for human beings manifested in the kenotic or self-emptying love of Jesus Christ in His incarnation, death, and resurrection in order to bring broken, fallen humanity into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  The prayer also asks the Father to pour out mercy upon everyone who suffers from the ill effects of the brokenness of life in the world as know it, such as the sick, the poor, prisoners and captives, as well as all who endure physical and spiritual difficulties not befitting those who bear the image and likeness of God.  St. Basil’s petitions remind us that, if we want the Father’s mercy for the healing of our brokenness and even dare to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ as unworthy prodigal sons and daughters, we must then live as those who are truly in communion with the Lord.  In other words, the philanthropic, self-emptying love of God that we claim for ourselves must become evident and active in us, especially in how we treat those all around us who suffer in any way and who are in need of help and friendship.   In other words, we who boldly pray these prayers we must become living icons of the very divine love and blessing that we want for ourselves.  That is ultimately the goal of this Lenten season.  
            As beautiful as the icons that adorn our Church are, they are not fundamentally works of art that could just as easily be in a museum or gallery.  They are actually windows to heaven which remind us that the Son of God really has become one of us, with a visible human body, and that we are called to become like the saints whose images are portrayed in them. For we are all icons of God, created in His image and likeness.  Jesus Christ is the new Adam Who has restored and healed every dimension of our fallen humanity, and brought us, as distinct persons, into the very life of the Holy Trinity.
            When we carry icons in the procession at the end of Liturgy today, we call ourselves to become better living icons of the Lord.  The word “icon” means image, and we are all created in the image of God with the calling to grow constantly to become more like Him.  Contrary to popular opinion, religion is not fundamentally about morality, politics, family stability, social order, or psychological adjustment.  It is about participating personally in the life of God, about becoming holy in a way that overturns all the categories and assumptions of the world as we know it.  The Lord’s promise to Nathanael, “you shall see the heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” is for all who share personally in the deification of humanity that Jesus Christ has brought to the world.  That is ultimately the goal of this Lenten season.  
            The good news we celebrate today is that, in our Lord, we are no longer shut out of paradise.  Now is the time to start living in a way that bears witness to the great salvation that He has brought to the world.  Now is the time, through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and forgiveness, to become living icons of a self-emptying mercy that is beyond anything that our fallen world can understand.  Now is the time to display in our own lives the same divine mercy that we ask for ourselves.

            As we pray St. Basil’s Eucharistic prayer on the next several Sundays, and as we process with our icons today, let us all do so with genuine gratitude for the love of Jesus Christ for sick, weak, and corrupt sinners like you and me.  And then let us go out into the world and shine forth with that same love in tangible, practical ways that bless our neighbors, even our enemies, and manifest the holy and eternal life that our Savior has brought to the world. Yes, my brothers and sisters, that is ultimately the goal of this Lenten season. 

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