Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40; John 1:43-51
We often overlook one of the most fundamental issues facing people today: What does it mean to be a human person? It is so easy to get caught up in worry about all kinds of lesser matters that we ignore the central one of who we are before God. Of course, that is the central point, for we cannot even begin to grasp our identity, dignity, and vocation without recognizing that we bear God’s image and likeness. In other words, to be a human being is to be an icon of the divine. Adam and Eve rejected that truth about themselves and chose simply to use their abilities to get what they wanted. In doing so, they accepted the lie that they would become more fully themselves by fulfilling their self-centered desires as they lived on their own terms. They rejected the calling that lies at the very heart of being in God’s image, which is to become more like God in holiness. In effect, they refused to fulfill their potential to become beautiful living icons.
As today’s epistle reading indicates, generations of faithful people in the Old Testament lived and suffered in hope of the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless the entire world through the descendants of Abraham. “And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Their fulfillment awaited the coming of the New Adam Who conquers the enslaving power of death and enables those united to Him in faith to become “partakers of the divine nature.” Only One Who is both divine and human could do that, and to be human requires a physical body. The true incarnation of the Son of God is necessary for our salvation, for a true healing of the human person must include every dimension of our life.
We celebrate today the restoration of icons in the Orthodox Church in the 9th century after the iconoclastic controversy, when images had been banned due to a misplaced fear of idolatry. As we proclaim in the procession at the end of Liturgy today, we worship only God, while we venerate or honor icons of Christ, the Theotokos, and the Saints. Icons manifest the truth of the incarnation of the Son of God, for only One Who is truly human with a physical body may be portrayed in an icon. Not only do icons convey the truth about the Savior, but they also call us to embrace the truth about what it means to be a human person in the image and likeness of God. The New Adam is true humanity, and it is only by becoming more like Him as we share in His life by grace that we may become more fully our true selves.
Nathaniel said, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” because the Lord had seen him under the fig tree. The Savior responded, “Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these…Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” Jesus Christ calls us all to nothing less than personal participation in the eternal life of God as we become radiant with the gracious divine energies. The more we share in His life, the more fully we will become the uniquely beautiful icons that He created us to be. That is simply another way of saying that we will fulfill our basic human vocation to become like Him in holiness.
The season of Lent provides us all with many opportunities to do precisely that. Through intensified prayer, we ground our lives in God as we turn away from obsession with our vain thoughts and other distracting wastes of time. Through fasting, we learn humility as we wrestle with the addiction to self-centered desire that corrupts our souls. Through generosity with our resources and attention on behalf of our neighbors, we grow in freedom from self-centeredness and in love for others in whom we encounter our Lord. By confessing and repenting of our sins, we find healing from self-inflicted wounds that bring only pain and weakness to our lives. Through these and other spiritual disciplines, we become more fully our true selves as the people God created us to be in the divine image and likeness.
Doing so is neither easy nor popular, of course. It requires rejecting the popular myth that we are isolated and self-defining individuals who find meaning in gratifying our desires for power and pleasure however we want. Accepting that lie will lead only to idolatry, regardless of which worldly agenda we give our hearts to. We will find true joy and freedom in accepting the high calling to become more like God holiness, not in rejecting it. To turn away from who we are in God is to diminish ourselves and pursue a path that leads inevitably to misery and despair. As those who bear the divine image and likeness, we will find fulfillment only in Him.
If we want to be prepared to follow Christ to His Cross and empty tomb at Pascha, we must embrace His restoration of the human person as fully as possible by uniting ourselves to the New Adam, the One Who embodies true humanity. Lenten practices are not instruments of punishment or legalism, but blessed tools for becoming more fully our true selves as living icons of God. In the coming weeks, let us use prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and repentance for our salvation. That is how we too “will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” That is how we will embrace our calling as human persons in the divine image and likeness.