Titus 3:8-15; Luke 8:5-15
One of the most obvious characteristics of any Orthodox church is the presence of icons. They certainly beautify the church, but it would be a mistake to think that they are present merely for aesthetical reasons. They actually manifest the deepest truths of our faith, including the good news that the Son of God became fully human in order to restore us as His living icons. The God-Man has fulfilled our vocation to become like God in holiness and made it possible for us to shine brightly with the divine glory by grace. In order for that to happen, however, we must offer ourselves to become ever more beautiful icons of Christ.
Today we commemorate the 367 Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council, which met in Nicaea in 787. This council rejected the false teaching that honoring icons is a form of idolatry, and instead distinguished between the worship that is due to God alone and the veneration that is appropriate for images of Christ, the Theotokos, and the Saints. Their formulation highlighted the importance of the Savior’s incarnation, for only a truly human Savior could restore human persons to the dignity and beauty of the living icons of God. And if He is truly human, then He may be represented in visual imagery.
The 7th Ecumenical Council addressed matters that strike at the very heart of our salvation, and which call us to embrace our fundamental vocation to become like God in holiness. The veneration of icons should prod us all to wrestle with the question of who we are and who we want to become. Too often, however, we think that iconography simply has to do with wood and paint, and we ignore the question of whether we are becoming more beautiful icons of Christ. The icons are not merely examples of religious art, but reminders that to become truly human is to become like Jesus Christ, for He has healed the corruption of the human person that began with the first Adam.
Like it or not, we are going to grow a bit in the image of something or someone every day of our lives. It is easy, of course, to live like an icon of some aspect of this world, as though we were created in the image and likeness of pleasure, possessions, or power. To what have we devoted ourselves? Who do we want to become like? What shapes our thoughts, hopes, and desires? If we answer these questions truthfully, we will know whether we are living as icons of Christ or of some other god. Regardless of whether we burn incense before the altar of another lord, we can easily fall into the idolatry of thinking, speaking, and acting as those who offer themselves fundamentally to serve something or someone of this world. No matter how appealing or allegedly noble doing so may seem, it inevitably mars the beauty of our souls and keeps us from sharing more fully in the life of Christ.
Today’s gospel reading addresses these same questions with different imagery. Christ used the parable of the sower to call His disciples to become like plants that grew from the seed that “fell into good soil and grew, and yielded a hundredfold.” He wanted them to become “those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.” Unfortunately, not all who hear the Word of God will do so. Some never even believe, while others seem to make a good start and then fall away due to temptation or “are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” They do not fulfill their potential as plants, for they fail to grow to the point of bearing fruit.
That is exactly what occurs when we fail to fulfill our potential as those who bear the image of God. Our very nature is to be living icons of the Savior. We diminish and distort ourselves when we make anyone or anything else the ultimate standard or model for our lives. Plants must grow and flourish as the kinds of plants that they are in order to become healthy and bear fruit. Farmers must care for them accordingly. The sun, soil, moisture, and nutrients must be appropriate for that particular type of plant in order for there to be good hope of success. In order for us to bear good fruit for the Kingdom, we must attend to the health of our souls with the conscientiousness of a careful farmer or gardener. If we do not, we will have little hope of success in becoming more fully who we are as living icons of Christ.
In today’s epistle lesson, St. Paul urged St. Titus to tell the people to “learn to apply themselves to good deeds, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not to be unfruitful.” He wanted them to “avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissension, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile.” St. Paul did not want the people to waste their time and energy on matters that would simply inflame their passions and keep them from attaining spiritual health and maturity. He called them to be intentionally faithful each day with the level of care shown by farmers who are single-mindedly dedicated to bringing in a bumper crop. If they let down their guard to the point of being so consumed by pointless controversies that they ignored basic disciplines like helping others in great need, they would risk dying spiritually like a neglected plant overtaken by weeds.
In addition to the personal struggles that everyone has, we live in a time when it is very easy to become distracted by pointless worry about matters that will never help us become more beautiful icons of Christ. The pandemic, the economic situation, and ongoing social and political controversies can easily become obsessions which tempt us to reduce ourselves to creatures defined merely by physical health, our finances, and the dynamics of worldly power. These are obviously matters of legitimate concern for those who love their neighbors as themselves; we should all discern prayerfully how to respond to them in light of the teachings of the Church. Nonetheless, even the best public policies concerning them cannot fulfill those who bear the image and likeness of God. People who believe that there is no hope or truth beyond life in the world as we know it will understandably become obsessed with such matters, for they think that that is all there is. Profound worry and fear are inevitable for those who believe that the measure of their lives extends no further than the inevitability of the grave. Death, poverty, and injustice are obviously realities from which we cannot fully protect ourselves or our loved ones.
Since Christ is risen triumphantly over death, we must not allow ourselves to be distracted from uniting ourselves to Him in holiness by obsessive worry rooted in fear about anything. He has made even the tomb itself an entryway to eternal life. Instead, we must become more truly ourselves by becoming more truly like Him as we live faithfully in this world of corruption. The Savior Himself was not distracted from free obedience to the point of death on the Cross. He rejected the temptation to take up arms as an earthly king against the Roman army of occupation. He refused to treat Gentiles, Samaritans, notorious sinners, and people debilitated by terrible diseases as anything less than the beloved children of God. He refused to identify the Kingdom of Heaven with an earthly reign.
If we are to become better living icons of Christ, then we must refuse to define ourselves according to worldly sensibilities that will simply distract us from growing to spiritual maturity and bearing good fruit. We must live in His image, not in the image of false gods that threaten to choke the life out of our souls. We must remember Whose icons we are and refuse to make anything or anyone other than the God-Man the true measure of our lives. That is ultimately why we have icons in the Orthodox Church, for they proclaim who Jesus Christ is and who He enables us to become. They bear witness to what it means to be truly human in the image and likeness of God.