Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40; John 1:43-51
There are many ways to view ourselves as human beings. All too often, we accept false definitions that we find appealing in light of our passions, weaknesses, and other forms of personal brokenness. When we do so, we set our sights too low, for the Savior became one of us in order to make us perfectly beautiful icons of His salvation. As He said to Nathanael in today’s gospel reading, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” To be truly human means nothing less than to participate personally in the fulfillment of that sublime calling.
On this first Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate the restoration of icons in the Byzantine Empire. We do so not as a lesson in art history, but because the icons proclaim the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ and call us to share in our Lord’s holiness in every dimension of our existence. It is possible to portray the Lord in an icon because He is fully human, as well as fully divine. He has a fully human body, which was essential for Him to be born, live in this world, die, rise from the grave, and ascend into heaven. Icons of the Theotokos and the saints manifest our calling to become radiant with the divine glory by uniting ourselves to Christ such that His holiness becomes characteristic of every dimension of our lives. The purpose of our Lenten journey is simply to become more beautiful living icons of our Lord, which means becoming more truly ourselves in His image and likeness.
Today’s epistle reading from Hebrews recounts the sufferings of the Old Testament saints who looked forward in faith to the coming of the Messiah. They “did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Our vocation is nothing less than to become perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. That is possible only when we share personally in the healing and restoration of the human person in God’s image and likeness which the Savior has accomplished and shares with us.
Even as the icons proclaim the truth of our Lord’s incarnation using materials like paint and wood, they call us to manifest His holiness in our own bodies. We will never “see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” if we refuse to make our daily physical actions tangible signs of our union with Christ in holiness. In fasting, we limit our self-indulgence in food in order to gain strength to redirect our desires for fulfillment to God and away from bodily pleasure. In almsgiving, we limit our obsession with our own physical comfort in order to help the needy with the basic necessities of life. In prayer, we use our bodies to stand, kneel, and otherwise comport ourselves in ways that help us to open our hearts to God. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and destined for resurrection in the heavenly kingdom. In order to become beautiful living icons of the Savior, we must offer our embodied selves to Him through lives of ascetical struggle for our healing from whatever passions beset us.
In Lent or any other time, we should not seek suffering, pain, or deprivation as ends in themselves. If, however, we are going to open the dark, ugly, and weak dimensions of our lives to the beautiful healing strength of Christ, we will have to crucify our passions as we die to the power of sin. The Savior entered into death through His Cross in order to overcome the slavery of the first Adam to the grave. He rose and ascended in glory in order to make us participants in the eternal life of heaven, in order to fulfill the calling of all those in the image of God to become like Him in holiness. Since there remains much in each of us that would prefer to live as though He had not conquered the power of death, we must endure the challenges of struggling to embrace our high calling to live with our bodies as those who “will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”
Contrary to the false accounts of personal fulfillment that we find so appealing due to our passions, the icons call us to continue our ascetical struggles with confident hope that through them we are opening ourselves to share in the infinite beauty of the God-Man. As we celebrate the restoration of icons today, let us grow in our commitment to enter into the perfection in holiness that Jesus Christ has made possible for all who bear the divine image and likeness. Let us continue to undertake bodily disciplines that will enable us to enter into His eternal blessedness as whole persons. For He calls us to nothing less than seeing “heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” That is what it means to be a human person made perfect in Him.