Titus 3:8-15; Luke 8:5-15
Icons certainly beautify the church, but not simply in the conventional sense of being aesthetically pleasing. Instead, they manifest visually that the Son of God has called and enabled us to become His beautiful living icons. They show that the Savior has made us participants by grace in His deified humanity so that we may shine brightly with the divine glory.
Today we commemorate the 367 Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council, which met in Nicaea in 787. The council rejected the false teaching that to honor icons is to commit idolatry, for it 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. The council’s teaching highlighted the importance of the Savior’s incarnation, for only a truly human Savior with a physical body could restore human persons to the dignity and beauty of the living icons of God.
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. Too often, however, we think that iconography simply has to do with wood and paint, and ignore the question of whether we are becoming more beautiful icons of Christ. The icons are not merely 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 begin with the first Adam.
Like it or not, we are going to grow in the image of something or someone every day of our lives. It is easy to become an icon of some aspect of the fallen world, such as pleasure, possessions, or power, without even noticing what we are doing. 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 serve something or someone other than Jesus Christ. No matter how appealing that may be, it inevitably mars the beauty of our souls and keeps us from sharing more fully in His life.
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.
This parable warns us about what occurs when we fail to fulfill our potential as those who bear the image of God. Since our vocation is to become more beautiful living icons of the Savior, we diminish and distort ourselves when we make something 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 chance of 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 invest themselves in doing good deeds and helping others in great need. He wanted them to avoid foolish arguments and divisions, “for they are unprofitable and vain.” St. Paul did not want the people to waste their time and energy on matters that would simply inflame their passions and hinder them from attaining spiritual health and maturity. He called them to care for their spiritual wellbeing with the conscientiousness of 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 need, they would risk dying spiritually like a neglected plant overtaken by weeds.
If we are to become “those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience,” we must mindfully cultivate the gardens of our souls by keeping a close watch on what we allow to take root in our hearts and minds. We must water our parched souls with prayer and do the hard, daily work of denying ourselves and serving others in order to gain the strength necessary to recognize and rip out the weeds as soon as they begin to appear. The more health and strength we gain, the less room there will be in our lives for anything that keeps us from bearing good fruit for the Kingdom.
Especially with the media and technology available to us today, it is hard not to become distracted by pointless worry about matters that will never help us become more beautiful icons of Christ. The problems and divisions of the world can easily become obsessions which tempt us to view ourselves as creatures defined merely by our place in it. People who believe that there is no hope, truth, or meaning beyond our present life will understandably obsess about 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.
Since we confess that 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 orient ourselves to His Kingdom even 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 never equated serving an earthly reign with loyalty to His Kingdom.
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 as those who share in His life to the point that we bear good fruit for His Kingdom.