Practical Iconoclasm and Embodied Holiness: Homily for the First Sunday of Great Lent (Sunday of Orthodoxy) in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40; John 1:43-51

           On this first Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate the restoration of icons centuries ago in the Byzantine Empire.  They were banned due to a misguided fear of idolatry, but restored as a proclamation of how Christ calls us to participate in His salvation in every dimension of our existence.  The icons convey the incarnation of the God-Man.  He had to have a human body in order to be born, live in this world, die, rise from the grave, and ascend into heaven.  Were his full humanity an illusion, we could not become “partakers of the divine nature” through Him.  Icons of the Theotokos and the Saints display our calling to become radiant with holiness by uniting ourselves to Christ in every dimension of our lives.

Today’s commemoration does not provide us with an escapist distraction from the darkness that is so obvious in our world of corruption.  Instead, the icons provide a lens for seeing our collective and personal brokenness clearly before the brilliant light of the Lord Who enables us all to shine brilliantly in holiness.  The God-Man shares His salvation of the human person with us not so that we can retreat from the grave challenges of living in a world of corruption, but so that we may offer our small bit of it for His blessing and healing as a sign of His Kingdom, which remains not of this world. During this season of Lent, we must pray, fast, give, forgive, and otherwise repent of all the ways in which we have allowed our passions to blind us from seeing every human person as a living icon of God.  We ourselves must become more like God in holiness if we are to gain the spiritual clarity to recognize that how we treat even the least of our neighbors reveals the true state of our souls.

His Beatitude, Metropolitan Onuphry of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church stated recently that “War is the most terrible sin that exists in this world. It makes you look at another person not as an image of God, but as an enemy that needs to be destroyed. Therefore, there is no justification for those who start wars.”  The horrors of the invasion of Ukraine, and of the many other current wars around the globe, provide vivid icons of what happens when the powers of the world act as though people do not bear the divine image and likeness.  They are acts of practical iconoclasm, for they contradict the great dignity that the God-Man has shared with us as His living icons.

We must take such terrible circumstances as reminders that we will never find the healing of our souls by living according to the agendas of nations, political parties, or the social or economic systems of our world.  If they become the lens through which we see Christ, then we will fall into the dark night of spiritual blindness and end up rejecting Him as we give ourselves to false gods.   The Lord describes our true calling in His words to Nathanael, “you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”  As those who bear the divine image and likeness, how could we expect to find our true fulfillment in anyone or anything other than His Kingdom?

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.  They remind us to make our daily physical actions tangible signs of our participation in Christ’s healing.  In fasting, we limit our self-indulgence in food in order to gain strength to purify and redirect our desires for fulfillment in God and away from bodily pleasure.  In almsgiving, we share in the Lord’s mercy by sacrificing to help the needy with the basic necessities of life. In prayer, we turn away from our usual distractions as we stand, kneel, and otherwise comport ourselves in ways that help us to open our hearts to God.

Contrary to what our passions tell us, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and destined for resurrection in the Heavenly Kingdom.  We must not become practical iconoclasts by disregarding the calling to embrace the struggle to offer our embodied selves to God in holiness. If we do so, our actions will amount to a rejection of the incarnation and a refusal to participate in our Lord’s healing of every dimension of the human person.

As we continue the Lenten journey, let us open the dark, ugly, and weak dimensions of our lives to the beautiful healing strength of Christ as we reorient the desires of our hearts toward Him.  Let us bear witness in our daily lives that the Savior has shared with us His victory over sin and the grave.  The Savior entered into death through His Cross in order to overcome the corruption of the first Adam.  He rose and ascended in glory in order to bring us into His fulfillment of our calling to become like Him in holiness.  As we celebrate the restoration of icons today, let us become more beautiful living icons of our Lord’s salvation and gain the strength to treat every neighbor accordingly as we live and breathe in this world.  Remember:  They are His living icons also.

 

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