Seeing Heaven Opened as Living Icons of Christ: 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, Who 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 any aspect of his 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 as whole persons, including how we use food, drink, money, sex, natural resources, and every other dimension of the physical creation.

Today’s commemoration reminds us that our Lenten journey is not an escapist distraction from our world of corruption.  Quite the opposite, for the icons provide a lens for seeing our struggle to find healing for our brokenness in the brilliant light of the Lord Who enables us all to shine 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 faithfully, but so that even the deepest struggles of our lives may become points of entrance into the blessedness of His Kingdom.  During this season of Lent, we must pray, fast, give, forgive, and repent of the ways in which we have refused to embrace our calling to become ever more beautiful living icons of Christ, which is necessary for us to gain the spirituality clarity to see that every human person bears the divine image.  If we are approaching this season with integrity, the ways in which we have fallen short of our high calling will quickly become apparent to us.  The more we refuse to gratify our self-centered desires, the more we will become aware of their hold on our souls.  If you have been surprised during the first week of the Great Fast how your passions have reared their ugly heads, you are certainly not alone.

We must not despair when that happens, however, because our goal in following our Lord is not psychological adjustment, moral progress, or any type of success according to conventional standards.  It is, instead, as He said 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, our goal is nothing less than sharing in the eternal life of the God-Man.  Though doing so is an infinite goal, we must live as those who already participate in a foretaste of the consummation of such blessedness.

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 Christ’s salvation.  In fasting, we limit our self-indulgence in food in order to gain strength to purify and redirect our desires toward God and away from gratifying bodily pleasures.  In almsgiving, we limit our trust in possessions in order to grow in love for our neighbors, in whom we encounter the Lord.  In prayer, we limit our obsession with our thoughts and usual distractions to unite ourselves to God as we open our hearts to Him.  Even our smallest efforts to practice these disciplines will make clear that there is much within us that does not want to be healed by Christ.

Nonetheless, we must remember that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and called to become radiant with the glory of our Lord’s resurrection.  Literally no aspect of our humanity is excluded from the vocation to shine with God’s gracious divine energies.   No matter how difficult the struggle with our passions may be, we must not become practical iconoclasts by refusing the calling to become more beautiful living icons of Christ.  Instead, we must open even the dark, ugly, and weak dimensions of our lives to the healing light of Christ as we call out for His mercy from the depths of our hearts.

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 make us like Him in holiness.  As we celebrate the historical restoration of icons today, let us continue the Lenten journey in ways that restore us all as those who bear His image and likeness.  The disciplines of this season give us all countless opportunities to do precisely that as we prepare for nothing less than to “see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”


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