1st Sunday of Lent – Orthodox Homily on Icons

Today is the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. On this First Sunday of Lent in 842 A.D. the iconodules—our “right believing” forefathers who upheld the fullness of the Apostolic Faith entrusted to them by Christ, celebrated their victory over the heretical beliefs of the iconoclasts, the “icon-smashers,” who had persecuted the Orthodox for keeping that “faith once received” from Christ and the Apostles 800 years earlier.

Now, if there’s one charge we Orthodox hear more often than any other from non-Orthodox, it’s this: “You worship icons!” It’s at such times that we as Orthodox have the opportunity to explain that while we venerate and greatly honor the holy icons as ‘windows’ to the heavenly reality, the world as God sees it, we worship God the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In American English, this distinction between ‘veneration’ (Gk., “dulia”) and ‘worship’ (Gk., “latria”) may get lost, but it’s vital for our understanding and goes back to the very beginning of creation: Adam and Eve delighted in God’s creation, but they did not confuse the creation with the Creator, Who alone is worthy of worship. The greatest object of Israel’s veneration was the Ark of the Covenant, which God directed the Israelites to appoint with pure gold and images of golden cherubim, (Ex. 25:18). No faithful Israelite would have even thought of worshiping the Ark. God forbid! But they held the Ark in holy awe as it contained the holiest objects of Israel’s veneration: Aaron’s rod and the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. But just a few chapters later in Exodus 32, we read that they were worshiping a golden calf. That is true idolatry, but the honor they rightly showed the Ark, we recognize as true veneration, which glorifies God.

The holy icons, the Gospel, the cross, are all objects of Christian veneration precisely because they direct us and inspire us in our worship of God the Holy Trinity. When we see an icon of Christ, we know that Jesus Christ is not some mythical being who lived only in ‘spirit,’ but rather the Lord God Himself, the Creator, who became incarnate for us to enter into human nature as man and defeat our sin and death as God. We depict Christ iconographically, with great honor and in accordance with Holy Tradition, because of and in affirmation of the historic reality of the Incarnation of the Word of God made man. This is the truth revealed in the icon of Christ and the Theotokos holding Christ, which figure so prominently in our Orthodox worship.

The holy icons also proclaim the truth that God is glorified in His Saints: ordinary sinners—sometimes the worst of sinners—transformed into the most glorious of Saints. They are “the great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) St. Paul reminds us of in today’s Epistle, and of which our procession after Liturgy witnesses. Every icon of a Saint testifies to the redemptive work and truth of God: redemption from a life of sin is real, spiritual healing is real, a new life is real, love and joy are real, salvation is real, the Kingdom of God is real—we see this reality no clearer than in the faces of the Saints and their witness. And so, in venerating their holy icons, we ask them to intercede for us before Christ God in whose near presence they now worship.
Our veneration of the holy icons, then, witnesses to this truth: all are called to new life in Christ by water and the spirit, Baptism and Chrismation, the new birth and sealing by the Holy Spirit, which little Jonathon, Ivan, has received today. He’s truly been born anew, has put on Christ and been made a new creation capable of becoming a fellow victor with Christ over sin and death.

When we venerate an icon of the Theotokos or any of the Saints of the Church, we affirm the reality of Christ God’s work in them and through them to God’s glory, as St. Paul says, “that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (II Thess. 1:12).

If someone wants proof of the reality that Christ is the God-man, God incarnate, the Savior of the world, they need look no further than the lives of the Saints, whose number is too great to count. For this reason, I greatly encourage all the faithful to take time daily to read the life of one of the many Saints commemorated on any given day in the Church calendar. We learn from their example to cling to Christ and prioritize our life in Him above all else, to persevere in our faith and witness, to be in the world but not of the world.

And so, for us as Orthodox, the holy icons are never simply “religious art,” but truly ‘windows to the heavenly reality,’ strengthening us in the truth that is Christ, that is the Orthodox Faith. Our Fathers in the Faith, countless of whom lost their lives in martyrdom to uphold the Apostolic, Orthodox Faith, rightly understood that without the holy icons, the fullness of the historic reality of the Incarnation, the appreciation of all things holy and pertaining to God and our salvation, this integral part of our life in God and with God, would be sadly altered, if not lost altogether; the affirmation that the Word became flesh and “dwelt among us” to raise up fallen Adam, would come to be understood in increasingly subjective and twisted ways, threatening our faith, healing, and salvation in Christ. Indeed, this is exactly what we see happening today wherever the holy icons are absent, where fragmentation, confusion, divisiveness and schism are the norm.

In other words, our Orthodox forefathers rightly understood that if the icons of Christ, His Saints, His miracles, and the faithful interpretation of the Gospels as passed down in the holy icons, were lost, the reality of the fullness of the Faith Christ entrusted to His Church for all time, would also be lost. For this reason, the holy tradition concerning not only their veneration but also the teaching imparted through them, form a necessary part of unchanging Holy Tradition.

So, when we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy, we are affirming, then, the Orthodox victory over all heresies that have distorted the truth of Christ, the fullness of life with Him. We recognize that the battle against the iconoclasts was the last of a five-hundred-year struggle to uphold the Orthodox Faith against those who would change our faith and lead others into heresy, thereby separating them from knowing the truth of Jesus Christ and His salvation.

In this way, the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy goes to the very heart of our faith in Christ and His redemption of the human race. All other victories of our faith stem from this truth: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,” as we’ll sing at our joyous celebration of Pascha. It’s because of Christ’s incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection, that we’re here today worshipping Him, participating in His life, so that with Him, we too may be fellow victors over sin and death.

The days of battling new heresies may have come to an end; but Orthodoxy faces new challenges today: growing relativism, secularism, nihilism, humanism and its ‘new-morality’—all of which threaten the faithful proclamation of the “Faith once received,” the loving way of Christ that necessitates a transformed life of repentance, new birth, and healing from our sin-sickness to which all people are called and no one exempted. Because we love as Christ loves, we call on all people “to come and see,” we call all to experience the beauty of holiness in repentance that we have.

Many modern religious groups are experimenting with new forms of worship, props, catering to the culture rather than seeking to baptize the culture, changing the definition of marriage, of what chastity means, of who Jesus is, doing away with the idea of sin without curing the disease. But it’s Christ God as He’s revealed Himself and invited us to know Him, Who alone is the cure. He reveals the way of healing and salvation to us through His Church. To be Orthodox means that we don’t compromise who Jesus Christ is; we keep the fullness of the Faith and life in Him. We don’t shape the faith; the faith shapes us through our communion with the Truth, Jesus Christ. Our faith, including the veneration of the holy icons, is in continuity with all those faithful who kept the Faith “once delivered to the Saints”— “to all people, at all times, in every place,” as 5th century St. Vincent of Lerins articulates it.

For love of God and neighbor, and all those who’ll come after us, for our children’s sake, as St. Paul says, we “lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us…” and we “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our Faith.” The Saints cheer us on as we model ourselves on them and their faithful witness to Christ. We venerate them even as we worship Christ as God, the Savior of the world.

Fr. Robert Miclean
Holy Archangels Orthodox Church
Sunday, 25 February 2018—Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy

Epistle: Heb. 11:24-026, 32-12:1
Gospel: John 1:43-51