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Sunday of Orthodoxy 2003
The Restoration of the Holy Images
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever. Amen
It is a great pleasure for me to be here with you this evening. This Vespers Service of the Sunday of Orthodoxy is one of those services which we all look forward in our Orthodox Church… This is such a beautiful opportunity for us as Orthodox people to be together sharing the Faith which has established the Universe. Here we are: a gathering of brothers and sisters in Christ, and of good friends in the love of God.
Today we hear sacred music and holy words which are to inspire us and to prod us on in our Lenten journey. And so, having gathered here on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we continue to tell the story of salvation, as lived, seen, and touched in our own human history.
The Historical Setting
If we were to touch briefly on the historical setting…I am certain that to us it would seem so very odd.
For the very issue which engaged the Christian Church in heated religious debate in the 8th and 9th centuries, would seem so out of place. For, it is very common, whenever we say the word Orthodox, to think of that one element of our faith which expresses clearly our Orthodox identity: the ICON. The Icon has become a visible creed for the Orthodox. It is an emblem of our hope and faith in Christ. Moreover, by their very presence we encounter in the Icon the brightness of Divinity.
And yet, there was a great and important struggle over the Icon those many centuries ago…when emperor, Church, and empire labored through this issue. Surly there are many factors which provoked this struggle:
· to some degree there was the issue of religious culture and the people’s understanding of Christian art;
· to some degree there was the pressure of Islam which forbade the depiction of the human person…and which in its embattled fervor considered itself to be the latest and purest revelation;
· to some degree, there was the genuine question of the depiction of the Divine especially in view of Old Testament Law (and certainly the early Christian Apologists were oftentimes in agreement with this concept)
But, the singular issue of Orthodox Theology which was the rally cry of the faithful was that which was so eloquently expressed by St. John of Damascus:
In former times, God, without body or form, could in no way be represented. But today, since God has appeared “In the flesh and lived among men,” I can represent what is visible in God.
Or stated by Theodore the Studite:
An indescribable Christ would be an incorporeal Christ.
And so, at its roots, the restoration of Icons in the Great Church of Christ is the continued reality of the Incarnation of God; it is the divine statement of faith and witness that we were not saved by shadows or spirits; we are not saved by mystical magical actions; and we are not saved by past lives or future ghosts!
No, my Beloved, we are saved neither by an Angel nor by a man. Rather, we are saved by the Lord God Himself. The victory of the Icons is an affirmation of the concrete reality of God’s love for us; as well as His continuing life among us!
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son….” Does that statement move you to gratitude? Is your heart pierced by the thought of the Lord Jesus suffering for your sake? Does that cause you to re-think the meaning of your own life? Such has been the impact of the Cross on those who have perceived thereon that Holy and Loving One Who died in their place. Or perhaps, we have heard those words so often that they no longer have any impact upon us! God forbid!
The Necessity of the Cross?
But was the Cross really necessary? Was there no other way? Western theologians have pondered that question through the centuries with few satisfying answers. ………. But, a little clam reflection will reveal that, indeed, there was no other way.
The Ultimate Price:
For one thing, Jesus could not ask His disciples to pay a greater price than He was willing to pay. Think of St. Stephen as the stones bruised and ripped his flesh; and of St. Peter as he died crucified upside down — as tradition tells us. Many early Christians were burned as living torches in Nero’s gardens; or were torn apart by wild animals in the gladiator’s arena.
Only a soft, sentimental unrealistic faith would conjure a possible theory that there could have been any other way for Jesus but the way of the Cross. This is a hard and cruel world. The affluence and security of this Nation shelters us from that truth. Many people through the ages have willingly given their lives for what they believe. But, would we?
For the most part, the fathers of this country were not called to make that sacrifice, but many thousands — perhaps millions of others have. It may be the scandal and tragedy of our land and our times is that there is nothing for which people will give their lives any longer. We are so accustomed to comfort and convenience that it would be very difficult for many of us to pay the ultimate penalty for our faith.
This just may be the first reason that Jesus had to die. He could not ask His disciples to pay a greater price than He was willing to pay: the ultimate price of His Life!
The Destructiveness of Sin:
There is a second reason why there was no other way. Without the Cross we could not see the destructiveness of sin in the world. Without the Cross we could not understand the effect sin has, even upon the innocent. It is always a tragedy when someone dies before his or her time.
We are touched by the tragic death of a young person — whether by disease or accident or murder. Jesus was only 33 when he died upon Calvary’s hill: Falsely accused, bitterly reviled — and yet guilty of no wrong.
Here He was: a healer and helper; a lover of little children; a liberator of people imprisoned by their own sin and guilt; a man who knew God intimately enough to address him as “Abba,” daddy; and yet, never lost His concern for the least and the lowest of this world. Yet, there He hangs on the Cross of Calvary, and it was sin that put Him there — your sin and my sin.
For many of us sin is a meaningless term – we think of it as merely bad form or a chance mistake. We do not perceive that there is an enemy within our gates; a betrayer in our hearts; a demon within our consciousness; that can bring inconceivable tragedy into our lives. Let me ask you this: do we chuckle when someone says, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.”
The Cross shows us that sin is no casual matter. Sin is the enemy of our bodies, of our marriages, of our relations with one another — and especially of our relationship with God. There was no other way for God to show us the great harm sin brings, except upon the Cross.
The Gift of the Son:
But there is one more reason why the Cross was necessary. There was no other way for God to show the depth and the width of His love except by the gift of his Son. St. John puts it like this,
“In this is love–not that we loved God, but that he loved us and gave his Son to be the expiation for our sins.”
“What wondrous love is this, O my soul,” writes the poet; “That caused the Lord of bliss to lay aside His crown for my soul, for my soul, to lay aside His crown for my soul.”
St. Isaac the Syrian tells us that:
God the Lord surrendered His own Son to death on the Cross for the fervent love of Creation… so that His surpassing Love, manifested hereby, might be a teacher unto us… Yea, if He had had anything more precious, He would have given it to us, so that by it our race might be His own.
That is why the Cross had to be. Jesus could not ask His disciples to make a sacrifice He was not willing to make himself. There was no other way to reveal the awfulness of man’s sin. Nor could the awesomeness of God’s love for us be made more real than upon the Cross – where God, Himself, experienced human pain, suffering and death!
Of course, the challenge to each of us is to respond in faith to that great love; to cast off the sin that so easily besets us; and to give our lives to Him as He gave His life for us.
More Than History:
The Sunday of Orthodoxy is an even greater call for us to remove from our minds, our lives, and our actions, the idea that the birth, life, message, teaching, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven of our Lord is some remote historical phenomenon. For to many of us, all it consists of is some “goodly godly philosophy” which might make our lives better.
We become like so many who acknowledge that Jesus Christ was a historical person who lived, and did good and wonderful things. And I suppose that more than anything else this thinking shows forth not our intellect but our ignorance.
For while others of our age are bewitched with New Age, the Old Age, and everything but their own age….we believe “that which we know; that which has been delivered once and for all to the Saints.” And yet, this concrete reality of God-who-became-Man — this reality of the Sacred Icon, presents in our own lives an ever-Present challenge as we gaze upon His most Holy Image.
What think ye of the Christ?
For we must ask ourselves with the very words of our Lord, “What think you of the Christ?” (Matthew 22:42)
We can talk history, we can speak in lofty words of theology, but the primary question that must be answered by each and every one of us here is simply that: What do we think of the Christ?
Has He remained a picture for us — some idealized conception? Or do we acknowledge His continued living presence among us? As Orthodox Christians we do not say, that Christ was once here with us! Rather we say: Christ is in our midst! He is here with us now!
Yes, He is, and ever shall be! May His Holy Life and Image be ours; always alive in our hearts, souls and minds! Amen.