Sunday, February 17, 2013

First Sunday of Great Lent: Sunday of Orthodoxy

Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-12:2 / John 1:43-51

We do not always see ourselves correctly. Some of us take an overly benign view of ourselves, overlooking our own faults, even when they are plain to see, even unavoidable. At its worst, this kind of avoidance and denial can be life-threatening, leading us to fail to repair what might be made whole in us, in body, mind, or spirit, to our own ruin. Others of us take too malign a view of ourselves, seeing faults where there are none, refusing to receive the confirmation of others, or even our own senses, to see the good we actually possess. At its worst, this failure of vision can also be life-threatening, leading us to torture and abuse our very selves in a vain effort to compel our originally healthy selves to conform to an ideal self, which ideal, if actually pursued, would lead to our own destruction.

As we begin Great Lent, the sustained fast of forty days to prepare ourselves for the celebration of the Lord's Resurrection, the Church places before our eyes the icons of Christ, his Mother, and the company of the saints, and in so doing, aims to restore that vision which will lead us to new life in Jesus Christ. For those who have dulled their sight, thinking there is little of themselves needing improvement, icons serve as both a rebuke and a goal. They put before our very senses a true sight, a vision of what humanity made alive in the grace of Jesus Christ actually looks like, and so shatter the false sense of security that tells us we are doing well as we are. They do not, of course, require us to deny the good we rightly perceive in ourselves, any more than the patriarchs of old recounted in the epistle to the Hebrews needed to deny the mighty deeds they accomplished, and the impressive sacrifices they endured, through their heroic faith. All the same, as the letter reminds us, these patriarchs did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. For us, too, the icons of the Lord and of his saints stand as a constant reminder of this "something better," the reality of new and eternal life in Jesus Christ by the power of his Spirit, that life which we received in our baptism, and back to which our Lent is meant to lead us.

At the same time, while a goal and a presentation of our ideal selves, icons likewise oppose our unhealthy self-criticism. Where we may well despair that we can never be whole, never be made right, and beautiful, and holy, the icons of the saints remind us that here and now, in this world, Christ's grace is real and active, and the beauty of holiness not only can be ours, but is ours even now. The very physicality of icons, the wood and paint, presented to our physical senses, reminds us that the salvation won for us by the Cross of Christ is not an ethereal salvation, divorced from the physical world in which we live our daily lives. On the contrary, icons recall that God worked out our restoration in the flesh, and it is in the flesh and blood of his saints, whose images we contemplate in icons, that his salvation is worked out and communicated from generation to generation. We, the Church, are those greater things which Jesus promised to Nathanael, the greater things he would see. We are that beautiful work, to be made even more perfect by God's grace to be sure, but even now holy and splendid in his sight, because having been conformed to the beauty of the eternal Son of God, made alive by the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit.

This is why we proclaim today and rejoice in the Holy Icons. We rejoice because they free our vision, free us to see both what we are not yet but can be, as well as what God has already made of us in the riches of his glory. Icons are for us both goad and reward, prompt and reflection, a vision of a goal and a mirror into which we see our true selves.

O Christ our God, begging forgiveness of our sins, we venerate Your Pure Image, O Good One. Of your own will you deigned to ascend upon the Cross in the flesh and deliver those You created from the bondage of the enemy. Wherefore, thankfully, we cry out, "When You came to save the world, Your filled all things with joy, O Our Savior."

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