Seeing the Sunday of Orthodoxy Clearly

Glory to Jesus Christ!

On this first Sunday of Lent we commemorate the triumph of Orthodoxy. Orthodox is literally “correct praise” (and by context) of God, and in our Ruthenian tradition we often hear the Slavonic word for Orthodox ‘pravoslavnaya’ translated as ¨the true faith¨; for example, when we hear the phrase ‘Christians of the true faith’ in the liturgy. But our readings today are from a feast that is older than the Sunday of Orthodoxy, which came to our calendar relatively late. More about the first feast later. On March 11, 843 the Empress Theodora instituted the feast that we celebrate today. For a long while there was a clash between the Iconoclasts, who opposed the making and veneration of icons, and the Orthodox, who supported this veneration. The Iconoclasts would oppose the veneration because, they supposed, we were taking our focus off of God onto things like saints and their icons.

Did the Iconoclasts see clearly? No, we would argue. St. John of Damascus, for example, said this in defense of images and matter:

“I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God. How could God be born out of lifeless things? And if God’s body is God by its union with him, it is changeless. The nature of God remains the same as before, the flesh created in time is brought to life by a logical and reasoning soul.

I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.”

After the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 787, the last moments of complaints about Icons faded away, or so it would seem. After all, about 50 years later we had a whole feast about Orthodoxy and its triumph. Is our work done? No. I want to speak to us today in 2020, in San Diego, about our own icons that we are breaking. We look around and we see our own inventions, our own ways that we disregard human nature. We see this on so many levels. We are iconoclasts when we deny who we are. So often we see people elevating humans beyond our true status. The movie stars, the pundits, the social media influencers who are like gods are not actually gods. The politicians who say, or of whom it is said, that they can change the world by their power but cannot actually change the world by their power. None of this is true, in all of these cases we are not seeing clearly.

We are escaping reality when we don’t see the law of nature clearly. Perhaps even more severe than our elevation of human nature falsely, is the more rampant inability to see clearly, when we take our human nature and lower it to something less grand than what it really is. With abortion we take the unborn and are iconoclasts who do not see clearly, when we say that the precious unborn are nuisances, blobs of tissue, and the like. We also take humans made in God’s image and sexualize them, not as partners to life and love, but objects for our own use, with lust and manipulation in mind. We are blind to the friendship and partnership that is more important than pleasure. So often we are blind about the dignity of our brothers and sisters.

We are even blind about ourselves. We look in the mirror and judge ourselves for reasons far less important than the reasons that we should see value in our lives. Our physical and spiritual families who love us should matter. Our baptism into Christ should be our deepest identity. Our successes as well as our failures show us who we are in a broader context. We so often do not see clearly. And so many succumb to despair, either through dramatic motions to die by suicide, or the even more insidious giving up, the apathy that does not end by an obituary, but is instead more of a life lived without devotion to be who we are called to be in Christ. May God spare us of this iconoclasm where we break the beauty of who we are in Christ. That is what iconoclasm is truly about. It’s not about whether an icon is spared or not. It’s really a matter of whether we loved the saints, our brethren, and yes to an extent ourselves, enough to see our call to be who we are called to be in Christ.

Let´s go back to our readings for the day which again come from a feast older than 843. To prepare for the Paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of the Lord, this first Sunday of Lent was dedicated to the holy prophets. Thus we hear from Hebrews of the ¨hall of faith¨, those holy men and women who anticipated the salvation of the world through Christ. And in the Gospel we see a very simple set of “seeings”. Philip saw Jesus and knew who he was. He then tells Nathaniel that he has found the one spoken of the prophets, again hearkening to the older feast. When Nathaniel doubts, what is Philip’s response? Come and see. Then, the tables turn. Jesus sees Nathaniel, and sees him as an Israelite without guile. That simple message provokes Nathaniel to ask how Jesus knew him. Jesus then lets Nathaniel know that he saw him. It is at this moment when Nathaniel can then see and profess Jesus to be the Son of God. And our passage ends with a prophecy that Nathaniel will later see the angels of God ministering to the Son of Man, which occurs at key moments such as his passion.

The Feast of the Prophets is all about seeing Jesus and seeing ourselves clearly. The Feast of the triumph of Orthodoxy is all about the same principle. When we do not venerate icons, we do not thank God for his work in his saints. We do not understand how high our call to salvation is, it is a call to theosis. By loving God and loving his creation, we can love our neighbors and ourselves in the midst of the here and now, those failures that could hinder us from joy. May God grant you the eyes to see clearly as did Nathaniel and St. John of Damascus, so that you would love God, love His Church and the saints of His Church, and love your brethren and yourself as you journey to Pascha, being transformed more and more into an icon that reflects the call to divinization that the Lord envisions for all of us.

Glory to Jesus Christ!