Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40; John 1:43-51
It is a common temptation to believe that religion is about subjective matters that have little to do with how we actually live in “the real world.” Many believe that, as long as a faith helps us to feel better about ourselves in light of our daily challenges, it has fulfilled its purpose. Today we commemorate the Sunday of Orthodoxy and the restoration of the holy icons in the Orthodox Church after the period of iconoclasm. We will not process around the church after Liturgy today in order make ourselves feel a certain way; no, we will proclaim the salvation of the world in the God-Man Who became fully human for our salvation. He calls us to nothing short of “see[ing] heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”
That might sound like an escapist vision of wanting to leave the world in the pursuit of mystical experience; but remember that Christ’s salvation is about fulfillment, not escape. He became one of us, with a body that could be seen and touched, in order to bring every dimension of the human person, and of the entire creation, into the joy of His Kingdom. He makes it possible for us to share in His eternal life, not by abandoning the world or any genuine dimension of our human existence, but by becoming icons of their restoration in holiness.
The Saints depicted in icons are examples of human beings who have done precisely that by becoming radiant with the divine glory by grace. Like an iron left in the fire, their participation in the divine energies has illumined and transformed them. As described in our reading today from Hebrews and displayed in their lives across the centuries, those who have entered into the holiness of God have suffered mightily for Him. Regardless of whether they literally died as martyrs, they all died to self by taking up their crosses as they followed the Lord Who offered Himself fully on the cross for our salvation. They opened themselves to share in His gracious fulfillment of our ancient vocation to become holy. They behold the heavenly glory because they are living icons of what it means to be truly human in God’s image and likeness.
Lent calls us to follow their example as we follow our Lord to His Passion, through which He set us free from bondage to sin and death. Our response to Him is not simply a matter of how we feel, but concerns every aspect of our lives, for the God-Man has united the fullness of human existence with divinity. He calls us to offer every dimension of ourselves to Him for fulfillment in holiness. In Lent, we do that by undertaking practices that quickly reveal how much room there is for healing in our souls. Our struggle to pray, fast, forgive, give, and otherwise reorient our lives to the Kingdom makes clear what poor living icons of Christ we have become because of our sins. In humble recognition of the weakness revealed by our Lenten disciplines, we open ourselves to receive the gracious strength of the Savior to turn away from captivity to our self-centered desires. Following the same path as the Saints, we must repent in order to be transformed by the healing mercy of Christ. God did not create us for anger, lust, or the love of money and power, but to become like Him in holiness. His healing will show itself practically in how we love our enemies, serve those in need around us, and stand vigilant against thoughts and desires that threaten to corrupt us in soul and body.
The Son of God offered Himself for the salvation of the entire world. His saints have shared in His life by their faithfulness amidst all the daily challenges that we face in this world of corruption. Like them, we may “see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” as we embrace our true identity as His living icons. To be united with Him in the world as we know it is the only path for our fulfillment as human persons created to be like Him in holiness. Let us use the remaining weeks of Lent to become more beautiful icons of Christ so that we, too, will have the eyes to behold His divine glory. That is not a path for escaping the world, but the only road to its and our salvation in the Kingdom of Heaven.