Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40; John 1:43-51
Some people think that the point of religion is to strengthen families and societies by giving people a motive to be moral. They want to put the fear of God in us so that we will do the right thing and make the world a better place. As laudable as those goals are, they are not why our Lord died on the Cross and rose on the third day. He did so in order to restore and fulfill us in His image and likeness, in order to make us perfect icons of His salvation. The Savior became one of us in order to bring us into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity. As He said to Nathanael in today’s gospel reading, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”
On this first Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate the restoration of icons in the Byzantine Empire many centuries ago. We do so not for merely artistic reasons, but because the icons proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ and call us to share in our Lord’s holiness in every dimension of our lives. It is possible to portray the Lord in an icon because He is fully human, as well as fully divine. He has a fully human body, which was essential for Him to be born, live in this world, die, rise from the grave, and ascend into heaven. Icons of the Theotokos and the Saints manifest our calling to become radiant with the divine glory by uniting ourselves to Christ such that His holiness becomes characteristic of us. Simply put, the purpose of our Lenten journey is to become more beautiful living icons of our Lord.
Today’s epistle reading from Hebrews recounts the great sufferings of the Old Testament saints who looked forward in faith to the coming of the Messiah. Nonetheless, they “did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Here is a reminder of the sublime vocation that is ours in Christ: to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. We pursue that eternal goal when we share more fully in His healing and restoration of the human person in God’s image and likeness.
Even as the icons proclaim the truth of our Lord’s incarnation, they call us to manifest His holiness in our own bodies. We will never “see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” if we refuse to make our physical actions visible signs of our union with Christ in holiness. In fasting, we limit our self-indulgence in food as a way of gaining strength to resist our passions so that we can redirect our desires to their proper fulfillment in God. In almsgiving, we limit our obsession with our own physical comfort in order to help the needy have food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities. In prayer, we use our bodies to stand, kneel, and otherwise comport ourselves in ways that help us become more fully present to God. We must offer our whole, embodied selves in order to become better living icons of our incarnate Savior.
Given the profound confusion of our culture on the importance of our bodies as males and females, we must look to Christ for guidance on the intimate union of man and woman. As He said to the Pharisees, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? (Matt. 19: 4-5) He blessed marriage at the wedding in Cana of Galilee where He turned water into wine, which shows that He enables the union of husband and wife to become an icon of the restoration of our humanity in the Heavenly Kingdom. Saint Paul similarly refers to the “one flesh” union as a sign of the relationship between Christ and the Church. (Eph. 5:31-32)
If we are to answer our calling to become ever more beautiful icons of Christ’s healing of the human person in God’s image and likeness, we must offer ourselves as men and women to the Lord for growth in holiness. That requires not only reserving sexual intimacy for marriage, but also shutting our eyes to pornography and anything else that distorts the “one flesh” union into nothing more than an exercise in pleasure, domination, or self-expression. Marital union is an icon of our salvation and a path of entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is where most of us will learn to die to self out of love for our spouse and children. It is how we may participate personally in the healing of the broken relationship between man and woman that has plagued humanity ever since our first parents were cast out of Paradise into this world of corruption. Sex and marriage are for our salvation; if we want to share in the life of Christ, we must use them for our growth in holiness as the men and women He created us to be.
God does not call everyone to marry, of course. Recall how we celebrate the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos, revere St. John the Forerunner, and honor monasticism. Those who remain virgins and celibates have the opportunity to offer themselves to Christ in uniquely powerful ways. They are beautiful icons of single-minded devotion to our Lord, Who Himself obviously did not marry. Those who are widowed or divorced also have no lack of opportunity to become more like Christ by responding faithfully to the challenges present in their lives and serving Him in their family members and neighbors. Abstaining from sexual intimacy is essential for persons who are not married to gain the strength to orient their lives to the eternal joy of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. For Christ is the Bridegroom and His Body, the Church, is His Bride. The point of the Christian life is to perfect our love for the Savior as we grow in a “one flesh” union with Him as members of His Body. Married people and celibates pursue the same goal, but in different ways.
As we celebrate the restoration of icons today, let us grow in our commitment to enter into the perfection in holiness that Jesus Christ has made possible for all who bear the divine image and likeness. Let us undertake bodily discipline that will enable us to participate even now in His eternal blessedness as whole persons. For He calls us to nothing less than seeing “heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” That is what it means to be made perfect in Him.