Icons: To See Beyond the World into the Kingdom

We have arrived at the First Sunday in Lent.  Saying “we have arrived” keeps up the imagery that we are travelling – the spiritual journey of Great Lent.   We are doing what Christ calls all of His disciples to do, as we heard at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson:  “Follow me.” (John 1:43).  We can follow Christ only by being on this spiritual sojourn.  Spirituality, being a Christian, is not a state of mind or the soul, but our movement toward the kingdom of God.  To follow Christ we have to move ourselves towards God.

We still have a long way to travel, just to get through Lent.  At the midweek services this past week, I mentioned to you about how God’s call to Israel to leave Egypt behind was a wakeup call.  For though we usually think of the Hebrew people as being slaves in Egypt, there is another spiritual reality there.  They had voluntarily and willfully entered Egypt to escape their own poverty and famine in order to benefit from the wealth of Egypt.  They left behind their lives of being desert nomads for a life in the great civilization of Egypt.  And they had enslaved themselves to the all that Egyptian empire had to offer.  Moses comes to awaken them from their dream and delusion, but he doesn’t call them to overthrow their Egyptian overlords in a slave revolt and to take over that society.  Rather God calls them to leave society, culture and civilization behind and to go into the desert to worship God and to see the glory of God.  It is not a civil war to which they are called but a war against the flesh, their own desires and comfort.

They are asked to leave behind the glory of human civilization – all that they knew about the world – and to walk into the great unknown of the barren, lifeless and desolate desert.   They were called to leave the known and to seek the unknown.  And all week long I’ve told you that is what Great Lent is supposed to be to us – leave behind all that you know and love about your lives – your food, your entertainment, your beds, all that comforts you, your couches and clothes, all that enriches you and attracts you and satisfies you – and practice the abstinence, the self-denial, the fasting which Great Lent, which the great desert demands of you.  When we enter into Great Lent we are called to wake up out of the delusion that our lives are so wonderful and blessed and comfortable, and to see that there is an entire life available to us – a spiritual life, a life in God, which we miss because we are so busy pursuing comfort, careers, pleasure, the good life, the American dream.   Great Lent reminds us this life we so value really is a dream and will pass away.  The American dream does not last forever for it belongs to this temporary earth.  One day we will awake from this dream because we hear Christ calling us to wake up and arise.  And when we do we shall see God and realize all we so valued in this world was not that important or helpful. We in effect are called to join our spiritual ancestors to make an exodus into the desert of our lives.

This awakening happened to Moses as we heard at the beginning of today’s Epistle:

By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward. (Hebrews 11:24-26)

Moses refuses the dream of being Pharaoh’s grandson and embraces the reality that the pampered life of the elite is really enslavement to the world.  Moses looked  to this spiritual reward, and to do so he had to see beyond the great empire of which he was in the ruling class.  He lived a privileged life, and yet it was a dream deluding him.   And here we see another great theme of Lent, besides sojourning, besides fasting, we are to see God.

So Moses and Aaron said to all the people of Israel, “At evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD . . .  And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.  (Exodus 16:6-10)

It was only when these people looked away from the grand empire of which they were a part did they see the glory of God.  God was not seen by them in the greatest nation on earth but in the wilderness where there was no city, no culture, no comfort, no power, no wealth.

At the end of today’s Gospel lesson we heard Jesus say:

“Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”  (John 1:51)

The story of God’s people, of our exodus from Egypt, our sojourn through Great Lent is so that our eyes might be opened and so that we not be so dazzled and seduced by all the riches this world has to offer, and that we consider the glory of the Lord.  We are called to see the depth and riches of the Kingdom of God which are invisible to us when we focus only on life in this world.

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  (Hebrews 12:1-22)

That great cloud of witnesses to God’s glory is visible to us in the icons all around us.  Icons open heaven to our eyes and our eyes to heaven.  They tell us to see with the eyes of our heart, don’t just look at the external, but see the reality that these people and events represent.  Look into the hearts of those who are filled with the Holy Spirit.

Jesus said we will see heaven wide open but also that our eyes would be open wide by what we see.

Our eyes can be opened to God’s revelation, to understanding salvation, to the Kingdom of God if our hearts are open and receptive to what God reveals to us.

And what do we see with the eyes of our heart?

A loving God, a forgiving Father hoping for us to seek Him no matter how far away we may feel we are from Him.

We see where and in whom heaven and earth meet.

An icon shows us our salvation comes when God is united to humanity.

Icons remind us the Kingdom of Heaven is not a distant place but, rather, is right here right in our midst. As Jesus Christ said, “the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21)

Christ is in our midst!

I Worship the Creator Who Became Matter

“But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through  matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter that wrought my salvation.”

(St. John of Damascus from Eugen J. Pentiuc’s The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, p. 263).

 

Seeing, Nay Seeking, Christ in Others

Two poems related to themes found in Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46).  The first poem, untitled, is by St Maria Sobtskova.

I searched for singers and for prophets

who wait by the ladder to heaven,

see signs of the mysterious end,

sing songs beyond our comprehension.

And I found people who were restless, orphaned, poor,

drunk, despairing, useless,

lost whichever way they went,

homeless, naked, lacking bread.

There are no prophecies. Only life

continuously acts as a prophet.

The end approaches, days grow shorter.

You took a servant’s form. Hosanna.

(Pearl of Great Price, p. 51-52)

For St. Maria, if we seek Christ or the holy ones who follow Him, we might be surprised whom we find or in whom we find Him, the Lord God who makes Himself a servant and washes the feet of the least of His brothers and sisters.

In the second poem, “DE Way T’ings Come”, American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar writing poetically in an English dialect he sometimes used puzzles over how unlike the Good Samaritan we can be – working to feed those who are well fed  and avoiding those in need.

De way t’ings happen, huhuh, chile,

Dis worl’ ‘s done puzzled me one w’ile;

I ‘s mighty skeered I ‘ll fall in doubt,

I des’ won’t try to reason out

De reason why folks strive an’ plan

A dinnah fu’ a full-fed man,

An’ shet de do’ an’ cross de street

F’om one dat raaly needs to eat.

(The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar,  Kindle Location 5587-5591)

(For the poetically and dialectically challenged, the poem’s last lines are:  I just won’t try to reason out the reason why folks strive and plan a dinner for a full-fed man, and shut the door and cross the street from one that really needs to eat.)

 

The Lord Approaches to Enter Our Hearts

The Lord said to my Lord:

‘Sit at My right hand, until I make Your enemies,

a footstool for Your feet.’  (Psalm 110:1)

“… let us consider the way in which the psalmist speaks about the divinity of Christ.  He does not try to coerce us into belief.  What we believe is a matter of indifference to him.  He simply announces a fact:  the one addressed in the psalm is a priest, a king, and my God (cf Ps 145:1).  There is no need of any further  explanation.  If you so wish, believe in Him; if not, don’t believe.  In either case, He remains the Eternal King, seated upon His throne.  If you so wish, offer Him your heart, for we encounter God in faith, in the spacious freedom of the heart.  The Lord does not approach us in order to sway us with arguments and theories.  He approaches us in order to enter our hearts.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, PSALMS AND THE LIFE OF FAITH, p 70)

Sinners Called by Christ

“You are, of course, quite right: there is no room for doubt! The Lord does indeed long to gather all into His arms. All – but particularly the worst sinners.

This truth must, however, be rightly interpreted, rightly understood: the Lord calls to Him all sinners; He opens His arms wide, even to the worst among them. Gladly he takes them in His arms, if only they will come. But they have got to make the effort of coming. They must seek Him, go to Him. In other words, they must repent. It is not that He rejects those who do not repent. He still longs for them, and calls them. But they refuse to hear His call. They choose to wander away, in some other direction.”

(Macarius, starets of Optino, Russian Letters of Spiritual Direction, p. 58)

Praying, “Lord, have mercy!”

In Orthodox liturgical services, we constantly pray, “Lord, have mercy!”  In the Gospel, Jesus Himself never refuses to grant a request made to Him seeking mercy.  Paul N. Harrilchak comments on this foundational prayer of the Christian people:

Not a sentimental plea or cry for pity; rather, an acknowledgement of the Father’s lordship – his sovereignty, power and faithfulness – and of our own sinfulness. We ask the Father of mercies, 2 Cor. 1.3, to remember his covenant with us and deal with the needs of all, not in accordance with our sins but in accordance with his mercy, Heb. 8.8-12. (Something of the scriptural meaning of mercy – hesed in Hebrew – can be gleaned from the RSV rendering, steadfast love.)

The Liturgy: OCA Texts Revised, Annotated and Set to the Melodies, p. 31)

Strangers to Sin

“But if sin and death entered into this world and inhabit this world, it is certain that those who are dead to this world through Christ, or rather with Christ, are strangers to death and sin. Having been raised with him, they have even merited to sit with him in the heavenly places. Their citizenship is no longer in this world but in heaven…” 

 (Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, p. 312)

Becoming A Child of God

“Some Christians relate to God as slaves in the narrowest sense. They accept his will and obey his commandments and do what is required of them out of fear, out of the impending judgment, of the wrath to come (Matt. 3:7-12). But the spiritual life is not managed only through fear. Other Christians enter into the spiritual warfare as hirelings, as laborers or as soldiers in the pay of the king, as people who give themselves to God as for hire, accepting the responsibilities of the Christian life for the sake of reward (Lk. 6:35). Unlike the slave who acts out of fear, the hireling acts out of duty and obligation. He joins the ranks of God’s army to wage battle against the passions, against the evil forces of darkness that are in him and around him in the fallen world, because he is assured of God’s faithfulness to fulfill his promise to pay him just reward (1 Cor. 3:8; 2 John 8).

But greater perfection is expected of us. To be complete one must become, by grace, not only a slave or a hireling but also, and above all, a child of God, a brother – by adoption – and a friend of Christ. As a friend Christians accept God’s call with gladness of heart and act in all things out of love for the Master, who has loved them first (1 John 4:10). Friendship with God is unconditional because God’s love is unreserved, free, and absolute. Friends of Christ enjoy a deep, intimate personal relationship with him and come to know the hidden truths of the Gospel. They obey the commandments out of love, expecting nothing in return. “You are my friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:14-15).

(Alkiviadis C. Calivas, Aspects of Orthodox Worship, p. 32)

Theophany: Reveals God and Creation

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him.


When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  (Matthew 3:13-17)

It is the events surrounding the baptism of Jesus (the Theophany) which help us understand why the birth of Jesus is significant to us.  For it is only after His baptism that Christ begins His public ministry.  Only after His baptism does Jesus begin proclaiming the Gospel and doing the miracles which we know about and which we proclaim in our Sunday lectionary.

The importance of Theophany is also shown to us in that while only two of the four evangelists tell us anything about the birth of Jesus, all 4 evangelists tell us about the baptism of Christ.  In modern popular thinking, Christmas is the big event and feast, whereas in the Church it is the Theophany of Christ which reveals the importance of Christ’s birth.  Popular piety does not always mirror theology and sometimes popular piety looms larger than life itself.

As has already been stated, Theophany is significant because it marks the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus.   Mark’s Gospel in fact begins with the appearance of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan.  This is the beginning of the Gospel for Mark, not Christ’s Nativity.

At Christ’s baptism, God is beginning to unveil His mysterious plan for the world.  In Jesus encountering God in the flesh – divining and humanity united, Creator and creation sharing a common life.   When Jesus steps into the River Jordan, this is God’s son entering into the waters, but it is also the incarnate God entering into the water which God created at the beginning of the world as described in Genesis 1.

God creates the world and the waters of the world, and then God enters into these same waters and is immersed in them.  This is the great mystery of Theophany.  Jesus Christ reveals God to us.  He reveals God’s plan for the world.

The river waters of the Jordan are not only washing God in the flesh, they encompass God as Jesus is immersed in the waters.  He who created the waters allows Himself to be submersed beneath the waters.  There is no such place in the entire cosmos where God cannot enter, including Hades, the place of the dead.  In the River Jordan Jesus shows that God can disappear beneath the waters, be buried in the waters and yet still be both alive and be God.  He is preparing us for what will happen to Him in his burial.

His very presence in the world reveals to us that God is doing the unexpected.  God is uniting Himself to us humans.  God is making it possible for us to share in the divine life, to experience holiness.  God is showing that the physical world which He created is capable of containing God and revealing God to us.  In the waters of the River Jordan we learn who Jesus really is.

And we learn that the physical things can be sanctified and made holy.  The physical world is revealed as being capable of being spiritualized, as being the very means for us to encounter God.  Christ steps into the Jordan River and in touching the water, Christ makes the water a means for us to experience holiness, to experience God.  How is this possible?  Because God made water in the beginning to be a means to reveal Himself to us.  God is showing us what creation is capable of being.  And God is showing us we can encounter Him in and through the creation God made as a gift for us.  God shows us that even the watery depths of the earth are a place where God abides and where humans can still be united to God.

Matter, elements, the physical world are not merely physical.  The physical without the spiritual is dead, inert, void of meaning.  Christ reveals that all the physical world belongs to God is capable of life because it is spiritual as well.  Indeed when science wants to study the world as if there is no God, then the world of matter is devoid of God, it is lifeless.  In the Gospel we learn that matter, the physical world has as spiritual dimension if we care to find it.

And so we see the physical world, God’s creation becomes life giving in Christ.  Not only life giving, but giving eternal life.  And we see in Christ that not only the physical world is capable to being touched by God and made holy, but we ourselves as humans are able to be holy – to be united to God.

When we baptize people into Christ, we use the physical tools given to us by God – water and holy oil – to convey life to them, to show that we humans are not merely physical, material beings  – we are fully capable of bearing life and even giving life, we are made to be united to God.  The nature of water to give a new birth was revealed in baptism.

A final point, sometimes we Orthodox major on the minor in so many ways surrounding feasts.  The prayer of the blessing of water says:

And grant unto all them that touch it, and partake of it, and anoint themselves with it, sanctification, health, cleansing and blessing.

It doesn’t say that we should take it home and venerate it as if it is some holy object worthy of veneration.  We are not to treat it as if it is imbued with nuclear power.  We are to use it to bless ourselves and encounter God.  It’s purpose is to give us an experience of God.  The holiness of this water is that it means God is present with us.  So use it to bless yourselves and your homes and your gardens, so that the God who showed us the nature of water in baptism will be present with you in your person and in your home.  God enters our life not to give us “sacred objects” to venerate, but to transfigure us into beings who are united to Him.

Who is the King of Glory – Jesus or Caesar?

When Augustus ruled alone upon the earth,
the many kingdoms of men came to an end,

and when You were made man of the pure Virgin,
the many gods of idolatry were destroyed.
The cities of the world passed under one single rule,
and the nations came to believe in one sovereign Godhead.

Virgin Mary being enrolled for taxation

The peoples were enrolled by the decree of Caesar,
and we the faithful were enrolled in the name of the Godhead,
When You, our God, were made man.
Great is Your mercy, O Lord, glory to You! 

(hymn from Vespers of the Nativity)

The events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ as described in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke purposefully mirror images we know from historical evidence describing the celebration of the birth of the sons of Roman Emperors.  The Gospel writers want to be be clear that Jesus is not only the King of the Jews but more truly the King of kings and Lord of lords.  Caesars may rule THE Empire, but Christ rules the entire cosmos.  Sts Luke and Matthew set Christ from the time of His birth on a collusion course with the claims of the Roman Emperors.

“Ethelbert Stauffer in his work, Christ and the Caesars (SCM Press, 1955)…pays close attention to the evidence of the imperial coinage (which was regularly used as a propaganda medium) in this regard. The imperial coinage is full of the characteristic motifs of Advent and Epiphany, celebrating the blessings which the manifestation of each successive divine emperor was to bring to a waiting world. Among the adulatory formulas with which the emperor was acclaimed, he mentions, as going back probably to the first century, ‘Hail, Victory, Lord of the earth, Invincible, Power, Glory, Honor, Peace, Security, Holy, Blessed, Great, Unequalled, Thou Alone, Worthy art Thou, Worthy is he to inherit the Kingdom, Come come, do not delay, come again’ (p. 155).

Indeed, one has only to read Psalm 72 (**see below) in Latin, in the official language of the empire, to see that it is largely the same formal language which is used alike in the Forum for the advent of the emperor and in the catacombs for the celebration of the Epiphany of Christ (p. 251). Here there could be no compromise. Who was worthy to ascend the throne of the universe and direct the course of history? Caesar, or Jesus?”   (F. F. Bruce, The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament, p. 65)

**Psalm 72:1-17

Give the king thy justice, O God, and thy righteousness to the royal son!

May he judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with justice! Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness! May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor! May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations! May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth! In his days may righteousness flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more! May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!

May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust! May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him! For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight. Long may he live, may gold of Sheba be given to him! May prayer be made for him continually, and blessings invoked for him all the day! May there be abundance of grain in the land; on the tops of the mountains may it wave; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may men blossom forth from the cities like the grass of the field!

May his name endure for ever, his fame continue as long as the sun! May men bless themselves by him, all nations call him blessed!