THE SUNDAY OF ORTHODOXY
By: The Right Reverend Father Michael D. Jordan
"We bow before Your sacred image, O gracious Lord, and beg forgiveness for our offenses, O Christ our God; for You, of Your own will, deigned to ascend the Cross in Your human nature to deliver from bondage under the enemy, those whom You created. Therefore, we gratefully cry out to You: Through Your coming to save the world, O Savior, You have filled all with joy."
"O Mother of God, through you, in incarnation, the indescribable Word of God became describable; for through the divine goodness, the Word spoken from eternity became an Image. May we, who believe in salvation, clothe ourselves in the same Image, both in word and deed."
The word icon simply defined means "image". Lately, we have heard the word more and more with the rise of computer images referred to as icons. I still canít get used to instruction books directing me to click on an icon. To me, as an Orthodox Christian, an icon is a holy image of a saint, or an image of a holy event that occurred in the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church. I have come to appreciate the beauty of iconography. I believe that the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church is greatly blessed by using these "Sermons in color" in their Churches, and incorporating them as teaching tools for the people.
In the very early Christian Church there were very few people that were literate. Reading the Bible was not possible for them. They had to rely on the Church to teach them about Jesus Christ, and about the wonderful events that led to their salvation. Iconography played a very important part in the early Church, because, people who could not read and write, could look at an icon and recall these important saints and events of the church. Icons are not worshiped in the Eastern Orthodox Church, they are shown a special honor and respect as "Windows to Heaven".
If you witness an Orthodox Christian kissing an icon, they are not worshiping the icon, they are showing their love and devotion for the saint or event in Christian history that is depicted on the icon. Worship in the Eastern Orthodox Church is reserved strictly for the Holy Trinity; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Saints are not worshiped but honored for the role they played in the history of our Holy Eastern Orthodox Church.
I was asked by someone once to explain why we kiss the icons, and crosses in the church. I thought on this question for a little while, I was aware that this man had served in Vietnam as a soldier. I asked him, "Did you ever take a picture of your wife and son out of your foot locker and kiss them?" He answered, "I often did, it was because I love them so much, and I missed them!" I asked him, "Were you worshiping them by kissing their picture? Were you worshiping the paper the photo was " "No, of course not!" He replied. "Then you should understand why an Orthodox Christian kisses an icon. Itís because that person is expressing love for the person, or showing respect for the event depicted on the icon." "I see, he admitted, I had never thought about it that way!"
Jesus Christ is God Incarnate, the Only-Begotten Son of God, who took on flesh and dwelt among us. Before Jesus was born into the world, we had no image of what God looked like. God took on a human form and dwelt among us, therefore, the image of Jesus Christ could be captured by iconographers. Thatís why in the opening phrase of this sermon I quoted a Troparion from the Sunday of Orthodoxy. "We bow before Your sacred Image, O gracious Lord..." You will notice that it is the sacred image of the Lord that we bow before, not just any image. We are not worshiping the image, but we are asking the Lord for forgiveness of our offenses. If you want to behold the sun light from inside your home, you must go to a window or door to see the full radiance of the sun. As we approach the icon of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are approaching a window to Heaven in order to gaze upon the Son of Righteousness. Our worship and honor and devotion are clearly directed to the Lord as we bow before His sacred image on the icon.
If you will notice the iconography in the Eastern Orthodox Church, you will see that the images are not "graven images", in other words they do not look as people normally appear on the earth. Their images are shown as "transfigured images", transfigured by their close association with God. Notice the piercing eyes, that are focused forward, as if they are gazing at the straight and narrow path that leads to salvation. Notice their bodies show signs of a severe, monastic style life. These are not graven images, but they are images of "grace transfigured" people.
During the Iconoclastic period, the Eastern Orthodox Churches came under a great persecution for their use of icons. Countless Orthodox churches were burned, thousands of icons were destroyed, and many priests and bishops were killed, supposedly all in the name of God. This was a dark period of time for the Eastern Orthodox Church; however, as Jesus Christ promised, the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Holy Church. This persecution was based largely on a misinterpretation of one of the ten commandments, which I will share with you now.
Exodus Chapter 20: 3 "Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness [of any thing] that [is] in heaven above, or that [is] in the earth beneath, or that [is] in the water under the earth: 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God [am] a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth [generation] of them that hate me; 6 And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."
This Commandment of God is quite clear and understandable. Certainly, it would be quite wrong to make an icon and worship it as a deity, to exalt it above God, that would be totally wrong and it would violate Godís Commandment. As with all persecution, the iconoclastic period was fueled by ignorance. Those who were opposed to the use of icons in the church simply did not understand how they were being used. And, eventually the persecution ended and the Eastern Orthodox Church triumphed over their adversaries.
The use of icons in the Eastern Orthodox Church is not as an object of worship, nor is any icon thought of as a deity. Eastern Orthodox Christians know that icons are an integral part of the church, and they are also aware of their use in the church as inspiration to the faithful. A priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church could celebrate a Liturgy totally alone, and still be surrounded by the saints that grace the walls of the church.
"Let the walls teach" has long been the hallmark of Orthodoxy, and anyone that enters an Orthodox Church will immediately feel surrounded by the Church Triumphant, that church we aspire to belong to when our earthly lives are over. The icons add a reality to the Church Triumphant, through their sermons in color, they bring events from the history of the church right up to the present day. Through their inspiration, we are reminded that Heaven always has itís attention fixed on us the Church Militant.
Just as a priest dispenses the Sacraments of the Holy Church, and grace is extended from God through the priest, we believe that God also uses other means of extending healing grace to His people. God, Who is the Creator of all things, uses all of His creation to serve His purpose of reaching human kind, and to draw them closer to Him the Creator. In the past, God has used Holy icons to transfer grace to people. Take for example the weeping icon at St. Judeís Shrine in Barberton, Ohio. Many people have received miracles from visiting this weeping icon and praying in the Shrine.
This icon boosted the faith of the people in God. This icon drew people closer to God by focusing their attention on the miraculous ways that God ministers to His people. This icon is a window of grace, a bridge that spans from Heaven to earth, from the Spiritual world to the carnal world we live in. Icons remind us that the Spiritual world exists, and that we are but a single moment away from that Spiritual world which we will enter when our physical bodies expire.
On this Sunday of Orthodoxy, we celebrate our faith, we remember those who died in the persecution of our church, and we pray that Jesus Christ will continue to pour out His most wonderful blessings upon His Holy Church. We pray that God will preserve His Church on earth, free from the persecution of the evil one. Today, we celebrate with the Church Triumphant in Heaven on this, the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
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