Dear Brothers and Sisters!
Here were are again celebrating the first Sunday of Great Lent. Most of us already know the history of the Sunday of Orthodoxy. How our Holy Icons were persecuted for over a hundred years in the 7th and 8th century. And how the Church was able to denounce this iconoclastic movement and label it a heresy. Yes, Iconoclasm, the act of condemning and fighting icons, such as the ones in this church, is a heresy. And in our western world, this heresy is very mainstream. A lot of non-Orthodox churches are rabidly against icons and any visual representations of God. They believe it is idolatry.
It is sad but this is the society we live in. We should know that icons are not something that Christianity came up with, their history goes back to the times of the Old Testament. There have been archeological excavations in the Holy Land – in modern-day Israel – and these excavations have found ancient Jewish synagogues that were built centuries before the birth of Christ. Inside archeologists found ancient frescoes and mosaics all along the walls, depicting events and people from Jewish History. And Orthodoxy continues this tradition of Iconography and this teaching was reaffirmed by the Universal Church during the 7th ecumenical council, and given the first Sunday of Great Lent as its day of commemoration.
But this feast-day is not just words on a calendar and a bygone era, it is very deeply connected to us and to our very being and essence. God created us in His image and likeness. Then God became man, He took on our fleshly body. Through His incarnation, He went even further and sanctified the human body. He brought Himself closer to us, so we can become more like Him much more easily. As the Great theologian St.Justin Popovic of Chelije said: “Man’s soul is from God, the soul is the image of God in man, it is the icon of God in man, and the body is the frame around that holy icon. And Man is a walking icon of God that walks through this world” (1).
Being an icon of God is a great joy, responsibility, and task for all of mankind. Let’s think about that and let it sink in…. Every person in the world – in their body and soul – is a walking Icon of God. This truth is more valuable than anything else in the world. Because this means that our soul is immortal, it does not end, and it is holy, because God is Holy and we have His Image and His icon in us. And all of us have this no matter what. This understanding is a great equalizer. This means that – in their nature – no person is better than another. Wealthy or poor, black or white, healthy or sick, Christian or non-christian, we all have divine worth. And if we saw the divine image of God in our fellow person there would be much less strife in the world.
You might be thinking: but what about the people who are committing terrible things and causing much pain and suffering to themselves and others, and ignoring the divine and holy image of every created person? What is their Divine worth?
Even those people have the Divine image of God within themselves, but it is through sins that they bury their divine image. They dump heaps of sinful deeds over that icon in order to hide the light that shines and reveals Christ. As St. Justin said: “they smear the black tar of sin over the Divine Image of God in man’s soul” (2). It is through sins that we pollute our souls and weigh them down.
We can use these physical icons as examples for our souls. We cherish these icons, we clean them, we venerate them, we keep them in special places of respect, we keep them in our sight as a reminder of the other world. If we do not keep the icons of our souls clean and let them be buried by sins, passions, anger, jealousy, lust, love of power, pride, or if we forget about God – than we are no longer free, we become spiritually restless. We become different people from what God intended us to be, and we become our own worst enemy.
Proof that we can be our own worst enemy is contained in this feast-day of the Sunday of Orthodoxy. On this day the Church commemorates Orthodox Christians overcoming themselves and their false understanding of Icons. It wasn’t outside forces that made Christians renounce Icons – iconoclasts came from within the Christians’ own circles. Iconoclasm was started by people, whose own inner Icons of the soul were polluted. They followed their own will. This led to the persecution of Icons – against the teaching and will of the Church… Eventually, iconoclasm was denounced, and since the 8th century, our Church has been celebrating Her victory over iconoclasts on the first Sunday of Lent.
Our Church history offers a wealth of experience for all of us. Will we, like the iconoclasts, only follow our own Will with the result that our souls will be smeared with the tar of sin, or will we follow the Will of God and His Church, that will keep our souls clean and the purest possible icons of the Divine Image? Be careful and choose wisely, because when we stand before God in the next life, if we are covered in dirt and tar of our sins, God could say: «I do not see my image in you through all that muck, you have not kept it clean, you’re place is not in the Kingdom». What a tragic sentence that would be to hear.
Fortunately, there is a solution. Anyone who has ever had a thorough confession will know how much lighter they feel when they have confessed before a priest. If you have never felt lighter after confession, you should try to examine your soul and your sins more thoroughly.
Through confession and communion, God has given us a way to purify our souls. Even if we are smeared with the tar of sin, true confession and repentance washes those sins away, and regular communion gives us the strength and Will to be like Christ, and to keep our souls from becoming unclean again. Just as Christ was pure, we are also called to be spiritually pure… Christ has given His Church and the Mysteries/the Sacraments like confession, communion, and virtues like prayer, fasting, humility, charity, love, and many other things that make us spotless not just in the next life but also in this life, so that God’s image in us may be visible to God and to the people around us unto the ages of ages Amen.
by Priest Radomir Plavsic.
Sermon was given at 12 Apostles Greek Orthodox Church in Duluth, MN on March, 1, 2015
1. Sermon for The Sunday of Orthodoxy by St. Justin (Popovich) of Chelije 1965.