God Wants You to See!!

The First Sunday of Lent

 Heb 11:24-26, 32-40, 12:1:2

John 1:43-51

The First Sunday of Lent. It goes by a few names - The Triumph of Orthodoxy, the Feast of Orthodoxy, The Triumph of the Holy Images, and the Commemoration of the Holy Image. Each of them points to a single event - the restoration of icons on the First Sunday of Lent.

When the Lord God brought Israel out of Egypt, he didn’t just give the Ten Commandments.  He gave the Law of Moses, instructing them not only how to live, but how to worship Him.  He gives explicit instructions to build His Tabernacle - His dwelling place where he would meet His people.  And that Tabernacle included images - images of angels - angels, because there were no human souls yet in heaven.  Those images were on the veil and on the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant.  

Later, when constructing Solomon’s Temple, giant statues of Seraphim were placed in it.  And, in some of the synagogues from later in Israel’s history, shortly before the birth of Christ, archaeologists have found icons depicting biblical events, just as we have icons of biblical events and the life of Christ.

But, some misinterpreted the prohibition against making idols as a prohibition of any sacred painting or statue.  In the 7th century, Muhammad included that understanding as one of the tenets of Islam. As a result, during the Muslim conquests that followed, some Christians started to hold that prohibition as a tenet of their faith. That group, the iconoclasts, advocated destroying icons. The doctrine was called iconoclasm.

Finally, a Church Council was held in 787, in Nicea - the same place that gave us the first part of the Creed. After much debate, the decision was made that, yes, indeed, the use of sacred images, of icons, was part of the Faith, and always had been.  The battles continued for nearly 60 years longer, until, on the First Sunday of Lent in 843, when, at the conclusion of yet another council, the council fathers marched into Hagia Sophia - the great cathedral in Constantinople - and restored the icons.  Iconoclasm was defeated, and the Sunday became known as the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

So, what’s so important about icons?

When we use incense, our worship engages our sense of smell. Hearing the scriptures, the liturgy, and the hymns - that engages our sense of hearing. Receiving the Eucharist, we use our senses of taste and touch.  The psalmist said, “Taste and see that the Lord is good”. We are to worship God with all our senses, and icons complete that circle.

Icons have been called “windows into heaven”. Our Epistle reading this morning gives us mental pictures of the heroes of our faith who came before Christ. Their actions are described, and we can imagine those actions. With icons, in a sense, we can see those saints. 

A few verses after our Epistle reading in Hebrews, we read this: “You have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven”.  When we come to worship, we are surrounded by “the assembly of the firstborn in heaven”.  And the icons are here to remind us of that. They allow us to have a glimpse of that assembly!

For centuries, literacy was a rare thing; only the rich and educated could read.  Icons filled the gap, teaching the faith to those who could not read.

Think of one of the common icons of the Resurrection.  It depicts our Lord standing on two doors - He’s broken the gates of Hell.  Below that, we see a figure of a man, bound in chains; and Revelation tells us that Satan is now bound, bound until he is released at the end of time, before his final defeat. Surrounding Christ are saints from the Old Testament, including His ancestor, King David.  And He is raising a man and a woman from the grave - Adam and Eve.

Some years ago, I was at a retreat. The focus of the retreat was Eucharistic Adoration.  Adoration is a wonderful devotion, of course, but it’s a western practice. At one point, I approached the retreat master, a Dominican Friar, and explained to him that I was Byzantine.  I asked if Adoration had a parallel in our tradition.  Without hesitation, he replied praying with icons.

St. Basil tells us, “The honor paid to the image passes to the prototype”. Citing this, the Nicene Council Fathers continued, “he who does worship to the image does worship to the person represented in it”.

To sum up, icons allow us to use our sense of sight in worship.

  • They allow us to see images of Jesus and the saints.

  • They allow us to see that we are part of a great assembly, worshiping the God of the Universe.

  • They show us scenes from scripture and the lives of the saints, teaching us our faith.

  • Praying with them, Christ and the saints are made present to us. The honor paid to the icon is passed to the person represented.

My brothers and sisters, let us rejoice that our Lord allows us to engage all of our senses in Divine Worship.