Sunday of Orthodoxy
Sermon preached by Ashley Clampitt Purpura on Sunday, March 8, 2009
The first time I attended an Orthodox Liturgy was when I was six years old, and it happened to be the Sunday of Orthodoxy. The same Sunday of Orthodoxy we celebrate today. I was mesmerized at the end of the service when the procession and veneration of icons took place. At the time I didn't realize this procession only happened on the first Sunday of Lent, and assumed this was way the Orthodox liturgy ended every Sunday. In fact, I thought the people in the procession carried around their icons with them all the time, just as I carried around my favorite toys with me everywhere I went, when I was a few years younger. While we might not process with our icons of wood and paint every Sunday, or take them off our walls to bring to work, or the grocery store, as I childishly imagined; we are called to bring and bear the icon of Christ within us, at all times and in every place.
Genesis 1:26 tells us human beings are made in the "image and likeness of God." Every person bears the image of God within them and is called to manifest the likeness of this image as a living icon of Christ. At baptism we sing "As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ," celebrating this calling to become Christ-like. St. John of Damascus shows saints to be living icons, since they bear the divine image and likeness to the greatest extent possible in their lives. While our interior icons may not yet shine with the resplendence of the saints, we must recognize as Bishop Kallistos Ware states, "each man and woman is a living icon of God."
Upon entering or leaving the church today, most of you will have crossed yourselves, bowed, and kissed at least one icon. This is a practice we should not take for granted. Historically, the Sunday of Orthodoxy commemorates the restoration of icons to the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople in 843, after the end the iconoclast controversy. St Theodora the Empress decreed this annual observance, to celebrate the place of icons in the Orthodox Church as rightfully to be depicted and reverenced-- which had been declared at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787. For us, the Sunday of Orthodoxy should not end as we leave the Church, but should be lived daily in our hearts.
With regard to the icon we bear within ourselves, we should pray for the Grace of the Holy Spirit to cleanse us from the sins by which we may have defaced our interior icon. How can we love and venerate the holy icons on the walls of the church if we do not venerate the icon God Himself has written within our very beings? As the lovers of icons struggled in the eighth century to restore the icons to the Church, so too should we struggle and pray that God will restore his likeness to us and remove the tarnishing of our own interior iconoclasm. We are called to honor the image of God in ourselves and in others through a Christ-like way of life. But how exactly are we to venerate other people as living icons? Should we literally cross our selves, bow down, and kiss everyone we meet--just like we do to the icons in the church?
At Forgiveness Vespers, before the start of Lent, this is precisely what we do. We cross ourselves, prostrate before each other, ask forgiveness, and exchange a kiss. In our daily lives we should maintain this attitude of reverence and love, and kiss the icons in others by showing charity and compassion. Matthew 25:40 confirms this as Jesus lists acts of hospitality, generosity, and philanthropy saying "inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me." When we love our neighbor we show God we love Him. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, states "the honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented." When we kiss an icon of Jesus our kiss is not given to a painting, but to Jesus Himself. And when we show love to our neighbor, we venerate them as an icon of Christ-- displaying love which passes to God Himself. We are called to see everyone as Christ and to be Christ to everyone. Each human being bears the image of God, no matter how difficult it may be for us to see or admit it. We should not let pride, the ego, and resentment obscure our perception of these icons, but rather reverence them with compassion, forgiveness, and respect-rejoicing for Christ is in our midst.
On this the Sunday of Orthodoxy, let us remember that everyday is a day to celebrate the beauty of our faith, to strive to restore the Divine likeness within us, and venerate all the icons of our Church.