The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John 1:43-51
The theme of the first Sunday of Lent is the Triumph of Orthodoxy. Specifically the restoration of holy iconography in all of the churches of God. While we Orthodox celebrate, we should also mourn and pray for the many Christian groups who do not have icons, even forbidding them from their sanctuaries. Many have gone so far as to even eliminate crosses from their buildings and interiors. We celebrate triumphs from hundreds of years ago but we should also ask what victories we are winning in our current culture? Orthodoxy is meant to be a living and powerful witness to the truth. Do we live as if this truth is worth sharing?
Philip the disciple encountered Jesus of Nazareth and there was an immediate effect. He had to share his experience or his knowledge with those around him. It is interesting that the matter of sight is the main subject of this whole gospel. It is the unifying theme. First there is an invitation to “come and see” Jesus. This is the invitation from Philip to Nathanael. Most of us are like Philip in that we have met Christ the Lord. How many of us are like Philip when it comes to inviting others to meet Him?
What happens next is quite interesting. As Nathanael approaches Our Lord Jesus, he finds that the Lord already knew him. In our response to Jesus Christ we also must remember that before we have seen and examined the evidence before us, we have already been examined by God. This means that our response to Jesus Christ must be very careful and precise and not something that happens hastily or casually. God is already watching us and waiting for our response, even before we have heard His name. The Lord says to Nathanael “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” This could have various meaning but I believe that this is a reference to the fact that Nathanael was very likely studying the law of Moses while sitting under the tree. The earlier verse has Jesus saying that Nathanael is “an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” What it literally says is “Behold, a true Israelite.” It meant that Nathanael was really trying to live a holy life according to the law of Moses. What is also interesting is that the Lord says that Nathanael is without guile. This meant that he was simple and not very sly or cunning, but rather a straightforward fellow.
Now we begin to see the problem. Here is a simple Israelite trying to live a righteous life and study the law of Moses and when he is asked to come and see Jesus of Nazareth, what is his response? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” We are often the same whenever someone challenges us with something that might force us to reexamine or change. People take their religious beliefs to heart and it is tough to convince them of anything else. We each have preconceptions about various subjects. Some of these preconceptions are actually misconceptions. This applies to knowledge in general and more specifically it applies to knowledge about my current state and my relationship with God. We have to repent and change our mind at times. This requires us to be a bit flexible. It requires us to make room for God to surprise us and to do what we may not have expected Him to do. Nathanael had a preconceived notion regarding what could possibly come out of Nazareth. He was forced to reexamine his thoughts and change in light of what he observed.
This is always the case and it makes the coming of Jesus Christ powerful because He was seen, heard and felt. He took on the form of a servant. He became a human. The apostle John writes “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life (1Jn 1:1). God wasn’t a theory or an idea or a philosophy for the apostles. God became a tangible reality and completely eliminated the need for any guesswork on our part.
The Sunday of Orthodoxy is a reminder that the Church doesn’t promote religious art for fun or for simple aesthetics. The holy icons are a theological reality. Icons are a necessary part of the Christian faith according to the Church that has preserved this same Christian faith for all. We believe that icons are necessary because Christ is the image (IKON) of the invisible God. Think about that for a moment….No one has ever seen God. God is invisible. God is spirit. You can’t see God under a microscope or with a telescope. But the Son of God entered time and space. He became a part of human history. He took flesh and dwelt among us. He gave His life for us. We use icons to depict Jesus Christ because He is the depiction of God the Father. We see icons because we have truly seen the salvation of Israel and the human race.
With this celebration of the Holy icons in mind we Orthodox Christians who are struggling in Lent, we would be wise to remember that images and symbols have great power over us. Our eyes are a gateway to the soul. Our eyes can lead us down the road to salvation when they are properly directed. Such as when we see others in need and help them or read the Holy Scriptures or pray before an icon. They can also lead us in the other direction if we are not careful about what our eyes see. Content filters exist for computers and televisions. If we are worried about our souls and the souls of our children, we should take steps for our protection. If we have trouble avoiding certain programs or websites, find a way to block them. God will accept these sacrifices as a pure offering.
Above all we need to focus on the Icon of icons, Our Lord and savior Jesus Christ who became the Icon of God in order to restore each one of us as beautiful icons of God.
May the Lord help us to forget the world and to fix our eyes on Him. May the Lord help us carry His image in our hearts that by His grace we may be transformed into this very same image. Glory be to God forever AMEN.