We, the Orthodox, like our processions. The First Sunday of the Great Lent, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, makes no exception, as flocks of priests and faithful carrying icons circle around their churches, singing hymns and proclaiming the victory of the Orthodox and the restoration of the icons.
But why is it so important today, in the 21st century, to remember every year a theological debate that happened many moons ago? Well, maybe because what was at stake then is at stake now. The battle of the Orthodox with the iconoclasm is far from being over. The fight for the icons was not a debate about art in the Church. It was a struggle for the understanding of Man, his purpose in Creation and his salvation in God. The icons hold the key to the Orthodox response.
What sets the Orthodox apart from others is our understanding that God created man in His image. He did this so that man, acting in harmony with the divine grace, will achieve the likeness of his prototype, God. Through this, man is becoming himself god, not by nature, of course, but by full participation in the life of the Godhead. It is what we call theosis or deification. This concept is the engine of everything we do. All our efforts are subservient to this ultimate goal. Or at least that was the plan…
The Fall and Its Impact
In paradise, Adam and Eve have lost through sin the original straight path to theosis and, as sin entered the human nature, a new path was forged for all of us: the path of askesis, or the holy struggle. This includes a permanent awareness of our human weakness and a continuous collaboration with the grace of God to transcend it and regain our place in God’s presence. This path goes through the stages of purification of passions, illumination and finally theosis.
While all of us as sinners are still stumbling through the first stage of our purification from passions, the Orthodox iconography expresses the later stages of our life in Christ: illumination and theosis. The holy persons we see depicted in lines and colors are ahead of us, having already fulfilled the potential of their humanity, and they are now resting in the glory of God. Icons become therefore doors through which we can walk in the divine reality, lost through disobedience.
Sin, as Fr. Rafail Noica, a disciple of Elder Sophrony (Saharov), was saying recently, is not the true reality, but a sort of virtual reality that conveys to us a perverted, illusory experience that only leads us further away from the original goal of our existence. We can say that living in sin is like living in one of these virtual reality games, like World of Warcraft or Second Life, where the player gets to control his appearance, his intellect, his powers and, through cybernetic manipulation, becomes in a way the god of his virtual universe. This is nothing else but a perverted theosis, the same kind of corrupt thinking that made the devil fall with his angels.
The Glory of the Icons
The icons offer us a direct vision in the “true” reality of God, and the saints become model men and women who broke the veil of deception and met God in His Kingdom. In order to escape the perverted reality of sin and access the authentic existence depicted in the icons, we have to clean our nous, or heart, as the Fathers call it. The nous is our only sensory organ capable to see God. This is the purpose of our purification from passions: to clean our hearts so we can reach the vision of God: theoria. This is the way of the ascetics, whom we venerate in the icons. If we venerate them in the icons, we also have to imitate them. We cannot live a bipolar life in which we love the saints but dislike what they have done in order to become saints.
The holy struggle, askesis, follows in the footsteps of these great luminaries. As the late Fr. John Romanides was saying that we have no ethics, but ascetics. God does not need us to behave. He is not a moralist, nor a Puritan. He does not change if we sin, but we do. God is perfect, He loves the sinner, the atheist, the moralist, the philosopher and the saint all the same, because God Himself is Love. It is us who have not achieved yet perfection, who need to collaborate with Him to attain it, who need to become love at our turn.
The transformation we are called to make in our lives includes developing a new relationship with the entire Creation, with all that is material. God fashioned man out of the most primordial material: earth. He breathed into him life and placed him in a physical place, paradise. He also gave him permission to eat out of all trees and enjoy the company of other living beings: animals, birds, insects, etc. Man was put in charge of all Creation, but this physical world was not the end. It was only intended as a mean of sustenance until Man was ready to live “by every word coming out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Through sin, however, man lost this purpose and, dressed in garments of skin, matter gain, started to consume it and be consumed by it.
Fr. Dumitru Staniloae says that the material world, originally meant to be a stairway to the heavens, through misuse and abuse, has been transformed in a wall between us and God, and between us and our neighbor. The physical world has lost its transparency and becomes an opaque barrier that does not allow us to perceive the reality of God.
The prodigal son demanded his portion of inheritance from his Father. He could not see past the pleasures this wealth would bring him and wanted to possess it alone, in a far country. But once the treasure spent, and the illusion gone, the veil was lifted from his eyes, and he started to see something different. He realized that what he truly lost was not wealth, but the communion with his Father. This is why, with a renewed appreciation, with a changed mind, metanoia, he came back into himself and went to attempt again to live in Communion with Him. More so, he did it fully knowing that he may have to accept the lower status of a servant. Losing everything, but accepting the responsibility of his deeds, he recovered what Adam has lost through sin, the true purpose of his existence, which is not acquiring material things and worldly pleasures, but being in God’s loving presence.
This is why the Great Lent is so important for us, and this is why, year after year, we go through this training of will and detachment. Leaving behind this fallen world and setting aside all that is material will eventually happen at death. The soul leaves the body that returns to the earth, and the immaterial soul reaches toward God. Our access to material goods is over at that point and, if we have formed attachments, too bad. I suppose this will be a component of hell for us, as we will crave them in vain like an addict in withdrawal.
Great Lent: The Regaining of the Purpose of Creation
What shall we do then? In Monasteries, the first week of Lent, Clean Week, is spent in deep prayer, eating pretty much nothing, except for partaking twice in Holy Communion. Even with one’s best efforts and practice, at the end, one feels exhausted because we cannot leave without material food. We are not saints—at least not yet.
Like the prodigal son, we should try instead to use this beautiful practice of the Church to recover the original meaning of the physical world and use it only to get in a closer communion with God. At the conclusion of Clean Week, EVERYTHING will taste wonderful. After leaving behind most everything, our taste for life is renewed and we get to enjoy again what we were taking for granted. Apples, where have you been? Bread? Taste of heaven! Kale? What a sweet fragrance! And more interestingly, we now feel a different taste that only a cleansed heart can feel: the taste of heaven!
I am not advocating that people should starve to death to re-discover the taste of life. But eating simply during the fast should allow us to rekindle our relationship with the material world and open us a little more every year towards the uncreated.
Today we have so much of everything! Go to a grocery store and you’ll see fruits that my great-grandparents never knew existed: bananas, kiwi, pineapple…goji berries?! Even regular seasonal fruits like strawberries and my favorite raspberries are available year-round. We don’t have to wait for anything. We have so much to taste, and yet nothing pleases us and we are always looking for new things for our discerning palate to experience. After a while, however, all acquire the same bland taste, and nothing satisfies us anymore. Yet paradoxically, we cannot leave without them. We need our fix every day, we are junkies of matter.
Elder Cleopa tells a story on how he received three new shiny coins from a faithful, and he liked them so much because they were new and glittery. And he could not stop himself from looking at them all the time. Then he started to be obsessed with anyone stealing them and began to suspect plots against him from the brothers. In the end, he realized that he was struck with the love for silver, and in order to escape it, he gifted the money to a beggar. This is how he was cured.
Lent comes to break our addiction to matter and allows us to regain the taste of paradise lost, to smell once more the fragrance of prayer that is lifted up to God, to feel the loving embrace of the Father welcoming His prodigal Son, to hear the words of forgiveness from His holy mouth and see for ourselves that the Lord is Good! All our senses are prepped to perceive the reality of the Kingdom.
Lent is not a rejection of matter, but a return to its meaning and a pre-taste of the “new heaven and the new earth” that is to arrive with Christ at His second coming. In this new world, our newly refashioned spiritualized bodies, after the model of the resurrected Christ, will crave no more the fallen Creation, but will simply live by being in eternal and complete communion with God, fulfilling the purpose that was given to us since the beginning of the world. The renewed Creation will cease to be just an icon, a reflection of the original, but will identify itself with God, whose living body is, and shall always be. Amen.
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