Every year‚ in the first Sunday of Lent‚ we celebrate our Orthodox heritage. It is a wonderful festivity involving a touching procession with icons‚ lifted up high‚ around the church and ending in the declamatory proclamation of the Synodikon of Orthodoxy. Since we do it every year‚ it became so engrained in our fiber that we rarely stop to ponder about what does it really mean to us. It is important to know‚ after all‚ what we celebrate; otherwise it makes no sense to go on with a party that we know nothing about.
So let me start by asking you a simple question. What is Orthodoxy to you? A place called home? A link to the old country? A train station in the pursuit of the most exciting religion? Something your parents make you do on Sunday morning? A badge of honor for the most righteous denomination? A place with free baklava or pirogues?
If you already feel a little uncomfortable‚ don’t! Relax. This is not a test. Whatever brings you to church every Sunday is part of what Orthodoxy is. But it is also important to remember that we cannot confine the meaning of Orthodoxy to a single item‚ however important that item might be for us. Orthodoxy is not only one thing‚ it is much more than we can ever imagine. With every feast‚ with every celebration we uncover another meaning of it and we become richer in the knowledge and the practice of our faith.
The Sunday of Orthodoxy the Church uncovers one of the most important aspects of Orthodoxy by remembering the victory of the protectors of the Holy Icons at the last Ecumenical Council. This is significant‚ as icons are found everywhere in Orthodoxy. We have them in our churches‚ at home in our prayer corners‚ in our cars‚ even in our wallets. Orthodox people love icons because they love God and His saints that are represented in them. But you probably already knew that.
There is more‚ however‚ to say about the subject. When we enter in a church adorned with icons we are overwhelmed with the feeling that we are in the nether world. All the saintly persons depicted on the walls seem to come forth from the Kingdom and join us in our realm‚ praying with us. Through their icons‚ their reflections in the world‚ they are present with us‚ right here and right now. The Kingdom of heaven feels “at hand” and we have just walked in.
Entering a church with proper iconography is like opening a photo album with pictures of your family. Everything you see in there makes you relive the best moments you spent with them. Your childhood‚ your parents and grandparents; your good and not so good memories come to life through the pictures you eagerly scan with your eyes.
Orthodoxy should be for us our true family. Every icon should tell us the story of one of our relatives. How they followed God‚ how they taught His word to others with the price of their lives‚ how they endured tribulations to be able to worship Him‚ how they spread love around them as Christ Himself did first. Every icon has a story‚ every icon is more than a dead piece of wood‚ although it is‚ but‚ for those that know the family stories‚ it is their life.
Give your family album to a stranger and he will put it aside with a sigh. ‘I don’t know anyone in these pictures’‚ he will say. How can one appreciate the great stories of your people if one does not know them? You can try to tell him a few good funnies‚ he might politely smile a few times‚ but he won’t appreciate it as you do‚ because these are not his people.
But you do know all of them. When you enter the Church‚ the icons tell you so many of their stories. You look at the icon of St John the Forerunner and you remember how he dared to baptize Christ in the Jordan. You look at St Katherine’s icon and you remember how she made fools out of the wise of the world‚ you look at the icon of the Most Holy Theotokos and you remember how she gave birth to Christ in a humble manger in Bethlehem‚ you look at Christ Himself and you cry as you remember how He gave up His life for yours‚ but you again rejoice when His glorious Resurrection comes to mind.
You want to share these stories with the world but the world does not want them. They even forgot they are actually part of our family‚ as we all‚ people of all cultural‚ ethnic and religious backgrounds‚ have been created in God’s image. The world has made new friends‚ and forgot its past. The new friends are cooler and they brought with them all sorts of new glistening proposals‚ so all the glorious stories of the past have slipped into oblivion. It is even difficult for them to remember that there was a family at some point‚ that there was a loving Father that gave up His Son so we would have life.
The world has lost its family album‚ but we have preserved it. The glorious faces of the past have faded‚ their stories forgotten‚ but we have kept it all alive. We keep their memories on‚ through icons and hymns; we venerate their glorious past that continues to be contemporary through the eternal Kingdom. Our icons are not dead; they are a living reflection of the heavenly‚ where the choir of all the saints rejoices in God’s presence. We honor them because we are them and they are us: one Church‚ one people‚ one Kingdom. They are icons and we are icons of the same God.
This is Orthodoxy‚ to live in Communion with God and through Him with all that bear His glorious image. I am an icon of the Almighty‚ you are as well and together we form the icon of the Kingdom. Glory be to the Father that no one has seen‚ to the Son that is His icon and showed Himself to us in the flesh and to the Holy Spirit that illumines our hearts so we can see Him as He truly is. Amin.