Monday, March 21, 2016

'We Offer Thee Incense, O Christ our God...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

The prevailing theme on the First Sunday of Great Lent - The Sunday of Orthodoxy - is that of the image:  "We venerate Thy most pure Image, O Good One ... "  The specific basis for this emphasis is, of course, the Orthodox victory over the iconoclasts - "icon-smashers" - of the 8th - 9th centuries.  This victory is dated to the year 843 when a Synod of Constantinople definitively reject the Iconoclast heresy that denied the legitimacy of the Icon of Christ, and by implication, of the saints. The icon was restored to its proper place within the liturgical and personal lives of the faithful after being banned for over a century.  And the theological basis for the icon is the Incarnation - the enfleshment of the Son of God as our Lord Jesus Christ.  The invisible God is made visible when the eternal Son of God "becomes flesh."  (JN. 1:1-18)  As St. John of Damascus put it:

Of old God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was not depicted at all. Now that God has appeared in the flesh and lived among humans, I make an image of the God who can be seen. 
I do not worship matter but I worship the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation.  I will not cease from worshipping the matter through which my salvation has been effected.  
(The Orthodox Faith)

If there was no Incarnation there could be no icon, for God is invisible and intangible.  That is why no images of God were allowed during the time of the Old Testament as St. John so eloquently explained.

Since we are made "according to the image of God," each human person is actually an "image of the Image," for the Son of God is the eternal Image/Icon of the eternal Father; and we are created according to His Image.  If we grow more Christ-like during or earthly lives, then we are transformed into the very likeness of God.  That is our true human vocation.  This has practical and liturgical implications that I would like to remind everyone of.  It is precisely because we are "images of the Image" that we are censed more than once during the Liturgy and other liturgical services. In my booklet, The Divine Liturgy - Meaning, Preparation and Practice, I wrote the following by way of explanation of why the censing is done during the Liturgy:

The people gathered are members of the Body of Christ.  The laity (from laos, "people of God") are worshippers "in spirit and in truth" (JN. 4:24) - not spectators to be passively edified. As the people of God, we are reverently censed by the bishop, priest or deacon at various moments of the Liturgy, just as are the altar table, the sanctuary, and all the icons.  Whenever censed, we respond with a humble bow of acknowledgment to the celebrant.  As the holy ones and the holy things of the Church are censed, so are we. To thus bow in acknowledgement is to accept the truth that we are created "in the image and likeness of God" (GEN. 1:26-27), and therefore called to the same holiness as are the saints, the Mother of God, and of our Lord Himself - the true "Holy One of God" (JN. 6:69). 
Thus, the act of censing is not a mere "liturgical prop" or "ancient" (and perhaps by implication, irrelevant) tradition.  For this reason, when the nave is being censed by the celebrant (or deacon), we should patiently and attentively wait until the censing is completed before coming forward to venerate the icons and light our candles. In so doing, we acknowledge the importance of this liturgical action and we will not grow indifferent to its significance in our worship.

In the Church we are treated with the dignity, honor and respect that is befitting our human nature. Certainly not the case in the world! And that dignity, honor and respect is found in the fact that we are created by God with an eternal destiny. It is our task to live up to this high calling.

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