Last week on the first Sunday of Lent, we observed the Sunday of Orthodoxy. This recalled the time when, after years of controversy during which the Byzantine Imperial authorities had banned representations of Christ and the Saints, a new Emperor restored them; and the icons were solemnly processed back into the Hagia Sophia, the Great Church of Constantinople on 11th March 843. Also known as the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, it was a victory for the true Christian belief that God, the Kingdom of heaven and our salvation are not just ideas but something we touch, and see and the hold on to us. Our faith is in the Incarnation, in the Incarnate Word, God who did not stay a Being to be guessed at, but who revealed himself in the Son of Man. Our faith is about a creation through which God encounters us, heart mind and soul, but also body. He became human with us, that we might become divine with Him. To make and see the icons, to touch and behold them, is not to exalt a mere earthly creation and enthrone it where God ought rightly to be, but it is to encounter - in the process of their preparation and painting, in their consecration and veneration - the living work of the Holy Spirit bringing God into our midst and all the Kingdom of Heaven with Him.
If we do not believe that this is so, and that Christ and the Mother of God, St Joseph of the Holy Family, of St Nicholas and St John Baptist, St Mary Magdalene and St Gregory Palamas are not present to us and we to them, in this moment and by this means, we are saying, “Thank you, Rabboni, but we do not believe You and Your Kingdom of God can physically touch us now; we are inspired by the ideas and believe the faith coming to us from the past, but we are rational people and it makes no sense that you can be found in the things of the world today, or that the things of the world can bring us into contact with You, least of all these representations; except symbolically, of course.” It is as thought we are saying, “Yes, our logic tells us that since You and Your saints are not shining out of the icons, You can shine out of us either.” In other words, we are holding back from Christ, and holding back from our salvation in which we humans may shine with the light that comes from God Himself. We believe Him with our minds, we love Him with our hearts, we hope to be instilled with Him in our souls, but we say the opposite of St Peter, who said, “Do not wash just my feet, but my entire body and all over”. We are doing the opposite of St Mary Magdalen whose faith-instinct was to reach out and hold onto the Risen Lord. We are thinking differently from St Thomas who said, “Let me put my hand in His side.” This is why the icons meant so much to the Orthodox of the ninth century – the icons were their hold on Christ and His Kingdom, and Christ’s on them in the here and now; the tangible sign that they were being saved, the living evidence that the Saints were impinging on the world, as the Christians in the world were likewise being drawn into the heaven of God Himself. Here is the iconostasis, never a barrier but always the Veil of the Temple that is torn in two, so that Christ’s sacrifice may take its effect in creation. It is the porous membrane through which from heaven the Lord and His saints look upon us with God’s mercy as we behold them, too, aspiring for the glory that is theirs to be ours, even now where we are.
It makes sense, then, to have celebrated a kind of Feast in the beginning of the Great Fast, because what we are observing is the path of our redemption taking effect, how Orthodoxy - which declares its faith in the unity of the Creator with His creation - keeps us following the Incarnate Christ as we step through this world and in the next world at the same time. So we make our way through constant turning to face the Glory as it shines its Light on us, and so we pass from disobedience to new life.
Today’s gospel (Mark 2.12) reflects the same theme. It is not an iconostasis or a Veil through which the Lord bursts in with the glory of His Kingdom, but a roof. The paralysed man is lowered through it; and Christ sees the faith of his friends and the hope of the man in the power of God to heal and save humanity for the New Reign that is coming. It renders disbelief and sin beside the point. The people place their confidence in Christ, and Christ bestows on them His faith in them. They enact a kind of burial, and the body of the paralysed man encounters not death in a grave but the Lord of life. The man stands up; he rises like Christ. And touched by God he pursues no earthbound life, but passes into new life, and leads them all to behold and love, to praise and gaze on, God in His glory.
St Gregory Palamas we commemorate today for a Second Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. This is because he is the one in the Eastern Church who taught the Christians to dwell upon this glory as the Light that lightens every one. See the halos on the icons; they show the brightness of the Kingdom but cast no shadow. The same light came from Christ at His transfiguration on Mount Tabor, as the apostles were more thoroughly converted to behold it. In our world of now, we too, in our prayers and contemplation but also in every corner of our being, may know God and stand in His uncreated light, as once the paralysed man beheld the glory and wonder of Christ. St Gregory’s opponents said that God in His essence is unknowable, mocking him for saying that you could see what was invisible. But Gregory insisted that they were missing the point: God is not just wisdom and spirit; He is Person, too – making Himself known in the Christ Who appears as both man and God to the paralytic and to Peter, winning their heart and mind to the core of their being. He is the Person who shows Himself to the disciples on Tabor, as much to His mother in the cradle at Bethlehem. He is the One Whose Light is beheld in the physical reality of the Icons, and in the illuminated life of those whose loving hearts can dwell on the Lord Who dwells in them. St Paul realised this when he saw Christ’s Light fill every corner of his soul and frame. He said, “It is not I who live, but Christ Who lives within me.” In the way of thinking, in the West, about this Light that lightens every one, we could ask ourselves, as Thomas a Kempis did throughout The Imitation of Christ, not “What would I do if I were Christ?”, but “What would Christ do if He were me?”
Perhaps you will see, then, the breath-taking importance of these two Sundays as we make our spiritual progress through Lent, for they come back to the same question. Did Christ die on the Cross two thousand years ago for an idea of God, for spiritual Wisdom, or for a vision of human spirituality? Or is it that He is all there is to life of heart and mind, of body and soul; that He feels and is to be felt in every touch, that His light looks and is to be looked upon in every mind’s eye; and that there is no darkness that His Light coming into the world does not take in, that there is nothing of us that is beyond and outside Christ who fills the universe to make God Himself known, nothing that can lie beyond His Kingdom visible on earth as it is in heaven, nothing in us in the end that holds back from “His Presence and His very self, His essence all divine”, closer to us than our own breath?
Michael Ramsey, the great Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, who dwelt constantly in the Light of the divine Glory, said, “God is as He is in Christ, and in God there is no unChristlikeness at all.” In these two Sundays of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, by the same token, we are able to say that “God is in us, so in us there is no unChristlikeness at all.” If only it were so, we can hear ourselves thinking – but unless our hope is in vain it is the only possible reality for humanity that there is.