19th Sunday after Pentecost / Fathers of 7th Council
Today we commemorate the holy fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. As most of you know, in the early centuries of the Church there were a number of councils in which bishops from all of the Orthodox world met to pray, discuss, and discern the truth regarding topics which were of concern to the Church. The Orthodox Church recognizes seven Ecumenical (meaning ‘universal’) councils which helped to rightly define the word of truth.
In the 8th century there was controversy over the veneration of icons… Much of this was a result of the influence of the rise of Islam, but there were those even within the Church who took the position that the veneration of icons was bordering on, or even full-blown, idolatry.
‘Concerning the charge of idolatry’, wrote St John of Damascus, ‘Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honor is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone. …I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter affected my salvation...’
The iconoclasts (those who opposed the icons) did not understand the Gospel news that Christ, through His incarnation and resurrection, had redeemed the world… raising up the material along with the spiritual in the wholeness of His purifying and healing Grace. Christ even demonstrated this transformative wholeness upon Mt Tabor when he was transfigured and shone like the sun. The victory of the Seventh Ecumenical Council in its defense of the icons was not simply a matter of defending Christian art or negating accusations against idolatry, these issues dealt with the correct understanding of Christ’s divine and human nature, the Christian understanding of matter, and the very meaning and impact of Christian salvation.
What is the Orthodox understanding of salvation?
The Orthodox understanding of salvation is a process of spiritual transformation. It is an interaction and relationship of the grace and love of God and our struggle toward humility to become the good soil upon which the seeds of grace are planted.
What are the characteristics and conditions of the good soil that bears spiritual fruit?
The first condition is that the good soil must be broken… its hard surface must be broken and turned over if the seed of grace is going to take root. That is a difficult thing for us to accept… when things become difficult or fall apart all around us, we often feel that God has abandoned us. But that is not true… If we can bear our sufferings in love, then those sufferings can be the tilling of the hard soil of our soul. It requires trust in the Divine Sower that this breaking of the hard surface of our lives will not destroy us but will loosen and make ready our soul for greater things.
The second condition is that the soil must be watered and nourished. We must take care to feed our soul on that which is spiritually profitable. This requires a concerted effort on our part to seek edification through prayer, spiritual reading, fasting, and all those things that might elevate us above the many, many things that drag our spirits down in this life. Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, this is critically important! If you are not nourishing your soul on a daily basis, you run tremendous risk of endangering the conditions of your soul to bear fruit. Our Christian life must not only be lived on Sundays and feast days… This world is assaulting and saturating you with words and images and ideas which are deadly to our spiritual life. You must take this seriously and provide some counter measures to feed your soul upon good and holy things.
The third condition is that the soil must give way when the roots begin to grow. In order for God to act in our lives, in order for His will to be done, we must yield our own will, we must give way and clear out our own selfish desires to make room for God to act in our lives. Just as the soil must give way for the growth and spreading of the roots, we too must have the humility and trust to yield our will to the will of God.
And if we dare to have the courage to be humble, to be broken and nourished and guided by God… God can then begin to transform our lives. He can sow and reap the process of salvation that brings forth spiritual fruit. He can take the dead wood of our fallen and sinful ways and transfigure us into icons reflecting paradise, into the image of God for which we were created and to which each of us are called!
On this day in which we commemorate the holy fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council - those defenders of the truth of our faith, of the reality of the transformation of that which is ordinary into becoming a receptacle of grace… be that an icon or a human soul… - let us thank God for His great mercy and for the ever-present hope of our salvation through that transforming grace of His divine power. May God bless us with the humility and the perception to be that good soil which can be broken and planted and might bring forth the fruits of the Holy Spirit.