In the 9th Century, the Church instituted a yearly remembrance for this, the first Sunday of Great Lent. That celebration is known as the Triumph of Orthodoxy and commemorates the restoration of the holy icons to the Church after two periods of iconoclasm.
We might wonder why this event is remembered as the Triumph of Orthodoxy when the Church has seen and known countless Saints and miracles throughout its history. But perhaps it should not surprise us given that from the very beginning, the concept of image has been central to our human existence.
In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth. He created all the plants and animals which fill our world, but He did not bestow His image and likeness on any of those things. Upon man alone, God bestowed His image, making man the first icon of God. Man, by his sin, distorted this image. The Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete that we celebrated over the first four days of this past week describes the image of God as buried like the lost coin in one of Jesus’ parables. In other places he refers to this image as being darkened, neglected, or even lost. But he is quick to ask the Lord to rescue him from his unfortunate state. “I have buried with passions the beauty of the original image, O Saviour. But seek and find it, like the lost coin.”
So what does it take to restore an image? The more beautiful the image, the more important it is that the image be restored with care, with attention, and with skill. We must first assess what damage has taken place, and we must carefully consider what must be done to remedy the damage. A restorer must have all the skills of the original artist, knowing the materials, the techniques, and the style of the artist, in addition to knowing all the techniques and materials to deal with the many forms of damage there are to the image. Someone who is lacking in any of these areas might at best be able to improve on the current state of the image, or even bring it close to what it originally was, but they will never be able to make the image like new. At worst, they might even further disfigure the image.
We know from the culture around us how we can disfigure this image. We see that even when people are well-intentioned, they seek self-help remedies and empty spiritual practices in the attempt to be better people. They don’t even acknowledge the image of God within themselves, but seek to craft an image of goodness on their own. Worse, yet, we might make idols of our own selves, worshiping only our own lusts and sinful pleasures. In these we will only find condemnation.
On the contrary, we see in the Old Testament many examples of those who valued the image of God within themselves, who sought after God, who loved Him with all their hearts, and with God’s help improved the tarnished state of this image within themselves. In this morning’s epistle, we get a summary of some of those people: “Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented- of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.” These are examples of how we can follow God, how we can obey his commandments even to the point of suffering for His sake in doing so. While all are made in the image of God, such examples show more of the likeness to God which is so often lost, buried, and disfigured.
And yet despite their love of God, despite their labors and pains for Him, Saint Paul says that “all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.” They were not perfected in this image for the image was still marred in a way that no man could repair on his own.
And so, in the fullness of time, Our Lord, the fashioner of this image came to restore the image Himself. No one else could restore this image to its former glory but God Himself. And so God became man and perfected this image. It was not sufficient that God should send prophets or great men to restore the image. And so to maintain as the heretics did that Christ was not fully God would be to say that the image of God in man has not been restored or perfected because the Creator, the great artist has remained distant from His work. Likewise, we cannot agree that Christ was not fully man; as without entering into His work, how could He refashion and restore it? By becoming man, our Lord sanctified all creation, but in particular, He took on His own image and perfected it, making it shine with a glory that it hadn’t even possessed in the garden of Eden.
But He did not stop with assuming our flesh. After ascending into the Heavens and being enthroned as both God and man at the right hand of God the Father, He sent forth the Holy Spirit to come and abide in us to transform and restore each of us to the former glory of that lost image. But this restoration does not come easy to us. With the help of God, we must identify the damage that has been done within ourselves. We must turn those things, as well as the defects that only God knows, over to Him for Him to repair. This is why things like the examination of our conscience, the confession of our sins, the prayer of Saint Ephraim and services like the Great Penitential Canon are so important to our spiritual lives. They are the means by which we identify where we are in need of restoration so that we can ask God to take away the damaged areas of our life and ask Him to fill those worn away places with His glorious image.
We must also cooperate with the repairs through participation in the Holy Mysteries, through repentance from our sins, through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. All of these things are the materials, the tools, and the techniques of the Restorer of the Divine image within us. As Saint Andrew says “emulate the righteous and avoid following sinners, and regain Christ’s grace by prayers, fasts, purity and reverence.
The icon of Christ is a silent witness, a testimony to the truth that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ and dwelt among us. That He made human flesh capable of bearing the Divine within itself, that by the harmony of His Divine and Human wills we might likewise be able to align our will with God’s. The icons of the saints witness to the truth that the Holy Spirit given to us in our Baptism and Chrismation works within us, and that if we work with God, He will transform us and return us to the image of God. The icons are important not because they are pretty but because they show us the gospel, and they remind us of the goal of the Christian life – to be transfigured as Christ was transfigured, that the light of Christ may shine through us and show the image and likeness of God to the world that all may desire to come to receive this light for themselves.