I have waited for this Sunday for more than a year. Last year, as Great Lent began, I eagerly anticipated this feast, but Anna and I were in Pittsburgh visiting her brother, Delane, and tensions over the Orthodox Church where high between us, so I didn’t try to seek out the local Orthodox parish to observe the day.
Today, however, was different. We were home, so we could go to All Saints. We have been going to All Saints as a family now since September. And we just finished the first week of Great Lent. I was most definitely in need of the Divine Liturgy.
But first a little background on the feast:
The dominant theme of this Sunday since 843 has been that of the victory of the icons. In that year the iconoclastic controversy, which had raged on and off since 726, was finally laid to rest, and icons and their veneration were restored on the first Sunday in Lent. Ever since, that Sunday been commemorated as the “triumph of Orthodoxy.”
Orthodox teaching about icons was defined at the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787, which brought to an end the first phase of the attempt to suppress icons. That teaching was finally re-established in 843, and it is embodied in the texts sung on this Sunday. . . .
The name of this Sunday reflects the great significance which icons possess for the Orthodox Church. They are not optional devotional extras, but an integral part of Orthodox faith and devotion. They are held to be a necessary consequence of Christian faith in the incarnation of the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, in Jesus Christ. They have a sacramental character, making present to the believer the person or event depicted on them. So the interior of Orthodox churches is often covered with icons painted on walls and domed roofs, and there is always an icon screen, or iconostasis, separating the sanctuary from the nave, often with several rows of icons. No Orthodox home is complete without an icon corner, where the family prays.
Icons are venerated by burning lamps and candles in front of them, by the use of incense and by kissing. But there is a clear doctrinal distinction between the veneration paid to icons and the worship due to God. The former is not only relative, it is in fact paid to the person represented by the icon. This distinction safeguards the veneration of icons from any charge of idolatry.
One of the customs observed in our parish is one in which each home brings an icon for each child. I’d purchased and had blessed, shortly after Sofie’s birth, an icon of the Theotokos–with whom, by way of answer to prayer, Sofie has an intimate connection–so we brought that icon. The reason for this is that after the prayer before the ambo, but prior to the final blessing, the children of the parish all process around the nave with their icons. So there the Healy’s were (momma first, then daddy after she handed Sofie off to me), Sofie in arms, trying to put the icon of the Theotokos in her mouth to chew on, processing around the church. It was pretty cool. One woman of the parish told me that seeing Sofie and Anna process with everyone else (at least for the first half) brought tears to her eyes, and great hope.
The liturgy served today was, of course, St. Basil’s Liturgy. Wow. I mean, whoa-ho-ho-wow. I realized today that though I had celebrated Forgiveness Vespers last year, as well as praying the Great Canon once, and going to one Pre-Sanctified Liturgy, that I had never been to a Sunday Lenten Divine Liturgy. Man, I was just absolutely blown away!
First of all, three passages in particular spoke very directly to my need today. Right at the beginning of the anaphora, as the priest celebrates all that God has done, and the works he has wrought for us, there is this phrase: “for all things are thy servants.” Then, just after we have responded to the priests prayer by singing “Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth; etc.” the priest continues “for in righteousness and true judgment hast thou orderd all things for us.” And finally, in the petitions following the epiclesis, the priest asks that God would be mindful “of all thy people, and upon them all pour out thy rich mercy, granting to all their petitions which are unto salvation (emphasis added).”
The first reference is from Psalm 118:91 (LXX; 119:91 MT). This verse sustained me in the other dark hours of previous trials. Nothing is outside the authority and command of God. As the liturgy says, God in righteousness and true judgment has ordered all things for us. There is nothing that is not included in that. Pain, heartache, suffering, darkness and death. All things, all things, serve God and are ordered for our healing and wholeness. Ours is not a divided world, an evil part keeping God at bay. Even Satan, who blasphemes and denies God, who seeks to devour and consume God’s children, is made to serve God. God takes all Satan’s pomps and devices and sweeps them up into his wise and true workings of grace, so that the evil Satan intended is ultimately for us a cleansing fire of purification and tempering.
And indeed, we need not barter with God. He is good, we hear each week, and loves us. There is no need to persuade him of fulfilling all that which is good for us. He is already intending it. But it is a good directed to our wholeness and healing. The things we misjudge as good, which mar and disfigure us, God does not wish for us. Nor should we. But he stands ever ready to grant that which is for our healing, our salvation.
My heart leaps to these Gospel words, this ancient testimony of the saints who have gone before me and know the reality of which they speak. I am drawn toward the hope and promise of these holy words.
But I am also a small man, little of faith, and fearful. I hear God drawing out my faith from its tiny darkened corner. Dear Lord, grant to this sinner boldness to take you at your word.