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Discovering our true selves

Sunday of Orthodoxy

Fr. Luke A. Veronis

Who am I? When one hears the question, “Who am I?” some may respond with their name or may tell where they are from. Some may talk about their parents or children, and the family from which they came or which they have. Or they may talk about their work because they find their self-identity in their professional life. Or someone may talk about what they like to do, since they connect their life with their hobbies or pleasure.

“Who am I?” is a fundamental question, and one we should reflect upon. Well, the feast which we celebrate today on the first Sunday of Lent can help give us a concrete and beautiful answer to the question of “who am I?”

This first Sunday of Lent we call the Sunday of Orthodoxy, and on this day we remember the important role of icons in our history and faith.  From the early church until today, icons have served as wonderful tools in helping believers draw closer to God. Yet there was a time in the 8th and 9th century, when a fierce battle took place over the role of icons. Some rejected icons as idolatry, while others affirmed the sacred role icons have played throughout the history of the Church. Finally, in the year 843, after 120 years of fighting, St. Theodora the Empress of the Roman Byzantine Empire restored icons in the Church for the final time, and ended the debate between those in favor or those against icons. Today, on this Sunday of Orthodoxy, we remember that event!

What do icons have to do with my initial question of “Who am I?” Well, icons are mirrors of our true identity. When we look at icons, we see human beings who were just like us – people who had weaknesses, temptations, struggles and failures. Yet these people committed their lives in a radical manner to Jesus Christ and became transfigured by the Holy Spirit – they became new creations in God!

Icons mirror humanity as humanity was meant to be - a blessed, transfigured and holy humanity! Human beings who fulfilled their potential of divine love! By looking at an icon, we can see what we can become, if we seriously walk on the Christian path, IF we struggle to imitate Jesus Christ every moment of our lives, IF we accept the path of sacrificial love and self-denial. Ultimately, icons remind us of the saint waiting to jump out of our own being!

This discovery of our true selves is one of the main purposes for our 40 day Lenten Journey, which we began on Monday. The period of the Fast is a time to reflect upon 1) who we truly are, 2) who God is, and 3) how we can not only draw closer to Him but reflect His image in our lives by becoming one with Him! Through our Lenten disciplines of fasting, prayers, and charity, we should learn more about ourselves.

The sad reality is that for too many of us, we remain at a very superficial level of self-knowledge. Our society teaches us to focus on the superficial exterior, instead of the authentic interior. Thus, we often think of ourselves as “good” because we make a quick comparison of ourselves with others. We proudly say, “Look at me compared to so many others. I go to Church. I say my prayers. I do good things. I keep icons in my house. I’m religious. I’m basically a good person.” This superficial view of ourselves leads us to judging others. There is so much evil in the world, that we can easily find examples of people who are seemingly much worse than ourselves.

Yet, during the Fast, the Church tells us, “Wait a moment. Stop your hectic schedule and sit in silence for a while. Look at yourself, not with some false worldly standard, but by comparing yourselves to the icons we venerate. Look at our Lord Jesus Christ and ask yourself, “How do I compare?” Look at the saints and martyrs of the Church and ask yourself, “How do I stack up?” Jesus Christ is the true standard of goodness, because He is the only one who lived a perfect, sinless life. Dare we proudly think of ourselves as good, after looking at Him and those who died to themselves and allowed Christ to live in them?

As we judge ourselves in a sober manner, we quickly realize how foolish it is to judge others. The Prayer of St. Ephraim, which we should try to say every day during Lent, reminds us of this fact: “Lord and Master of my life, take from me the will to be lazy and sad, the desire to get ahead of other people and to boast and brag. Give me instead a pure and humble spirit, the will to be patient with others and to love them. Yes, Lord and Master, help me to see my own faults, and keep me from judging what others do.

The hymns of our Church throughout this first week of Lent were filled with reminders of how we have distorted the image of God within us. Yes, we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but these hymns don’t lead us to despair. Instead, they challenge us to turn back to God like the Prodigal Son, like the Tax-collector, like the thief on the cross, like the great persecutor Paul, and like so many other saints of old. Our sins and distorted image aren’t a reason for despair, but a reason to repent and turn back to God!

During Lent, along with seeing ourselves as we truly are, we also focus on who God is, and how great His unconditional love is for us. No matter who we are and how much we have distorted that original beauty given to us by God, the Lord still calls us His beloved children. He created us in His image and likeness, with the potential to become a saint! This journey toward restoring the icon of God’s image within is precisely the journey we are called to take during the 40 days of Lent. We are challenged to “wake up,” and “come to our senses,” – to return to our loving father’s house like the prodigal son. We are called to claim our role as true sons and daughters of the all-loving father.

Finally during Lent, we discover that our journey toward holiness and God is not an easy one. God will help us, but it takes a sincere desire, a disciplined effort, and great perseverance on our part. We must fight, spiritually struggle against our own passions, against the temptations that assail us daily, and continue our ascesis until the end of our lives. This is what authentic fasting and asceticism are all about.

Archbishop Anastasios of Albania has said, “One of the greatest dangers for [the Christian life] is that we become forgetful in the practice of the cross and create a comfortable type of Christian who wants to wear the cross as an ornament but who often prefers to crucify others than to be crucified himself! All those who ever fulfilled their potential lived in ascetic vigilance, compunction and penitence, in unceasing struggle against the dark abysses of the human ego – in continuous, relentless, persistent struggle “in the Holy Spirit.”

Today, on this Sunday of Orthodoxy, take a good look at the icons in this church – for they are mirrors. Look for yourself in the images of the saints, and in the image of our beloved Jesus Christ, and as you look, remember who you are, and to what you are called! May your journey throughout Lent truly be a journey of rediscovering and restoring your distorted image back into the image of God.