Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Meditation for Sunday, October 8

The Good News of our salvation is sometimes described in terms of a rescue operation: Christ Jesus is our champion, our hero, who enters into hostile territory to reclaim a good creation that has fallen into enemy hands.

He declares the coming of His kingdom, the powers of sin and darkness are pushed back and defeated. He gives sight to the blind, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and even the dead are raised.

That’s what we see in the passage from Luke 7 this morning. In a city called Nain, Jesus and His disciples see a funeral procession. A young man has died and is being carried to his burial. Jesus sees his grieving mother and the Savior has compassion. He tells her not to weep; He tells the young man to arise. And he does! The young man who was dead rises and is graciously reconciled to his mother.

There are two other scenes in the Gospels where our Lord Jesus raises the dead. In each case, the compassion of our Savior is a prominent theme -- we see Christ our God caring deeply for those who grieve. Death is pushed back and life is restored.

You may recall one of the other scenes, the raising of Jairus’ daughter. Jairus was a leader of the synagogue, and he pleads with Jesus to heal his daughter, who is ill. Jesus is delayed, taking time to heal a woman who suffers from a flow of blood. By the time He gets to the house, the little girl has died. Jesus enters into the midst of the grieving crowd around her bed and raises her to life.

The third scene is that of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha in Bethany. Word comes to Jesus that Lazarus is ill; this time He is delayed several days. By the time He arrives in Bethany, Lazarus is already in the tomb and his body is decaying. Mary and Martha are overwhelmed with grief. Jesus calls Lazarus to come forth from the tomb, even though he’s been there several days and in the words of the old King James version, his corpse “stinketh.”

In each of these scenes, our Savior has great compassion. He is the giver of Life who is more powerful than the enemy, death.

The Fathers of the Church noticed the different circumstances in each of these scenes and ascribed a spiritual meaning to them. They taught that our Lord Jesus brings life to his beloved children, no matter how dire the state of our sinfulness and spiritual death. He brings light, no matter how deep the darkness. With Jairus' daughter, she has just died, just slipped away. And Jesus calls her back. With the young man from Nain, he’s about to be buried, on his way to the cemetery, and Jesus calls him back. With Lazarus, he’s been in the tomb several days, his body is decomposing, and yet, Jesus calls him back.

No matter how rebellious, no matter how lost, no matter how spiritually dead we may be, the Fathers looked to these passages as an assurance that Jesus Christ our God is "mighty to save," deeply compassionate, trampling down death and bringing life!

That is a wondrous thing, a word we desperately need to hear, a word that reminds us that our compassionate Savior loves us with a love that is stronger than death. His reconciling love is stronger than our rebellion. We need only to listen to his words and respond, we need only to arise, to get up, when we hear his powerful, life-giving Word.

As the crowd in Nain cried out, “God has visited his people!”

That exclamation, “God has visited his people!”, is the theme of the festal commemoration that we mark today, the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. That was the council that met in the year 787 in Nicaea, which vindicated the use of Holy Icons in the Church.

We may think it odd that a council would meet for such a thing -- and that we would continue to remember such a thing -- but their deliberations were profoundly important. The heresy they addressed, iconoclasm, taught that God was so spiritual, so transcendent, that He must not be pictured. The iconoclasts taught that those who honor the holy icons are worshipping wood and paint, worshipping idols like the pagans.

But the Fathers condemned that teaching. They acknowledged that in the Old Testament, there was a prohibition regarding making images of God. But with the coming of Jesus in the flesh, they noted, God has chosen to image Himself. The hidden God has now been revealed, and in the words of St. John's Gospel, "we have beheld his glory." We can now picture God, because God has graciously visited his people -- God has now revealed Himself in the flesh of Jesus.

When we honor and venerate the holy icons, the wood and paint are not our primary concern. As St. Basil the Great teaches us, and as the Fathers of the Council upheld, the honor we show to the icon passes on to the one depicted.

Of course, the wood and paint are not insignificant. As St. John of Damascus teaches, we do honor matter, because it is through matter that our salvation has been accomplished. God cares about matter, about the physical, the touchable, because He created it, and because God the Son became physical, touchable flesh. He healed sick bodies and raised the dead. He loves us, body and soul.

To our compassionate God, “matter matters.” And so we honor and venerate the holy icons, we honor one another by sharing the kiss of peace, because matter matters.

Today we give thanks to Christ our God, who loves us… and who tangibly, physically, “has visited his people,” that we might share his life. Amen.