What joy this first week of the Fast brings, especially when we are blessed with spring weather that outwardly reminds us that this is the springtime of the soul, and should be a season of growth and new green shoots, through fasting, prayer and repentance; through turning back to God; through heeding the words of the kontakion of the Great Canon and simply waking up, being watchful and mindful of the inescapable and abiding presence of Christ: at all times; in all places; in every circumstance; seeing all actions; hearing every word; knowing every thought.
“My soul, my soul arise; Why art thou sleeping? The end is drawing near and thou wilt be confounded. Awake then and be watchful, that thou mayest be spared by Christ God, Who is everywhere present and fillest all things.”
In these first four days of the Great Fast, we are blessed to hear the words of St Andrew of Crete’s Great Canon of Repentance, making this hymnographic dialogue between St Andrew and his soul our personal inner-conversation, as we contemplate sin and repentance, fall and restoration, exile and return.
Despite some of the Old Testament examples, the purpose of this great hymn-cycle is not to plunge us into gloom, but rather to show us the ‘way back’ the means of restoration to a life in God.
Together with the life of St Mary of Egypt (whose intercessions are invoked during the odes of the canon), the Great Canon is held up as a great penitential lesson and example of ‘putting things right’ in this season of repentance. It is a call to action – to turn around and return to the loving embrace of God, in humility and repentance, but nevertheless with hope and joy.
As such, it should kindle determination in us, so that the myriad Biblical examples within its odes and troparia encourage us to press forward, so that cleansed from stain and the tarnishing blackness of sin and disobedience, the image of God may be restored in us, who are each icons of Christ, into whom we have been baptised, Who created us in the divine-image and likeness, and Who seeks the return of the prodigal again and again in His inexhaustible mercy and love.
When we can recall this awesome fact, then we can appreciate why we celebrate the restoration of the holy icons with the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy on the first Sunday of the fast.
As we celebrate this triumph, let us never lose sight of the fact that our personal triumph is the restoration of the icon of God in each of us, as we labour to put off the old man and put on Christ, though the spiritual labour of our life in Him.
Last Sunday, at the end of Forgiveness Vespers and the beginning of the Fast, we bowed before one another as we sought forgiveness and reassured with the words “God forgives”, and on this coming Sunday it will be the icons before which we shall bow during the Service of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, thanking God for the restoration of the holy icons as the sign of the Incarnation and manifestation of our Holy Orthodox Faith. However, we must each face the fact that this veneration will be meaningless unless we are actively seeking the restoration of the image of God in ourselves.
The iconoclasts defiled and desecrated the sacred images in shocking ways, just as the iconoclast Soviets did in the 20th century, and we react with horror and revulsion at what was done to the icons of Christ, of the Mother of God and the saints. Yet, do we react with equal horror and revulsion to the things by which WE defile and desecrate the image of God in each of us?
In the canon, we chant, “I have stained the garment of my flesh and have defiled that which was made in Thine image and likeness, O Saviour.” However, this observation is meaningless unless we are willing to do anything about it and seek the restoration of this image and likeness.
Let us heed the penitential lessons of the Great Canon, of the life of St Mary of Egypt, of the various Sunday feasts of the Great Fast with their hymns of compunction and repentance, and let us reflect the outward Restoration of the Holy Icons in the inner struggle for the image of God to be restored in us, to shine and become radiant, so that Christ may shine upon the world through us as His abiding presence in the world and icons of His goodness and love.