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Writings of Fr. Matthew Baker

Sermon on Orthodoxy Sunday – March 9, 2014 – Fr. Matthew Baker

Seventh Ecumenical Council, 787. Restoration of icons under Empress Irene. Why do we call it Orthodoxy Sunday? Not just about pictures.

Jesus Christ, the image of God
In speaking of the theology of icons, we must begin at the beginning: with Jesus Christ. "For he is the image of the invisible God," says Apostle Paul (Col. 1:15), "the brightness of his glory and the very stamp of his being" (Heb. 1:3).

The one who was in "the form of God" put on "form of a slave" (Phil. 2). What does this mean? In Jesus Christ, the invisible God has put on a human face. The incomprehensible God has made himself known to us. It is only for this reason that we are able to paint icons.

There is a good reason why the Tradition of the Church forbids us to paint icons of God the Father. It is because Christ himself IS the icon of the Father – Christ himself is the icon which God has provided for us.
Jesus' words to Philip: "He who has seen me has seen the Father"

Sometimes we hear it said that, as the Son is the image of the Father, the Spirit is the image of the Son. But this does not mean there are two images of God. Rather, the Spirit communicates the one image that is Jesus Christ. As St John of Damascus says: "The Holy Spirit is the image of the Son; for no man can say that Jesus is Lord, but by the Holy Spirit. Thus it is by the Holy Spirit that we know Christ, who is both the son of God and God, and it is in the Son that we see the Father."

In the words of St. Basil the Great, the Holy Spirit is the "light" in which we see the "image," which is the Son. Now we know from physics that even created light is invisible: we cannot look directly into the light, but only at the objects which the light illumines. It is likewise with the uncreated light of the Spirit. In Himself, the Spirit is known only as He transparently lights up the face of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ. "Enlightened by the Spirit," Basil writes, "our mind looks toward the Son, and in him as in an image sees the Father."

St. Athanasius tells us that it is the Spirit that "seals" us with the form of the Son, in order that we might be "conformed to the image of the Son," and call upon God as our Father.

Jesus Christ the image of true humanity
Human beings created according to the image of God. Our very creation was a prophecy of the One to come. Adam was a "type" of Christ. As St. Nicholas Cabasilas tells us: "the Savior first and alone showed us the true human being" (The Life in Christ 6.12). In Christ, we discover our true humanity; in Christ, we see that we were created for communion with God, for love and for self-giving.

Behold, the Bridegroom
It is natural for us to want to look at those whom we love. But Jesus tells us that it is only the pure of heart that will see God. During Lent we seek to purify ourselves in order to prepare to see Christ – to behold the Bridegroom of the Church in his passion and victory over death.

In his commentary on the Song of Songs St Gregory of Nyssa tells us that the vision of divine beauty is given to those who are purified not directly, but as reflected in "the mirror of our souls". Even a man perfect in virtue is unable to look at the sun, Gregory says, "rather he sees it within himself" The vision of God is made visible by the life of virtue, from which we obtain a knowledge of the good and an image of God's beauty. St Gregory reads the Song of Songs as an instruction on the way towards the restoration of beauty, the beauty of the divine bridegroom, to the bride – both the individual soul and collectively the whole Church.

We become like God by contemplating his image. We become what we behold. "Human nature," Gregory of Nyssa tell us, "is in fact like a mirror, and it takes on different appearances according to the impressions of free will":

If gold is held up to the mirror, the mirror assumes the appearance of gold and reflects the splendor of gold's substance. If anything abominable is held up, its ugliness is impressed on the mirror... the mirror represents in its own being whatever is placed before it. So too the soul, when cleansed by the Word from vice, it receives within itself the sun's orb and shines with this reflected light

Sight has great power, for both good and ill. Eyes are the most honorable part of the body, Gregory says. Commenting on the verse from Song of Songs, "Your eyes are doves," Gregory writes:

the eye sees by receiving the impression of images emanating from visible objects. For this reason, the beauty of the bride's eyes is praised since the image of a dove appears in her pupils. Whenever a person gazes upon an object he receives in himself an image of that object.

The "dove" represents the impression of the Spirit upon the one who is purified of carnal vision, an impression which enables one to behold the beauty of the Bridegroom Jesus Christ (J. 106, p. 93).

So, Gregory of Nyssa says, "those who gaze at the true God receive in themselves the properties of the divine nature... those who attend to the vanity of idols are changed into what they behold and become stone instead of men".

We become like what we behold. This is good reason for guarding and purifying our senses of all that is unholy and not good -- especially during Lent. We become like what we behold. It is a truth of human nature that gives reason for the Church's veneration of holy icons. We contemplate and venerate Christ and the saints with our eyes in order that we may become like them.


Sermon by Seminarian Graduate Matthew Baker / Lent week 3—2010-Pre-Sanctified Liturgy (Gen. 7:6-9) at Annunciation Parish in Cranston, RI

The story of Noah’s Ark is a familiar one. We have heard it told since childhood. And, as with all familiar stories, there is the temptation to think that we have grasped it: the story grows “old,” we think there is nothing “new” in it for us. I say: temptation. Let us look again more closely:

1. God tells the righteous Noah that in seven days there will be a flood, a scourge for human sin (Gen. 7:4). At God’s command, Noah builds an ark and enters in with his family and seven pairs of all the animals. After seven days, the flood-waters come (Gen. 7:10). Everything outside the ark dies. When the rain finally stops, the ark comes to rest in the seventh month (Gen. 8:3).

Noah sends out a dove, but it can find no rest for its feet (Gen. 8:8). After seven days, he sends out the same dove, and it returns bearing an olive branch, a sign the water has ceased (8:10-11). Finally, after another seven days, he sends the dove out again; this time it does not return. Noah opens the ark, God calls him to come out, and Noah enters onto dry land (8:12-13).

Notice the frequency of the number seven and of the word “rest.” The name “Noah” in Hebrew itself means “rest.” These details point us back further in time, to the story of creation. Genesis says that God created the heavens and the earth in six days. He separated the dry land from the waters, He created man and the animals, and on the seventh day He rested, and He blessed the seventh day and sanctified it (Gen. 1:2-3) – the first Sabbath day of creation.

Noah’s story is about the renewal of creation, a healing of the damage caused by sin. The resting of the ark marks a Sabbath, an end to sin and death. The flood is a prologue to a new creation.

2. But let us step forward just a little – to God’s creation of Israel, to Moses and the Exodus out of Egypt. Scripture uses the same Hebrew word, tebah, both for Noah’s boat and the cradle of bulrushes in which the infant Moses is placed (Ex. 2:3, 5). The passage of Noah and his family through the flood is echoed in the first Pascha, the Jewish Passover, the crossing of Moses and the Hebrews through the Red Sea: Moses, whose name means “one who has been drawn forth from the water” (Ex. 2:10); the Hebrews, whose name translates as “those who have crossed over” (cf. LXX Gen.14:13). The ark floats for forty days before coming to dry land; Israel crosses the sea and wanders for forty years before entering the Promised Land.

The goal of both journeys is similar (worship). After Noah exits the ark, the first thing he does is to build an altar: he offers sacrifice to the Lord (Gen. 8:20-21). Likewise, God tells Pharaoh to let his people go in order “that they may keep a feast to me in the wilderness” (Ex. 5:1).

When the Israelites finally pass through the water and enter the wilderness, God instructs them to build the Ark of the Covenant – the sign of His presence amongst the people. Strangely, though they are two very different objects, both Greek and English Bibles call Noah’s boat and this wooden tabernacle which the Israelites used for worship by the same name: the 'ark.'

Even stranger is the Hebrew word used to describe Noah’s work of caulking the wood of his Ark (Gen. 6:14): kappor – to “repair,” “to patch.” This word shares the same root as the term Kippur: atonementas in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest stood before the Ark of the Covenant and offered sacrifice for sin, for the renewal of the covenant. Genesis also tells us that after Noah patches the wood of his ark, God gives the promise of a covenant with him and his family. Like the High Priest of Israel, Noah with his Ark is engaged in a work of atonement: repairing the world of sin and evil, renewing God’s covenant with creation.

3. All these connections are, however, merely interesting – historical or literary curiosities, if they do not relate to us. And yet, the Apostle writes, “all these things which happened figuratively were written for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11).During this season of renewal, the Church bids us to put off what is old and corrupt, to be renewed in our minds, to put on “the new man created according to God in righteousness” (Eph. 4:22-23). If we ourselves are not renewed, not only the Old Testament, but even the New grows old for us. But if we are being renewed, in Christ who makes “all things new” (Rev. 21:5), then the veil is torn away even from the Old Testament (2 Cor. 3:14), so that we find in it the power of the Gospel: what is “old” becomes “new,” and both testaments are indeed “New Testaments” for us, “not by age of time but by the newness of understanding” (Origen, Hom. Num. 9:4:2).

The story of Noah’s Ark is our own story. The captain of the Ark, whose name is “Rest,” is Jesus, the “captain of our salvation” (Heb. 2:10) and “our peace” (Eph. 2:14). The Ark is the Church, built up from the wood of the Cross. The Church is the Ark in which we are saved from this world’s destruction, from sin and death. The entryway is the opening in Christ’s side, from which flows the water and the blood: baptism and the Eucharist. We enter the Ark – we pass through the waters of Baptism, we die to sin; we receive the dove, the Spirit – we are anointed with the oil of the olive branch (1 Pet 3:20-21; 2 Pet. 2:5). The Church’s exodus through the flood of history is one long Day of Atonement, the out-working of that healing of creation accomplished for us in Christ (Origen, Hom. Lev. 9:5:9.). And if any man is in Christ, says St. Paul, “he is a new creation.”                           

4. Tonight’s reading, however, presents one curious detail. Listen again: “And of clean flying creatures and unclean flying creatures, and of clean cattle and unclean cattle, and of all things that creep upon the earth, pairs went in to Noah into the ark, as God commanded” (Gen. 7:8-9). This mention of “clean” and “unclean” here is strange. Noah is a Gentile, living centuries before the Mosaic Law concerning clean and unclean foods. When Noah comes to dry land, he sacrifices only “clean” animals (Gen. 8:20). However, God tells him he may eat from all the animals that he has saved with him in the ark (Gen. 9:3). Why then the talk of clean and unclean?

In the Mosaic Law, “clean” and “unclean” marked the separation between Jews and Gentiles. By forbidding the so-called unclean foods, God separated his people from pagan ways, making it difficult to mix. This separation had a purpose: to prepare Israel for the coming of Christ. But when Christ does come, the separation is transcended. In the Acts of the Apostles, we hear about a certain vision of St. Peter. Peter sees a blanket descend from heaven and, upon it, birds, mammals, and reptiles – the same three categories of animals Noah brought into his ark, clean and unclean. Peter hears a voice, saying, “Rise, Peter; kill, and eat … what God has cleansed do not call common” (Acts 10:13, 15). Only then does Peter understand that Christ has opened the covenant to the Gentiles also, and he baptizes his first Gentile convert (Acts 10:34-11:18).

The presence of both clean and unclean animals in the Ark indicates an important truth about the nature of the Church. “Salvation is from the Jews” (Jn. 4:22); and it is a fact of permanent significance that this same salvation was first propagated in the language of the Greeks. But though Jewish in roots and Greek in cultural dress, the Church is neither strictly Jewish nor Greek.  The Church is Catholic. Christians constitute a distinct ethnos, neither Jew nor Gentile –a tertium genus, as the Fathers say: a third race, arising not from biology or ethnicity, but from baptism into Christ. In other words: a new creation.

St. Maximus the Confessor offers us a complementary reading. In baptism, a way is opened to sanctify not only the “clean” aspects of our nature, but also those which become so often obviously “unclean”: the passions of anger and erotic desire. Anger is made holy where it is most needful: in the fight against sin. Erotic desire is made holy through chastity, either in Christian marriage and childbearing, or in celibacy consecrated to the Lord: two ways to one new creation.

5. Just as God enclosed Noah and his family in the Ark during that 40-day baptism of the earth (Gen. 7:16-17), so throughout these 40 days, we also – through frequent services and the various Lenten disciplines – are enclosed anew: enclosed in the Church and her baptismal ethos.

The physical measurements of Noah’s Ark reveal something crucial about this baptismal ethos. Genesis says that the Ark was three hundred cubits at  the bottom, sloping upward to thirty cubits at the pinnacle (Gen. 6:15). From these measurements, several early Church theologians concluded that Noah’s Ark was shaped like a pyramid (Clement, Strom. 6:11; Origen, Hom. Gen.1:1; Hom. Num. 21:2:1), reflecting the hierarchy of creation, with man placed near the top.

A great geronda of recent times, Fr. Sophrony Sakharov, also writes that creation is a kind of pyramid. There is hierarchy, inequalities, divisions into upper and lower, master and servant. And yet, the head of this pyramid, Jesus Christ, “came not to be served, but to serve” (Mt. 20:28). Christ turns the whole cosmic order of things upside down. The Church, the new creation, is an inverted pyramid. Christ, the summit, takes upon Himself the sins of all, becoming the base, the foundation, upon which the whole crushing weight of the inverted pyramid falls.

Now put these two images together. A pyramid-shaped ship, floating upon the waters of this world; an upside down pyramid – with its captain at the bottom: indeed, this looks like a wreck. Yet it tells us something about the spiritual progress we pursue through Lent. This is a journey downward – a baptismal journey whose progress is measured, not by worldly success, but by our growth in humility, in service, in selfless love, in compassion. Those closest to the captain, the truly great, the leaders in our voyage, are those nearest to the bottom: those who bear the burdens of all others, both in prayer and in active service.

The Church’s journeying through history – the journey which we rehearse throughout these 40 days of Lent – has but one goal: our arrival in that new creation which is the fruit of Christ’s holy Pascha. Paradoxically, we will have reached the summit – we will know that we are nearing the dry land and our ark is coming to “rest” – only when we have climbed to the very bottom of the pyramid, where our captain awaits us: when our selfishness and sin lie buried in the tomb with the Lord on Holy Saturday, the Sabbath rest of God. Only having arrived there, at that “rest,” can we be prepared to step forth with Christ, our “Noah,” onto that “new earth” (Rev. 21:1), in which every tear will be wiped away and death will be no more (Rev. 21:4) – the new earth of the Resurrection, for which we hope and pray.

The Metropolis of Boston has established a special fund to help Fr. Matthew Baker's family with expenses.
Those wishing to contribute to this special fund in support of Fr. Matthew's family may do so by sending a check to:
Metropolis of Boston
c/o Fr. Matthew Baker Fund
162 Goddard Avenue
Brookline, MA 02445

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