Sermon on Luke 8:5-15 & the Seventh Ecumenical Council
More than twelve hundred years ago, our fathers gathered in the town of Nicaea for what would become the seventh ecumenical council, which is especially remembered for its defense of the holy icons against the iconoclasts – or image-breakers.
Now, I don’t know how many of you have tried to make an icon with the traditional medium of egg tempera, but it’s a rewarding and prayerful experience and I do recommend it. There’s a kind of intimacy you can gain with the saint that you are painting, which comes simply from spending so much time before the image as you help to deepen and clarify it with layer after layer of the translucent medium. One thing we are losing all sense of in this instantaneous information age is the value of spending time with things. Painting an icon in the traditional medium forces us to slow down and immerse in the sacred thing we are doing.
To work with egg tempera you must mix the pigment with the emulsion – which is egg yolk – while you are painting. This is because the emulsion does not keep and so the paint will spoil if you don’t use it the same day you make it. Anyway, working this way rather than with premixed liquid paints allows you to better see, touch, and smell the material you’re working with. And it becomes clear that, for the most part, pigment is dirt. It is various kinds of earth. In fact, some of the pigments even have names like “green earth” for example.
So, when we paint an icon, we are making an image of a holy person out of dirt, out of dust, out of the ground, out of earth. How fitting! Because remember, it is of this that we are actually made.
The holy images are made from earth – just like you and your loved ones and all of us. The council says that the holy images may be “painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material,” but all of this has the same source: the earth.
My name is mud. Or, anyway, that’s what Adam might have said. The name Adam in Hebrew most literally means dust man. Or sometimes you see him called clay or earth or mud. Because it is of this that we are made. We will all “return to the ground, for out of it we were taken; we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” (Gen 3:8)
Today, our Lord teaches us in his parable about different kinds of ground. And he’s talking about us – about different kinds of people. We different kinds of people are really different kinds of dirt, see? But you can do a lot with dirt. Remember the holy icons. This dirt that we are, like the holy icons, can become worthy of veneration, because we all receive the seed of the word in us. The spermatikos logos, as St. Justin Martyr puts it.
This is a familiar image. Remember again Adam. Adam – and, in Adam, all humanity – is earth with God breathed in. “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Gen 2). The word of God speaks the earth into human life. So: earth, plus the word of God, equals human life. We see this in the account of the creation of humans in Genesis. And we see it again today in the parable of the sower as Jesus tells it. Only now the word is depicted as a seed in the earth.
Whether or not this seed takes root in us, gives life to us, depends on our receptiveness to it. We must be like the good soil and hold the seed of the word of God “in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.” Humility is clearly part of being like good soil.
Humility is honest and good. Humility is truth. And, the truth is, we are dust. Remembering this – being mindful of our earthiness – is humility. The word itself contains this meaning. It come from the Latin humilis, which literally means “on the ground,” from humus, meaning “earth.” Another word likely also comes from the same root as humus: human. So, again, this is what we really are and humility lies in embracing that truth. To be humble is to be a human aware of your own humanness – which is really your own creatureliness. We, like all the earth, are created by our creator and exist in that relationship to him. We are not the creator. We do not author our own reality, whatever the world may say to the contrary. The humble know this.
The grace of recognizing our lowliness, earthiness, and creatureliness – the grace of humility – lifts us up from earth to heaven and helps us to grow in ever greater union with our creator.
All this talk of humans being made of dirt may have given you the impression that I am down on humans. But nothing could be further from the truth. Remember where we began – with the holy icons, themselves also made of earth. But these we kiss and venerate and love, just as we do the holy relics of our saints. We do not treat them with contempt, but with veneration. This has everything to do with the seed of the word planted in the earth of the human.
It is God that makes us holy and breathes life into us. It is his presence in the earth of our bodies that makes our bodies worthy of veneration. In the icons, there is always the halo. The flesh is painted with common earth. But the halo is made of gold and represents the grace surrounding the holy men and women of God. It is this grace that makes anyone holy and nothing else. Just to recognize humbly that you are soil will make you better soil to receive the seed of the word of God in you. Be of honest and good heart – be humble – remember who you are and who is God – and that will give life to you and make you whole and holy.