Writer, Madeleine L’Engle defines the difference between idols and icons in the following way. Idols are those things we admire and often worship which block our ability to see God. Icons on the other hand, illuminate or help us see the face of the God more clearly. Today, we gather to celebrate human icons. Ordinary people, who in some way have allowed us to experience the Divine through them.
What connects us and binds us with another person is our ability to connect with the divine that resides in each of us. The people whose faces surround us today are the human icons in our lives. These individuals illuminate the face of God by affirming what our passage from the letter from John stated this morning. . . .that we are beloved children of God. This is why we consider them saints with a small ‘s, because through them we have experienced the love of God.
For Maureen and me, one of the saints from our lives who we remember today is our friend John Piccione. Maureen met John during their junior year at Siena College. Maureen and John bonded instantly. Perhaps it was because they had a lot in common, both were born in Brooklyn, both came from devout Roman Catholic families, but more importantly, because Maureen appreciated John’s desire to be ordained. Maureen met John just before we were engaged. I was in seminary at the time. My call to ordained ministry was very much a part of who we were as a couple. So it’s not surprising that John found a level of acceptance and understanding with Maureen that few others at Siena could offer.
It was about nine months later when I met John. We were at a wedding for one of their friends. Within minutes, I understood why Maureen and John had become such close friends. Or I should say, why Maureen had fallen under John’s spell. John wasn’t especially tall or unusually handsome or athletic as most charismatic people typically are. Instead, what John possessed, with his deep brown eyes and his easy smile was an ability to convey an innate interest in others. When you were with John, you knew you were important to him.
Our friendship with John remained close for years after their graduation. John would often drive to New Haven for dinner. Maureen and I would visit him at the various places he lived while he prepared for his final vows as a Friar and later the priesthood. We celebrated life events together, our marriage, his ordination, the births and the birthdays of our children and eventually my ordination. This is perhaps my favorite memory of John. John arrived in his Franciscan habit and along with my fellow Episcopal peers, John joined with them in laying hands on me. (I have to add, no one thought twice or even questioned John’s presence at the altar that afternoon. To this John would later shake his head with a smug grin on his face as if he had gotten away with something and simply say, “only in the Episcopal Church,” and left it as that.)
John, like so many people who become icons in our life, became family. When Chelsea was born there was no question in our hearts and minds but that John would be her Godfather. We wanted her to experience that same love, that same sense of acceptance that same experience of being a beloved child of God as we had through John.
John truly was a saint in our lives. Not because he was perfect or particularly holy. Oh no, as close friends, we knew his imperfections well. How he enjoyed a good party, how he struggled with his father and disapproved of his sister. John was fully human. . .clay feet and all.
But, then again, so are all the saints of God, even the saints with a capital ‘S”. St. Paul executed Christians before his conversion, St. Peter never quite understood the message, Jacob was a thief, Moses murdered someone in anger. St. Francis and St. Ignatius were both troubadours and warriors before they committed their lives to Christ.
This is the beauty of saints. Like you and me, they did not lead perfect lives. Instead, what sets them apart is there ability to provide us with a profound experience of God through them.
A second part of what we celebrate today is the connection we share with all the saints, both present and who have gone before us. In our Collect, or prayer for the week, we prayed,” almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son, Christ our Lord.” In the funeral liturgy, the celebrant states, “ through death, life has changed, not ended.” And each week, prior to singing the Sanctus, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Host….” The celebrant often states, ” we join our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” These lines of liturgy remind us that we do not journey through this life alone. These lines affirm that through the waters of Baptism, through the celebration of the Eucharist we are connected and bound with a reality that is greater than this world. . .a cloud of witnesses. . . the saints of God.
These lines of liturgy affirm the experience a friend had while saying the Lord’s Prayer on the beach of the Barbara C. Harris Camp and Conference Center. What he described was experiencing a profound sense of being connection with everyone who had ever recited this prayer before and throughout history.
These lines of liturgy also affirm what so many of us have experienced in our own lives, those inexplicable moments when we feel as if we are in the presence of one who has died. This happened for me with John four and a half years ago.
As far as Maureen and I can tell, soon after John was diagnosed with leukemia he cut off all contact with us. Through the years of John’s illness, despite phone calls, despite the letters and the pictures we sent him, we never heard back from him. We suspect he may have wanted to spare us the trauma of his illness. It was only by coincidence that we learned he was sick just days before his death and were able to attend his funeral.
As Maureen and I drove the five hours home from his funeral in Paterson, New Jersey all I felt was hurt and anger. Despite his mother and brother Friars telling us how much John still loved us and shared every new picture he had gotten of the girls, I was angry with John for not letting us be part of the final years of his life. I struggled with my anger for quite awhile. I tried to work through it with my spiritual director and I prayed God would some how grant that last conversation so many seek after someone has died.
A year later my prayer was answered when I spent the night locked in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Masses of Resurrection are celebrated throughout the church every Saturday night by the each of the religious orders that occupy the building. That night, we choose to attend mass in the Franciscan chapel. As I sat in this candle lit space late at night, amidst the Friar, my prayer was answered. As we sang the Sanctus, a feeling came over me and I just knew it was John. There were no telepathic words, no feelings of forgiveness or reconciliation, just the feeling Maureen and I always felt when we were with John, that we were being loved as beloved children of God.
It all made sense and happened in true John Piccione style. In a place where he had been before, a place where we had mused about going to together, in the briefest and most dramatic of moments, I realized,we actually were together. . .again.
This morning we gather to celebrate the human icons, the saint of our lives who have illuminated the face of God for us. . .who have provided an experience of God’s divine love for us. And we have come to celebrate the victory of the cross,that while death may physically separate us from each other on earth, death can no longer break the bonds we share with the saints of God. For those my friends. . .will continue. . .through eternity.