A Homily for the Sunday of Orthodoxy

[Delivered at the Lehigh Valley Pan-Orthodox celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy] 

Sunday of Orthodoxy

Sunday of Orthodoxy

Since 843 the dominant theme of the first Sunday of Great Lent has been that of the victory of the icons. In that year the iconoclastic controversy  was finally laid to rest. 

The most notable thing that we do this victory is the service we are in midst of; to include processing with our the icons, singing celebratory hymns, celebrating the lives and praying for the blessed repose of all who have died in the true faith; and reciting parts of the Council decisions that defended the use and veneration of icons. 

It is a great blessing to be in the Lehigh Valley, where all Orthodox Christians and Orthodox parishes to do these things together (glory to God).

Here is part of what we will soon profess together:

Thus we proclaim Christ our true God and honor His saints 

In words,

In writings,

In thoughts,

In sacrifices,

In churches,

In holy icons. 

On the one hand, worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord.

And on the other hand, honoring and venerating His Saints as true servants of the same Lord.

This is the Faith of the Apostles.

This is the Faith of the Fathers.

This is the Faith of the Orthodox.

This is the Faith which has established the Universe.

 The last line is especially telling; “This is the Faith which has established the Universe.” 

This Universal Faith of Orthodoxy is not just something that people might develop using consensus or some equivalent of Robert’s Rules of Order.  It is not even what our greatest councils, to include the Seventh Ecumenical Council (the one that defended icons) could create. 

The Orthodox Faith is the Universe’s cosmic and timeless “deeper magic,” its “fundamental laws,” its “operating code,” and its “unchanging dynamic;”  whatever metaphor works for you. 

The Orthodox Faith may be explained by Ecumenical Councils and in the kind of books we assign in seminary, but Orthodox Christianity was not “created” by men and women or Councils – no matter how bright and inspired they were.  Nor is any explanation ever complete.

This is because Orthodoxy is more than any words we can come up with to affirm what it is and how it works. 

This should come as no surprise:

  • The Life of a Man is about more than the biology that describes the proper functioning of his human organism; it is the story of the his development from possibility to fulfillment, of the perfection that is found through pain and pleasure, sorrow and rejoicing, suffering and recovery, sin and repentance, all increasingly lived and experienced through the very life of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Similarly, Marriage is about more than the rules that describe its propriety and proper functioning; it is about two lives made one flesh through the blessing and operation of God, a joined life that moves from glory to glory through a life of mutually-experienced joys and tribulations, a life in which every breath is transformed into a praise of the God who made such love possible for mortals.
  • One more example: A parish community is about more than the sociology that describes its harmonious action; it is about lives transformed through mutual service, the strong bearing the burdens of the weak, and the weak growing strong to share the load; all striving towards the perfection in Christ that only comes from building others up and serving the neediest and most vulnerable in our midst and in the broader community; actions that draw us and the entire cosmos into the perfection that is offered for the perfection of everyone and everything through the economy of our salvation.

Yes, we are celebrating the Victory of icons over both idolatry and iconoclasm.  But that is only part of a much bigger celebration.  The words that describe, defend, and celebrate the veneration of icons are part of a much larger work that describes the working of salvation and everything needful through Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity.

But all these words, no matter how correct, logical, or poetic pale in comparison to the beauty of what they are trying to describe:  the beauty of a Good God that works within the lives and communities of all those who believe in Him to bring them to eternal joy and perfection. 

This is the Faith of the Apostles.

This is the Faith of the Orthodox.

This is the Faith which has established the Universe.

This is the glory of God that must be lived within all of us and within all of our parishes.

Let me give you a word that you can take home, some advice that will allow this glory of God to be a tangible part of your lives. 

Because it is not enough for us to know that such a Truth exists, or even to know that it should be the guiding force in our lives.

Our psychology and the world around us are fallen.  This sets us up for failure if we are not very intentional in our actions.  Scientists have proven that the norm for all of us is to automatically adapt to the prevailing culture.  This would be to God’s glory if we lived only among saints and angels – as God intended.  Then we would automatically imitate these saints and angels and the culture that surrounded them; in such a case our instinctive drive to fit in would allow us to grow in moral and spiritual perfection. 

But that is not the case.  

In American we are blessed with many things, to include a government that explicitly set up to match the Orthodox standard.  Sound crazy?  The greatest prayers we have are the prayers of the Eucharist, and in the Anaphora prayers of our Divine Liturgy, we pray that the Lord strengthen our civil authorities so that in their peace we might pursue perfection.  

St. John Chrysostom:

And for those in public service; permit them, Lord, to serve and govern in peace, that in their tranquility we may lead a calm and quiet life, in all Godliness and purity.

St. Basil the Great:

Lord, remember the civil authorities of our country and all in public service. Grant them peaceful times that we also being in their tranquility, may lead calm and quiet lives in all piety and sobriety. 

My friend, the theologian and political scientist Nick Gvosdev, compared this work of the government to the shell of an egg that allows the organism inside to develop in safety.  The problem we have is much less with the shell, than with the culture inside it.

Our culture is corrupt, given over to self-indulgence, consumerism, political phariseism (across the entire spectrum), and every sort of vice.  

Orthodoxy is the God-given antedote for this situation, but it is not being used and shared – let’s be clear, we are not using it and sharing it – because of one more problem in our culture. 

The governmental norm of secularism (a useful thing in and of itself) – that is to say, the recognized good of the government to provide a free public space for us to work out our own and communal salvation – has mutated into a cultural norm that transforms religion (to include Orthodoxy), religious morality (to include the true morality of Orthodoxy), and even the very Truth of the Gospel itself – into a private thing. 

This norm has become so internalized that Orthodox Christians – men and women designed to be salt and leaven and even Christ Himself to the world –  are afraid to invite their friends and coworkers to church, to cross themselves before meals, and to invoke the blessing and protection of the Lord throughout their day.

Because of this the anecdote of Orthodoxy – the cure for all the world’s pain – is being kept hidden in our hospitals and medicine cabinets (which is to say, in our Churches and our homes). 

It isn’t just that we are failing to fulfill the great Commission, it is that we ourselves are being assimilated into the fallen culture around us.  The Faith Which established the world is available to us, but we live our lives as if it didn’t even exist.  

One of my favorite saints, St. John Damascus, faced a similar problem.  We mainly know him as a theologian, but he was also a pastor.  He knew what kind of pressures Orthodox Christian faced when they lived in the midst of a fallen, non-Orthodox, culture.  He saw how even those who avoided converting away from Orthodoxy became lukewarm and unable to sustain the joy of Salvation in Christ, much less to grow in the ability to share the Gospel with others.

So what did he have his people do?  He had them double down on the rituals, ceremonies, and accoutrements of the faith. 

Belief does not sustain itself (our minds are not strong enough!), it is strengthened and reaffirmed every time the believer “goes through the motions.”  Every time the believer crosses himself, every time he prostrates Himself before God, every time he offers a blessing, every time he venerates the icons that adorn his home, his car, his workplace, and his Church that faith is strengthened and manifested in a world that needs its beauty.

Our culture is iconoclastic and secular to point of being anti-clerical.  As members of that culture, we risk devolving into lukewarm, Laodicean Christians who may believe in the theology of icons, but refuse to adorn their homes with them; the kinds of lukewarm Laodicean Christians that have supposedly given their lives to Christ but refuse to share Him with people they claim to love. 

So this is my challenge to you: be leaven to this culture:

  • Bless it by filling it with icons,
  • Bless it by invoking the power of the Cross throughout the day, and
  • Bless it by allowing the joy that is found in a life given to and transformed by Jesus Chirst to naturally spill out into everything you  do and every moment that you do them.

 

This is the Faith of the Apostles.

This is the Faith of the Orthodox.

This is the Faith has established the universe.

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