Public Orthodoxy - A Sermon for the First Sunday of Great Lent (2020)

March 08, 2020

Public Orthodoxy - A Sermon for the First Sunday of Great Lent (2020)

Today, we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the triumph of the true Faith over every heresy, and in particular, of the veneration of icons over the heresy of iconoclasm. We ought to feel especial joy today, as we look around this sanctuary, covered with holy images of Christ, the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints. What Orthodox Christian, spiritually reared on use of icons in divine worship, does not instinctively feel the emptiness, the barrenness, the coldness of those houses of worship that are not adorned with them? How lonely and distant they seem from the heavenly realm, made manifest to our sight by the holy icons; how detached from the invisible realm into which the icons so powerfully draw us.

But though the focus of today’s feast is deservedly on the truth of the holy icons, there is an essential aspect of this feast that we must also not overlook. For we are not celebrating the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which definitively set forth the Church’s teaching on the holy icons. That historic event, which occurred in the year 787, has its own separate feast on the Church calendar. Today, rather, we celebrate the final restoration of the icons by the Byzantine Empress Theodora, some fifty years after the Seventh Council, in 843. In that intervening period of time, a second wave of iconoclast persecution troubled the Church, and was only brought to a decisive end by Theodora’s decree. On that first Sunday of Orthodoxy, the Holy Spirit had already acted to guide the Church into all truth (Jn. 16:13); her Faith had been clearly articulated by the holy fathers of the Seventh Council. Our present feast, then, is not just a feast of the victory of truth over falsehood in the abstract—but of truth’s triumph in public sphere, of its open proclamation, its universal acknowledgment, and its sanction by the earthly authorities. Orthodoxy, we see, is a thoroughly public affair.

If we doubt this, consider the special rites the Church observes on this day; for it is the custom in many places for the people to take icons in public procession around the churches, singing hymns of the feast, proclaiming in word and deed our devotion to this pious custom, and through it, to our faith in the Incarnation of our Savior. But there can be no more unequivocal expression of the Church’s faith than the solemn anathema service which is appointed for this day. Here, the Faith is declared openly, in no uncertain terms, for all to hear; and the Church thereby makes clear those who are with her, and sets apart—for this is the root meaning of the word anathema—she sets apart those who are outside of her. Here, Orthodoxy is not in dialogue. Her teachings are set forth, not as matters for debate or discussion, but as given truths that must be either accepted or rejected. Those public figures—the emperors and bishops—who upheld them are acclaimed, while those who fought against them are reviled and shamed.

As Americans, especially as twenty-first century Americans, all of this may give us pause. After all, one of the cornerstones of our system of government is the “wall of separation” between church and state. By law, our government is not to favor one confession of faith over another, to officially endorse or fund one religious body to the prejudice or detriment of another. The triumph of Orthodoxy could not happen in America without a constitutional amendment. And in our increasingly secularized society, this principle of a state with no official church is often taken one step further, and morphs into the notion that religion should play no meaningful role in public or government life at all. Instead, religion ought to be relegated exclusively to the private sphere, a matter of personal preference that has no bearing on vital issues of common concern, something that does not disturb the secular conventions of propriety. We live in the age of political correctness, which values tolerance above truth, politeness above piety, decorum above devotion.

For Christians, who seek an eternal heavenly kingdom, whose deepest aspirations and longings are not of this world, there is a temptation to accept this secular line of thinking, and suppose that we can retreat into the private sphere with our faith while still remaining true followers of Christ. But if we are sincerely living our faith, it cannot but be reflected in all areas of our life; it must necessarily have public manifestations and political ramifications. To truly follow Christ is a political statement—and almost always a dangerous one.

For consider our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ himself, who died on a Cross, an instrument of execution reserved for political criminals, those who dared to challenge the authority of the Roman state. The only accusation the Jewish leaders could make against him was that he made himself another king besides Caesar; his only crime was that he was in fact the long-awaited Messianic King. If the author of our Faith was put to death on false political charges, then surely our Faith has always been political.

And indeed, it was political when the Roman Christians who would not worship idols, or do homage to the Emperor as to a god, were suspected of disloyalty to the state, and so deprived of their rights or killed.

It was political when Persian Christians were suspected by the Persian emperors of treasonous conspiracy with Christian Byzantium, and were tortured or put to death.

It was political when heretical Byzantine emperors tried to enforce their false doctrines with the sword, when venerable men like St. Maximus the Confessor were put to trial, and accused of contempt for political authority.

It was political when Turkish judges would sentence falsely accused Christians to death for refusing conversion to Islam as a means of escaping unjust punishment.

It was political when atheist ideologues seized power in Russia, and imprisoned or murdered millions of believers for their ‘anti-revolutionary activities.’

These are just a few examples; but we also have the testimony of Christ himself that each generation of faithful Christians is called to confess [him] before men (Mt. 10:32), and not be ashamed of [him] and of [his] words (Lk. 9:26). We cannot compromise our Faith in order to appease the sensibilities of our contemporaries. We are Orthodox Christians—our concern is not to be on the right side of history, but on the right side of eternity.

As for our community, we may think that we are simply monks, withdrawn from the world, tucked away in a little holler of West Virginia, and that we have no part in the public proclamation of Christ to the world. Our business is to focus on our own salvation, and not to be interested in the affairs of the world. And of course, this is true. But we must not also forget that it has always been the monastics who have zealously upheld and witnessed to the fulness of the Faith, especially at those times when it was disputed and in doubt. Today’s feast is an excellent example. It was the monks who suffered some of the worst persecution from the iconoclast emperors; for it was the monks who most ardently defended the pious veneration of icons. Their monasteries were closed, and they were put to public mockery, tortured, or exiled, forced to live as wandering ascetics, or to hide in remote caves and mountains, or to flee to those places that were not under the control of the iconoclasts. They were not willing to compromise the Faith for the sake of any earthly advantage.

For us, then, we can witness to Christ by upholding the fulness of the Truth among ourselves, by becoming, in the words of the Savior, a city that is set on a hill, [which] cannot be hid (Mt. 5:14). We know, of course, that our faith is not merely a set of abstract propositions to which we assent, but is rather an active, living, saving truth, which requires the striving of our whole being—body, soul, and spirit—to fully perceive and understand. All of our efforts to attain spiritual perfection will inevitably have a salvific effect on the world around us, provided we wage a good warfare.

As we have heard in today’s Epistle reading about the heroes of faith in the Old Testament, let us also call to mind those of the New, that uncountable cloud of witnesses—martyrs—who suffered and gave their lives in defense of the Faith whose triumph we now celebrate. Without their sacrifices, we would not have inherited the faith which was once delivered unto the saints (Jude 3), but barren churches and soulless dogmas. So let us be inspired by their example; for the responsibility of upholding the fulness and purity of Church life falls on us in particular, as monastics. We may not yet have resisted unto blood, striving against sin (Heb. 12:4), as did the martyrs, but let us at least strive to be ready, openly and unashamedly, to defend our holy Faith at any cost to ourselves. Perhaps we are weary from the first week of fasting, or dreading the six that are still to come, but let us call to mind the zeal of our fathers in the faith, and lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for [our] feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way (Heb. 12:13); and so let us run with patience the race that is set before us (Heb. 12:1), purifying ourselves in this holy time, so that the saving truth of the Orthodox faith might triumph in our hearts, in our brotherhood, and in our world. Amen.




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