The Struggle and Triumph of the Orthodox Faith
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We are well into the Lenten Triodion and have come to the first Sunday of Lent with five more until Holy Week. For Christians, Lent is a time of spiritual renewal, a time of increased understanding of our relationship to Christ, and a time to apply ourselves further to a Christian way of living.
Lent is a small classroom of Orthodoxy within a larger university of Orthodoxy. It is the recalling to Paradise of those who fell away; it is the pronouncement of the resurrection of those dead in sin to life in Christ; it reveals the truth to those deceived by the devil; and it announces sight to the blind, guidance to the lost, a haven for the storm-tossed, and life in a world which kills.
The Foundation of the Sunday of Orthodoxy in Light of Preceeding Sundays
The theme of the previous Sundays has been aimed at encouraging the right disposition by which to prepare ourselves for the Lenten period and, in the larger picture, by which to undergird our whole life. Therefore, as a foundation to the Sundays of Lent, we have learned of the fervent expectation of Christ by Zaccheus, that we ought to humble ourselves like the Publican, to repent and come back to the Father like the Prodigal Son, that we will go the way that we have chosen when we stand before God on the dreadful day of Judgment, and that we are to forgive our neighbors if we expect forgiveness.
We have now come to the first Sunday of Lent which is called the Sunday of Orthodoxy. On this day we are taught that the Church, whom God has guided into all truth, and against Whom, God promised, that the gates of Hell would never prevail, She has been protected from all heresies. On this Sunday we acknowledge the dogmas of the faith which God has made known to His Church and the heresies which She rejects.
The structure of today’s service builds around the triumph of those who upheld the use of icons in worship in contrast to those who fought against them. Following the Divine Liturgy, there is a special “Office of Orthodoxy.” It is a service which in our present times is usually only performed where a hierarch resides. In this service, anathemas are pronounced against all of the heresies that have risen up against the Church since its beginning, and “Eternal Memory” is pronounced to honor those who have defended the faith be they Church Fathers, patriarchs or emperors.
The Path to Christ
Today being the first Sunday of Lent, means that in the previous six days the members of the Church have begun to fast, to spend more time in services, to live more austerely and, in short, to alter and modify our lives so that we may see Christ more clearly, God willing, as he resurrects before us (and in us) in six weeks. Therefore, the first reward of this struggle, which we commemorate today, is Orthodoxy, is the truth. On the one hand, in the days leading up to today, there is a spiritual affinity with the struggles of the martyrs and defenders of the faith. On the other hand, the path to Orthodoxy is also made evident, that is the path to the truth, the path to Christ is a difficult path. Alternatively, in the words of Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force (cf. Matt. 11:12) therefore we force ourselves through fasting, vigils, and prayer (as well as other means) asking for God’s help to overcome that old nature, that old man. By such means, we fulfill Christ’s commandments and learn to be meek, to thirst for righteousness, to be pure in heart, in short, to be perfect?
You are not given a textbook to study by which you come to understand all the workings of the material and spiritual world. No, instead, you are given Divine Services, a Great Canon, fasting and the gnawing of the stomach, weariness, fatigue, readings from St. Ephrem, St. John Climacus, from The Evergetinos and your reward is the feast for today: truth/Christ/orthodoxy; a forerunner to Pascha. These are the means through which you will see Christ clearly, the means by which you will know Christ. “Do not neglect the practice of the virtues,” writes St. Thalassios, “if you do, your spiritual knowledge will decrease… (2nd Century, #32)
The Asceticism of Love
Adding to the above spiritual exercises (i.e. asceticism), we can include our disposition towards our neighbor. The importance of others, “neighbors” as Christ calls them, have been emphasized throughout our pre-Lenten readings. On Zaccheus Sunday, we read the Scriptural account of how Zaccheus repented and gave away his money to those he had wronged (Luke 19:1-10). The Pharisee condemned his brother, saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people” (Luke 18:10-14). The older brother of the prodigal son was angry upon his return home which showed a disposition of soul worse than that of his repentant brother (Luke 15:11-32). On the Sunday of the Dread Judgment, we read that our judgment before God is based on whether or not we gave food, drink, clothing, and comfort to those who were in need (Matthew 25:31-46). Lastly, on Forgiveness Sunday, we read that our forgiveness is based on whether or not we have forgiven our brothers (Matthew 6:14-21).
We could describe “love of neighbor” as being how we acted towards them and how we are disposed towards them. In both of these ways, we affect our neighbor and ultimately our own soul, as the Gospel teaches us. Ivan Andreyev includes one more way wherein we affect our neighbor, and that is by our sins even if they are not directed towards anyone specifically and even if no one else is around.
Being a highly educated man—a trained physician and philosopher—having spent three years in the Solovki Gulag and then teaching and writing at Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, he is now buried there, to the left of the entrance of the cemetery chapel of the Dormition. He offers this perspective when giving a lecture about a murder in New York City in his day that was indeed an atrocity. I will not go into the details as he does, but he suggests that it is our fault because, in a world brimming with evil, our sin can tip the balance and cause evil to burst forth in these unexpected ways.
The tragedies of this world in which we live and the activity of the devil have become so obvious lately, that we should not forget the asceticism of love for our neighbor. St. Ephrem spoke on this topic to us this week if only slightly when we read: “Blessed is the one who like one wise does not judge his brother but with spiritual understanding struggles to throw the plank from his own eye” (55 Beatitudes, #46). In the very least, may we pray for this struggling world and in this manner, love our neighbor.
The Struggle and the Joy
Harvest follows sowing, victory follows training, and deification is the reward of the Christian life. Before that time, Christ offers to us “spiritual delights” as St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite calls them. This is the spiritual joy that comes amidst the trials of life. It is the spiritual which we need to be finding our joys in and not in the material of this world. St. Basil the Great, writing about the Prophet David says: “When the psalmist received the insight of the flashing brightness coming from the beautiful Messiah, he was touched in the heart by this beauty and proceeded to love that spiritual beauty, which once it was revealed to the human soul, everything else previously esteemed appeared worthless and objectionable” (Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, 228). Earlier this week, we read a similar passage from St. John Climacus, “He who has tasted the things on high easily despises what is below. But he who has not tasted the things above finds joy in possessions.” (Step 17, #6).
Everything this week has been more severe as we tried to subdue the desires of the flesh and invigorate the soul. For each of us, it is the proper balance of these hardships in order that we not grow soft or, on the opposite end, to be wound so tight as to almost break. Archimandrite Sphrony described this phenomenon as finding the proper spiritual “tension.” Yet here we are at the beginning of Lent, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, commemorating the fruit of the life lived for God—that fruit being knowing God—in the Church, experientially, dogmatically; knowing Him who triumphs over all heresies and even the demons in our own lives who try to beguile us. May God strengthen us and may the rest of this Lenten fast be much light and life so that we would see the resurrected Christ at the end of our sojourn.
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen.