Sunday of Orthodoxy! Today we celebrate the victory of our holy Church against all her enemies, especially the Iconoclasts, that is those who scorned the veneration of icons, denied the right of the Orthodox Christians to honor the holy images of Christ and the Saints, and destroyed them.
Too intellectual for Icons?
For over 150 years the Church waged war against those Christians who considered themselves too spiritual, too enlightened and too intellectual to be involved with burning candles and incense before icons, with making the sign of the cross before them, with kissing them, with praying before them and with being blessed and being sanctified by them.
The iconoclasts (literally meaning “image-smashers”), by denying the veneration of icons, denied the very Incarnation of Christ. The image of Christ is a confession of faith in the historical Incarnation. An historical Christ is necessarily visible and depictable. No wonder the Seventh Ecumenical Council stated plainly and concisely:
“If one does not venerate our Lord Jesus Christ depicted in an icon, according to the human form, let him be anathema”.
In order to remember this day the holy Church decreed that on the First Sunday of Lent we celebrate the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” over its enemies, whether open and direct, as is the case with the iconoclasts, or subtle and devious, as are some of its contemporary enemies.
Every other “god” is an idol
We know, however, that the Church never intends to simply call to memory an historical event, therefore as we contemplate the victory of Orthodoxy, we turn to our contemporary scene to wage our own battles for the truth, to reaffirm to our society the truths and teachings safeguarded by the Orthodox Church, the “Pillar and foundation of the truth.”
First I will address a word about those who believe, in their naivete, that since Jews and Moslems, not to mention other faiths, believe in one God, and since there is only one God, we all believe in the same God. If that is the case, then let everyone who believes in God worship Christ, depicted here as He appeared on earth, the Son of God, “true God of true God,” as we confess in the Creed. In one of the Liturgical prayers recited right after the reading of the holy Gospel at the Matins Service, the faithful declare:
“Having beheld the resurrection of Christ, let us worship the Holy One, Lord Jesus… You are our God, beside You we know of no other [God]” (Σὺ γὰρ εἶ Θεὸς ἡμῶν, ἐκτὸς Σοῦ ἄλλον οὐκ εἴδαμεν).
So, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, don’t be deceived. It’s not a matter of a name (God, Allah, Jehovah, Buddha, Supreme Being, the Power), so that it doesn’t matter what we call Him, as long as we call upon Him. No. Not so! Our “God… became flesh and dwelt among us… and we have beheld His glory” (John 1:1.14) and we depict Him in holy images. So let them worship this Incarnate God, Jesus Christ; let them venerate the image of this God, and then – and only then – we can say that we believe in and worship the same God.
“We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, to know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols”.
This is how St. John the Theologian ends his theological First Letter (1 John 5:20-21). Very clearly and unmistakably the divine Apostle and Evangelist declares: Jesus Christ is the true God.1 Every other “god” is an idol. “There is no salvation in anyone else” (Acts 4:12), but Jesus Christ.
Plague of the Church today: Ecumenism
We will now turn to some other most basic and fundamental truths of the Church that are questioned and repudiated by so-called theologians of various Christian denominations. Liberal, liberational, feminist, modernist, rationalist theologies overtake traditional teachings of the Church, attaching themselves to the Church like leeches to suck her blood.
Most tragically such theologies, ideas and philosophies have infiltrated the Orthodox Church and are propounded by Orthodox theologians and bishops alike. We’ll address very briefly one such pernicious current among Orthodox, that of ecumenism, the modern plague of the Church, a gangrene that eats its members away.
Orthodoxy cannot be reconciled with “branch” theories, “broken pot” theories, “proportional ecclesiology” theories and other synchretistic and ecumenistic theories, which in essence say that Truth (Christ) is divided. “Why not seek union with other Christians?” you may ask. We do! We must! Christ prayed that we all be one (cf. John 17:21) – but not to the detriment of the truth! Says St. John Chrysostom:
“If you see the true faith damaged, do not prefer the concord of love (ὁμόνοια, ἀγάπη), but fight bravely to death” (PG 60,609).
We must fight indeed and stand steadfastly, keeping the Tradition of the Truth, because, as St. John Damascene, the champion of Orthodoxy, declares:
“He who does not believe according to the tradition of the Catholic Church… is a heathen” (PG 94,1128).
Most recently the unity of the Church has been attacked from within by high standing hierarchs, admitting “sister-churches” and sharing of God’s mysteries with other “churches.” The fundamental teaching of the Church is that she is One (“One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”); One and Unique. Says St. Cyprian:
“God is one and Christ one and His Church One and the faith one and the people one, joined together by the tie of concord into a solid unity of body. The unity cannot be torn asunder, nor can the one body be separated by a division of its structure” (Ch. 23).
The times, my friends, are difficult, “the days are evil”. What blessed Philotheos Zervakos said is regrettably true:
“The majority of the contemporary theologians, save a few and rare exceptions, have become adversaries of Orthodoxy” (p. 39).
But don’t lose heart:
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12:32). “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside has not been given” (Mt. 4:11, Mt. 3:11).
The Church is God’s society, not a club
The Church is attacked by her own members in many other ways as well. Some of these are very familiar to us. Some see her as a worldly organization, a business establishment, a corporation, and want to run it accordingly, expanding their energies toward fund-raising events and minimizing its spiritual values. Others view her as a social club, a cultural center, a place to meet, to talk about the latest and to socialize. Yet others see her as an ethnic organization, the purpose of which is to preserve and transmit their linguistic and cultural identity. That’s iconoclasm! We must return to the true Church, as a spiritual center, as the Ark of salvation. Enough giving to Caesar! Now let us give to God what is God’s! Let us return as children and as families of God, to form God’s society, a truly Christian society.
Let me now insert a caveat for those whose faith is weak. Let us be careful, my good Christians, not to confuse the Church for its unworthy workers and ministers. Indeed we, the ministers of God’s mysteries and proclaimers of the News of Redemption and Grace, fall short in our positions and in our personal spiritual call. But don’t allow these shortcomings and faults to be transferred to the Church itself, who remains holy, “without blemish” (Song of Songs 4:7) in her. In spite of our shortcomings, she thrives, preserving intact purity of doctrine, wholesomeness of moral teachings and integrity of liturgical life, attracting many converts to her. Even entire congregations embrace the Orthodox Faith together.
Seek and you will find
Bishop Job, in a sermon he preached on this same feast-day, said among other things:
“Many disillusioned Western Christians are looking to the Orthodox for truth, dogmatically sound teaching and understanding, and true moral guidance… But first, we must be convinced of it ourselves and make that evident in our lives and in the lives of our parishes”.
The people “out there” are disillusioned and dissatisfied by the answers they are given by their religious leaders. Confused, perplexed and disoriented, they turn to sorcerers, mediums, astrologers, psychologists and gurus for answers and solutions, which only the humble Orthodox Church can provide in their fullness. The Orthodox Church alone can lift up modern man from moral degeneration, degradation and spiritual atrophy, giving him hope, courage, energy, purpose. In a world hungering and thirsting for peace, stability, understanding, joy, love and truth, the Orthodox Church alone can fulfill the inner aspirations of people to their fullest.
Against all our enemies that press us from within and from without, open and hidden, direct and devious, we turn to our mother, the holy Orthodox Church, finding refuge and protection in her bosom. As Peter addressed Christ, we too say:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)
No, we will not deny You, Lord. No, we will not betray you, holy Orthodoxy.
“Let us stand well!” (Στῶμεν καλῶς!), my dear brothers and sisters, not to be deceived by the glitter of the world. “Let us stand well!” Let us resist the influence of our God-less society, and instead let us become the leaven that will ferment the world, the city on a hill that will shine its light to our darkened world. United in Christ, “with one accord” (Acts 1:14), guarding what has been entrusted in us (cf. 1 Tim. 6:20), let us allow the light of Christ to penetrate us, to transform us and to make us in turn radiate the light of Christ to those around us. Amen!
This article was originally delivered as a sermon on the Sunday of Orthodoxy in 1994. (Edited, 2007)
- (See Justin Popovich, Ἄνθρωπος καὶ Θεάνθρωπος, p. 77)