SUNDAY OF ORTHODOXY 2000
Holy Resurrection Serbian Orthodox Cathedral
Chicago, Illinois, Sunday, March 19, 2000
Respected Brother Hierarchs, Reverend Fathers and Beloved in the Lord,
We gather this evening in this radiantly beautiful house of worship as we have gathered for many years now, to celebrate in all our diversity our unity in Christian Orthodoxy. We gather to celebrate the victories of the past, and to look forward to a victorious future, to a future grounded in the solid foundation of our history, in divine worship.
Indeed, we join countless Orthodox faithful throughout the world today in celebrating a uniquely eastern and Orthodox Christian victory — the restoration of the holy icons. We celebrate our shared Orthodoxia not so much in ideas or polity, but in icons, in images of divine worship and Divine Liturgy. We gaze upon our ancestors’ victory most fully as we gaze upon the holy icons that surround us, and that indeed, are enshrined within us and within all persons.
It is, we offer to you this evening, in divine worship that we recognize this truth most profoundly. Surrounded by holy icons of our Christ, the Theotokos and the saints in our churches and at our home altars, we begin to realize the vision of Genesis 1 and 2, the vision of ourselves created as icons, as images of God.
Standing within our churches, we watch as the clergy cense first the icons of our Christ and the saints, and then the very human icons of all who have gathered for divine worship. Indeed, through this offering of incense, we recognize our own potential — our own calling and destiny — to be living icons, holy icons of the living and holy God. Likewise, we learn to reverence and respect all other persons as living icons, even as we cense all persons present without distinguishing ethnicity, race, gender or any other difference.
We look upon our faith incarnate in sacred art, just as we have seen our God incarnate in human flesh. We celebrate that divine beauty which shines from holy icons and from divine worship. We recall that first, breathtakingly beautiful temple of Solomon, where by Moses’ design, golden icons of the heavenly cherubim surrounded the Ark, in the Holy of Holies. We recall that throughout biblical history, the beauty of holy icons and divine worship stood as a powerful sign and a witness of God’s blessing of material creation, and indeed, of God’s own ‘taking on flesh and dwelling in our midst.’
In our contemporary North American diaspora home we have also come to recognize other ways of ministering these same truths. Parish programming, preaching, rational comprehension, study groups, academic theology, social activism and political engagement all have a unique appeal to Christians living in these United States.
And certainly all of these things have important places in the life of the Orthodox East as well. Parish programs are valuable tools. They create opportunities for fellowship, give a sense of belonging and help strengthen Orthodox Christian identity. Motivating sermons also contribute to the edification of God’s people, as they prophetically proclaim and teach the divine Scriptures and traditions of our holy ancestors.
So too, understanding with the mind, group study and learning opportunities, as well as theological development are all good and noble endeavors. Together with countless other saints, the Three Hierarchs taught us the importance of learning by their very lives, traveling to the distant Academy of Athens to acquire formation in the literature, arts and sciences of their day. One of them, St. Basil the Great, showed us that social activism also has a critical place in our Tradition, as he advocated for mercy and justice for all before ‘the powers that be’, and did all within his means to undo the bonds of poverty and abuse in his own Cappadocian world.
Especially on this Sunday of Orthodoxy, however, we would contend that our future as Orthodox Christians is not limited to any of these preeminently North American expressions. Yes, ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’ are important parts of our ancient Christian life, but the future lies more in ‘being’ — in bowing before the mystery of God-in-Trinity, in celebrating the stories of our salvation and the lives of the saints. So it is, then, that for us Orthodox believers, the future is in divine – and especially Eucharistic — worship.
A look at our Orthodox Church history shows just how true this all is. What was it that so deeply moved Prince Vladimir’s emissaries in Constantinople? Was it the rational excellence of the Byzantines? Was it the Christian activism of the Byzantines? No, though both of these were certainly present, what moved those Rus explorers was divine worship. It was holy iconography and chant, it was fragrant incense and sacred ceremony. That is what moved them to proclaim for all the generations and for all the races and for all the nations of humankind, that they ‘knew not whether they were in heaven or upon the earth’.
That vision of radiant icons and divine worship is what captured the minds and hearts of the entire Russian world, what led to the miraculous ‘conversion of the Slavs’. It was that experience within the courts of Hagia Sophia that gave birth to a family of peoples that would come to proclaim that ‘beauty shall save the world’ in our own day. Indeed it shall. Indeed, the future is in the beauty of icons and worship.
And does not the history of our Mediterranean Orthodox peoples point in the same direction? What was it that kept faithful for four hundred long years millions of Greeks and Antiochians, Armenians, Serbs and Albanians as we endured the brutal slavery of Ottoman colonial rule? Was it books and book learning? Was it parish programming and administration? Was it political involvement and maneuvering? It was none of these things. It was divine worship.
It was the power of the holy mysteries and the vision of the holy icons. Divine worship kept our Christian Orthodox identity alive. Divine worship kept our spirits buoyant in spite of daily dehumanization and martyrdom. Divine worship — in all its radiant, iconic beauty — sustained us when there was little other hope.
And it is to our final hope that our worship and icons ultimately point. Remember that the observers at Hagia Sophia spoke of not knowing whether they were ‘in heaven or on earth’. The reality is that they were in both places, for among the holy icons in worship, we experience heaven on earth — the Kingdom, the eschaton is in our midst. It is the end-time vision of Revelation 21.3, the faithful gathered ‘at the altar, before the throne of God’.
In no act of worship is this Kingdom, this eschaton more a reality than in the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist. Surrounded by the holy icons in that experience, we actually become ‘the body of Christ’. In the evangelical eloquence of St. John Chrysostom, it is when we gather in worship that ‘we are in Christ and Christ is in us.’ It is in that context of sacred beauty that, according to St. Nicholas Kavasilas the brilliant liturgical commentator, we behold ‘the entire oikonomia of the Savior signed and signified’.
Such is the case in the midst of our struggles to be in Christ, to love God and our neighbor even in a most challenging time and world. And this is why, in the words of our Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos’ most recent Nativity Encyclical, the Church offers us ‘the proclaimed word, the grace of the sacraments, the icon, the symbols, and the feasts’. By such, he concludes, the Church ‘calls the faithful to a continuous struggle to… ascend and take on the divine and ineffable beauty of the virtues of Christ.’ (Nativity Encyclical, 1999)
Again, this is all realized in the Divine Liturgy, the divine ‘work of the people’. In our Eucharistic worship, we realize that ‘our communion and community is the very embodiment of Christ in the faithful. It is the renewal of the entire created cosmos. It is the seeding of our lives with ‘the life of the age to come’, a life already sensible in the living Church.’ In that unique context, heaven and earth converge. ‘That which transcends the rational meets the rational, the divine meets the human and the invisible meets the visible. All converges and dwells together in the Divine Liturgy, where the word and faith, where the symbol and the symbolized are all perfectly interwoven.’ (M. Rev. Dionysios of Drama, 1998)
This evening, we celebrate this eucharistic faith, this liturgical faith, this living faith, this restoration of icons. This faith, like our Christ, is unchanging. Yet the world around us is changing more rapidly than many of us can comprehend. The very term ‘icon’ has been appropriated and changed radically in our own computer age, often signifying an ultimately unreal, ‘virtual’ world, or an outrageously paid celebrity. The meeting place between heaven and earth has been reduced to an image to click, or to a model of popular culture. We must thus reclaim even the word ‘icon’, restoring it to its rightful and sacred identity.
Let us embrace our work of reclaiming and restoring the holy icons in our own day. Learning from our past, we are motivated to blaze a new trail in this new millennium. We will most profoundly honor our ancient roots when we allow ourselves to blossom and bear fruit in ever new ways, rooted in this rich American soil.
Recalling God’s victory in the beauty of the holy icons, we shall find creative ways to flourish our unique Orthodox vision of beauty and of divine worship for the future. Being of ‘one mind and one heart’ in all our inter-Orthodox diversity, we form a remarkable mosaic icon, a unified witness to the world around us. Especially in this season of Great Lent, with its many rich divine prayers and services, we have abundant opportunities to rekindle our worship life in Christ, to restore the icon within. Claiming our roots, let us boldly move forward, my beloved, with the sure knowledge that indeed, our destiny as images of God is even now being realized, that our future lies in the beauty of divine worship, that the life of the age to come is even now in our midst. Amen.