SERMON DELIVERED AT HOLY TRINITY CATHEDRAL, BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS
First Sunday of Great Lent / Triumph of Orthodoxy
March 8, 1998 / Pan-Orthodox Vespers
On the first Sunday of Great Lent — March 11, 843 — in the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, the Church celebrated the restoration of the holy icons. With this celebration the second wave of iconoclasm came to an end. Combined with the first attack on the icons, iconoclasm spanned some 90 years. During this time the unity of the Church was disrupted while the faithful confronted imprisonment, exile and martyrdom.
To say that what we celebrate this evening is merely an historical event that happens to coincide with Great Lent would be a hasty conclusion. What we need to discover in this celebration is how the place and theology of the icon complement these days of preparation leading to the Lord's Pascha.
The icon confirms that the eternal Son of God was truly incarnate, that he suffered in the flesh, that he arose bodily from the dead, and that he ascended into heaven as both God and Man. It is this Christological foundation of the icon that enables us to see that by Christ and in Christ the image and likeness of God is restored.
From the Christology of the icon we come to know — to see — that each of us has been created to reflect the person of the incarnate Son and Word of God. From the Christology of the icon all of humanity — male and female — is called to be a living image of Jesus Christ. Thus, in its lines and colors, the icon proclaims the Good News of Christ's saving dispensation. Put in a very concise way — the icon confirms that the human person has been created to participate in the divine life of God. And this is made possible because God has become a human being.
By understanding the icon as confirmation and proclamation of the Gospel, we come to appreciate the true reason of why we refer to this feast as the Triumph of Orthodoxy. For the triumph of Orthodoxy is nothing less than the victory of Jesus Christ over sin and death. This is the Gospel which is to be proclaimed to all people in all places at all times. The Triumph of Orthodoxy joyfully announces that in Christ the image and likeness of God has been restored. Consequently, our humanity, distorted by sin and imprisoned by death, has been restored and liberated through the incarnation.
While today's feast announces the renewal of the image and likeness of God in the human person, it is Great Lent that becomes our response to this marvelous gift. Emphasis on repentance and asceticism has no meaning apart from our desire to be living icons of Jesus Christ. When asceticism becomes an end in itself it ceases to manifest virtue and instead fills one with pride and arrogance. If our celebration is not rooted in the desire to be made whole — to be made new and to abide in the Kingdom of God — then the feast risks being reduced to empty rhetoric. What emerges is the all too familiar extolling of past triumphs at the expense of ignoring the need for a living Church in the present.
As Orthodox Christians in America there is the urgent need to regain an awareness of the tremendous responsibility we have as a Church in this land. Having been given the Catholic and Apostolic faith, we are obliged by God himself to reveal and offer the true faith to all seeking to come to the knowledge of the truth. But to fulfill the divine will requires us to remain in the ascetical arena where we are compelled to know and to live out the saving doctrine of the Gospel. To fulfill the divine will requires us to strive towards realizing one local Church that seeks to serve and guide all yearning for the Kingdom of the triune and tripersonal God.
Ecclesiastical unity is always stressed when Orthodox Christians gather to celebrate today's Feast. Yet, we know that in spite of the references we make to doctrinal and eucharistic unity, the Orthodox in America remain apart. And it is this lack of unity — the lack of one local Church — that weakens the very activity of God.
It was Saint Nicephorus, patriarch of Constantinople and one of the great defenders of the icon during the second wave of iconoclasm, who saw the iconoclasts as those who prevented the will of God from being realized. This was so because iconoclasm divided the local Church in Constantinople. It was this division that compelled Saint Nicephorus to write that because of their refusal to achieve unity in the Truth, the "good will of the Father has remained without result; the cooperation of the Spirit has been ineffective; and the Apostolic preaching has been extinguished."
Though these words speak about the iconoclasts, I believe they teach a profound lesson to the Orthodox in America. We hold the same faith and celebrate the same liturgy while remaining divided according to ethnic jurisdiction. Who can deny that this has weakened the body of Christ? Who can deny that jurisdictional pluralism has undermined Orthodox ecclesiology to the extent that this anomaly is now accepted as normal? Who can deny that our division distorts the very image of Christ and therefore opposes the will of the Father, weakens the power of the Holy Spirit; and undermines the Apostolic preaching?
Unity is a necessary condition for the Church and must be actualized. Unity in Truth and Love is the manifestation of Orthodoxy — the saving and renewing faith of the Kingdom — which upholds this universe. It must never be compromised but confessed and lived out daily. Unity must be as visible and tangible as the icons themselves.
The challenge of today's celebration is very great. It compels us to act as a people immersed in the ascetical school of repentance and renewal. It urges us to press on towards what is good, true, and beautiful.
Reverend Fathers, Brothers and Sisters, dearly beloved, let us face our common challenge with the zeal and courage of those who defended the icon. In unity — as one local Church — let us labor together in building up the Body of Christ which seeks to restore the image and likeness of God in all people. Amen!