Sermon for the Sunday of Orthodoxy 2016

March 20, 2016

Sermon for the Sunday of Orthodoxy 2016

Today is the first Sunday of Great Lent on which is celebrated two events. The first is the victory of those who venerate images of Christ, His Mother and the Saints (i.e., iconophiles) over those who were suspicious of any Christian art and, therefore, tried to destroy them (i.e., iconoclasts). The second event is the triumph of orthodoxy (i.e., the true, correct faith and the true glorification of God) over heresy.

The dispute over the use of “images” (i.e., icons) in the church was the cause of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which took place during the eighth and ninth centuries. “The struggle was not merely a conflict between two conceptions of Christian art. Deeper issues were involved: the character of Christ’s human nature, the Christian attitude towards matter, [and] the true meaning of redemption.”[1] The central question posed at the council was: “If we establish that images (i.e., icons) are not idolatrous (which the Council had done) are we to say that they are necessary and essential to the faith?” The short answer is, “yes,” as Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) writes, “because icons safeguard a full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation.”[2] He then quotes St. John of Damascus who writes:

Of old God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was not depicted at all. But now God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I make an image of the God who can be seen. I do not worship matter but I worship the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation. I will not cease from worshipping the matter through which my salvation has been effected.[3]

Matter does not defile the spiritual. What is spiritual is not disconnected from the material. Because of Christ’s incarnation, man’s material body, as well as his soul, will be redeemed, it will be transfigured.

On March 11, 843, the first Sunday of Great Lent, St. Methodius, Patriarch of Constantinople (commemorated on June 14), and St. Theodora, the Empress of the Byzantine Empire (commemorated on February 11), restored the veneration of icons. At that time, the Empress and her son gathered with everyone else in the church where a procession began with icons, fragments of the true cross and the Gospel Book.[4] Since then, the Triumph of Orthodoxy has been held on this day.

 

The  Sunday of Orthodoxy not only commemorates the restoration of the veneration of icons but also the triumph of all Ecumenical Councils. For this reason, let us now look more closely at some characteristics of the Church’s Ecumenical Councils.

Each Council was convened to address a specific heresy at a particular historical period of the Church.[5]

Those whom the Church considers “Fathers of the Church” are best described by Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) who said: they had personal experience of God, had excellent intellectual gifts and they had also acquired the education of their day. “They were, therefore, able, on the one hand, to record this experience and, on the other, to confront the various heretics of their era.”[6]However, they did not imagine themselves able to explain the mysteries of God fully, rather, as Metropolitan Kallistos writes “they merely sought to exclude certain false ways of speaking and thinking about it.” “They drew a fence around the mystery,” which keeps men from falling into heresy.[7] What is meant here by mystery, is the experience of the mystery which is different from the dogma about it. The personal experience of God that the saints have is the experience of the mystery and cannot be explained. The dogma is a rational formulation concerning the mystery or revelation which can be expressed best by those with “excellent intellectual gifts” who have had experience of God.[8]

Finally, Ecumenical Councils are not the highest authority within the Church. Instead, as Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk writes, “The final criterion for the acceptance or rejection of an ecumenical council was not the fact of its convocation, but the consensus regarding its ‘acceptance,’ which was achieved only later, when the local churches handed down their verdict on a particular council.”[9] We see this in subsequent Ecumenical Councils which begin with the approval of all the previous Councils.[10]

 

Metropolitan Kallistos observes in his introduction to the Tridion that not only is there a historical link between the events surrounding the Seventh Ecumenical Council and the celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy on the first Sunday of Lent, but there is also a “spiritual affinity.” This spiritual affinity is between the ascetic labours of the first week of Great Lent and the martyric struggles of the defenders of the faith. He writes:

If Orthodoxy triumphed in the epoch of the iconoclast controversy, this was because so many of the faithful were prepared to undergo exile, torture, and even death, for the sake of the truth. The Feast of Orthodoxy is above all a celebration in honour of the martyrs and confessors who struggled and suffered for the faith: hence its appropriateness for the season of Lent, when we are striving to imitate the martyrs by means of our ascetic self-denial.[11]

Yet in the midst of these struggles are found moments of light and joy as we find at the end of this first week wherein we now celebrate the labours of those who have gone before us. The labours that resulted in the triumph of light over darkness, orthodoxy over heresy. This is summed up well in the Apostica sang last night at Vespers which says:

Advancing from ungodliness to the true faith, and illumined with the light of knowledge, let us clap our hands and sing aloud, offering praise and thanksgiving to God; and with due honour let us venerate the holy icons of Christ, of the all-pure Virgin and the saints, whether depicted on walls, on wooden panels or on holy vessels, rejecting the impious teaching of the heretics.  For, as Basil says, the honour shown to the icon passes to the prototype it represents.  At the prayers of Thine undefiled Mother and of all the saints, we beseech Thee, Christ our God, to bestow upon us Thy great mercy.

AMEN.

[1] Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1964), 38.

[2] Ibid., 41.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kidd, Fr. David and Ursache, Mother Gabriella. Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion (Rives Junction: HDM Press, 2005), 65.

[5] Alfeyev, Metropolitan Hilarion. Orthodox Christianity: The History and Canonical Structure of the Orthodox Church (Yonkers: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 1:59.

[6] Hierotheos, Metropolitan of Nafpaktos. “I Know a Man in Christ”: Elder Sophrony the Hesychast and Theologian (Levadia: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2015), 28-29.

[7] Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1964), 28.

[8] See Hierotheos, Metroplitan of Nafpaktos. Empirical Dogmatics of the Orthodox Church According to the Spoken Teaching of Father John Romanides (Levadia: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2012) 1:98-99.

[9] Alfeyev, Metropolitan Hilarion. Orthodox Christianity: The History and Canonical Structure of the Orthodox Church (Yonkers: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 1:63.

[10] This can be seen in Canon 1 of the Second Ecumenical Council where the decrees of the First Ecumenical Council are affirmed. More to our point, in speaking of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Canon 1 of its Twenty-Two Canons affirms the previous six Ecumenical Councils, saying, “We welcome and embrace the divine Canons, and we corroborate the entire and rigid fiat of them that have been set forth by the renowned Apostles, who were and are trumpets of the Spirit, and those both of the six holy Ecumenical Councils and of the ones assembled regionally for the purpose of setting forth such edicts, and of those of our holy Fathers…”

[11] Mother Mary and Ware, Archimandrite Kallistos (trans.) The Lenten Triodion (South Canaan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2002), 51-52.




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