During this past week we made a beginning in Great Lent. We call the first week of Lent “Clean Week”, because it is a time when we cleanse ourselves, spiritually, through prayer and fasting – through long church services, through abstaining from food, through silence and by separating ourselves from the every-day noise and distractions that draw us away from the remembrance of God.
Clean Week is a great “break” – a clean separation from the feasts and frivolity that often precede it, and we find our souls stripped away from the stench and baggage of bad habits, and sins. In this space that the Church gives us to aid in our repentance – this first great leap into Lent – many people experience the sense of “metanoia”, or “changing one’s mind” – turning back to God, and they vow to make a new and a good beginning, with God’s help, during this time. This is thebeginning of repentance.
And it is of no small significance that on the Sunday following Clean Week we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy. After the quiet and ascetical sobriety of Clean Week, the whole Church meets together on the day of Our Lord’s Resurrection to joyfully proclaim with one voice:
This is the true Faith!
This is the Faith of the Apostles!
This is the Orthodox Faith!
The Faith that established the universe!
For on this Sunday we are not simply remembering the historical event of the triumph of the Orthodox faith over iconoclasm. Taken in the context of Clean Week and our personal spiritual struggle during this time, we must remember that the Triumph of Orthodoxy in the soul of each one of us is the goal of Great Lent. Indeed the triumph of Orthodoxy over falsehood, sin, the passions and the machinations of the devil – following the “royal path” towards Christ in the Orthodox Faith – this is the goal of our entire lives.
We are called, as Christians, to be a light to the world, to be the salt of the Earth, to witness to Christ, and not to be ashamed of Him, lest He be ashamed of us on that Day. We are to give account of our faith, to “speak the Truth in Love.” Yes, we must use words, but even more so, our very life must confirm the Gospel. If we confess the truth of the Holy Orthodox faith with our mouth, we must live it daily in our lives as well. To quote Abba Poeman of the desert, we must teach our heart to say what is in our mouth – when we recite the Creed, when we read the Great Canon of St. Andrew, when we read the prayers of the Church, the liturgical prayers, our morning and evening prayers, our Communion prayers, and so on. We must make the prayers of the Church our prayers, and the truths of the Church our truths. We must make the Church our very life and reason for being – the air we breathe, the food we eat and the blood in our veins. St. Hilarion Troitsky spoke very bluntly and to the point when he asserted: “Only the Church lends purpose and value to one’s existence on earth; Only service to the Church, in my belief and conviction, lends purpose and value to our activity on Earth; …if you do not serve the Church – there is no sense in any activity whatsoever; and there is no sense in continuing to live on Earth.”
And so here we see that Clean Week and the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy are really two very necessary sides of the same coin. During Clean Week, we make an attempt to separate ourselves not only from all that is harmful to us, but from everything that distracts us from your yearning for Christ. All outside influence, heavy foods and alcohol, music, noise and distraction are banished totally in order to set the right atmosphere and condition for repentance, to “be still and know that I am God.”
On the Sunday of Orthodoxy, when we pronounce, along with the whole Church, the anathemas, are we somehow condemning people in the spirit or wrath and anger? Taking a kind of perverse joy in the damnation of others? God forbid, no! This is not what this Sunday is about. Rather, in the same way that we separate and set aside all harmful influences during Clean Week, the church very clearly identifies all the heretical and blasphemous teaching that can enter into the soul like a poison and sets then aside once and for all. For God create us all with Free Will, and God wants us to enter into the Communion of Love with Him freely. Yet we also have the free will to go astray. And on this Sunday, the Church identifies those teachings which can and do lead people astray, and like a poison, they enter into the soul and have the ability to lead a soul to eternal death.
A skilled doctor, out of love and in order to save his patient, must first identify the disease if he is to provide a cure. These anathamas today are the identification by the Church of the spiritual diseases that lead to death, in the hope of leading people towards spiritual health – towards repentance, towards the Church, and to Christ.
St. Ignati Brianchaninov explains: “There is no Orthodoxy in human teachings and philosophies. False reason reigns in them – the fruit of the fall. Orthodoxy is the teaching of the Holy Spirit given by God to man for his salvation. Where there is no Orthodoxy, there is no salvation.”
Yet we must not be too prideful of our own individual virtues and efforts as Orthodox Christians, for we are all spiritually weak in these last times. It seems these days that the enemies of the Faith and of God’s Church are multiplying rapidly and becoming more hateful and enraged. The minions of the Antichrist have their canons fixed on the Holy Church and all that is good, true, and decent. To witness to Christ in our time will become increasingly difficult. It is true that right now, 80% of religious persecution around the globe is against Christians – and by persecution, we mean beatings, torture, imprisonment, exile, starvation, enslavement, dismemberment, harassment and death. But really, it has always been this way. This is simply the way of the Cross – the way to follow Christ. Just witness the suffering that Christians had to endure during the years of Iconoclasm, and especially monks who were in the frontlines in the battle for holy icons and Holy Orthodoxy. Monasteries were closed. Churches destroyed. Monks were beaten, their eyes gouged out, their noses cut off, and icons were smashed over their heads. The fingers of iconographers were burnt off. This has been going on since the day that Christ died on the Cross for us, and he told us: The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you. (John 15:20) Yet we must be accounted worthy in God’s eyes to be granted the honor to suffer for Christ in such a manner, and it is God who grants those who love him the grace, the strength and the courage to endure all this, and we can do nothing apart from God’s grace. Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy Name give glory, for Thy mercy and Thy truth’s sake. (Psalm 115:1)
Even more than this, though, the fathers call monasticism a “daily martyrdom.” God gives us everything that we need for our salvation right where we are.
And so, in the first week of Great Lent, the Church lifts us up on these two wings: Orthopraxy – that is, prayer fasting, psalmody, prostrations, almsgiving, and so on, and Orthodoxy – or “right worship” and “right belief”. If we only use one of these two wings, we just go in circles and spiral downward. And if we neglect both of them, we plummet headlong to the ground. Both of these wings – Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy – are necessary in order to be lifted up to the Heavens by the breath of the Holy Spirit.
So today, my brothers and sisters in Christ, let us follow the example of our holy fathers in the faith – of the saints, the apostles, and the martyrs – emulating their lives and confessing the truth of our Faith, not just in word but in deed. Let us follow the Church rubrics and keep the fast not out of empty ritual or dead legalism, but out of love for God and for our neighbor – in prayer and in yearning for Christ. In this way, our very lives, like the lives of each and every saint, can become with God’s help and by God’s grace – a Triumph of Orthodoxy. Amen.