The first Sunday of Great and Holy Lent is called the Sunday of Orthodoxy. At Divine services we listen to the story of the first gathering of the disciples around Christ. The Lord says of one of them, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit.” (John 1:47)
Why is this particular gospel read on the Sunday of Orthodoxy is the question that St. John of Kronstadt asks and then proceeds to give us an answer. “Because the Lord’s words indicate to us the character of a true Christian, an Orthodox Christian, and also the character of Christ’s true Orthodox Church. In other words, here is a Church in which there is no deceit, no vain human intrigues, a Church which in its entirety bears the truth in all of its teachings, sacraments and in all of its principles.”
This feast day was established, brothers and sisters, sometime in the middle of the 9th century, in the year 842. It was preceded by a long and exhausting battle for the holy icons. Together with the struggle for keeping the icons in the churches, a battle raged for the overall teaching of the Church, for its very essence and survival. By rejecting icons, the iconoclasts were consequently beginning to reject other church dogmas and precepts as well. Together with the victory over the iconoclasts, a complete battle over the Church was won, therefore the significance of this day is much broader, and the feast has been called the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy.
This is a unique opportunity among countless other opportunities for us to reflect on what Orthodoxy means to us, and how we see our role in the Holy Orthodox Church.
Even with all the joy that the feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy brings, we are well aware that the battle is nowhere near its end and that may more battles lie ahead. Saint Bishop Nikolai says that the date this battle ends is the date of the end of time.
He goes on to say that “Orthodoxy is the greatest miracle in the history of the humanity. Without the help of material wealth, outside resources, military force, politics or any kind of rigid organization it happily survived a journey twenty centuries long. As old as Christianity itself, eastern Orthodoxy represents a magnificent epic of both voluntary and inflicted suffering and endurance. Our ancestors suffered for five centuries for the Honorable Cross and generation after generation were burned at this stake of suffering like dry leaves in a blazing furnace. All of the Christian Balkans suffered. We ought to be proud, said Saint Bishop Nikolai, yet humble before God in our pride, that it was our ancestors that were given the heaviest cross of suffering in the Balkans in the past five hundred years. Orthodoxy in Asia and Africa has burned in the blaze of suffering for twelve centuries. The Church in Armenia is the champion of long-suffering for the Cross, for her torments never ceased since the martyrdom under the Roman Empire. The Church in Russia suffered great torment under the Mongols for two centuries, while voluntary suffering in Russia is as old as Christianity itself.”
From the very beginning of Christianity through its tormented history, there has only ever been suffering. Orthodoxy is a religion of suffering and of sufferers. St. Paul the Apostle talks about the suffering of his fellow Christians and foresees a road of martyrdom for generations and generations of his descendants and followers. We read his words on mockery and beatings, chains and dungeons. He says that “they were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented, of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.” (Hebrews 11:37-38) Even today, if we consider ourselves Orthodox, we must open our eyes wide and see that wherever our holy faith has taken root, some dark force from Hades sows evil and misfortunes on innocent Christians. Events in Russia, Armenia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Serbia speak for themselves.
Orthodoxy has been beset by so much evil, so many lies and so much propaganda that it is no wonder that many have become tired and given up and are drowning in the vast sea of faithlessness or have fallen into the Protestant trap of easy “instant” salvation. Aside from all this suffering, our faith is under no circumstances easy. It requires sacrifice. “In order to be true Orthodox Christians we must, first of all, have live and uninterrupted contact with the Orthodox Church, which means that we must partake in its prayers, its teachings and sacraments. We must study it carefully, fulfill everything and live in the spirit of our faith. We must obey its commandments, precepts and cannons, but most importantly,” says St. John of Kronstadt, “it is with earnestness and deep repentance that we must bring out in ourselves the true Orthodox Christian, following the example of ancient and contemporary elders and above all, the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy strengthens our hope and belief that the Church of Christ is invincible in spite of all the forces of evil of this world. In the words of our Bishop Nikolai, “the Church is waging a war, and so are individuals. Some individuals may lose a battle, but the Church cannot lose the war. Some losses may be documented on certain fronts, but the whole front of Church has never experienced defeat. Hence the lesson, or rather the commandment of the Feast of Orthodoxy that each Orthodox Christian must strive to win his or her personal battles. Old victories can certainly help us, but they cannot save us. The victories of our fathers are part of our heritage which we must preserve and enhance with our own victories.”
And this is where we come back to the subject of our own place in the Orthodox Church. “Many will say that one can please God no matter which religion he or she belongs to and that every religion is a God-pleasing one, as though God was ignorant of the difference between lies and truth, justice and injustice,” says St. John of Kronstadt. “Those who choose to think this way would benefit by learning that our faith is as old as humanity itself, that it came directly from God as well as the fact that people of all races, genders and professions lived and worked on their salvation within our faith; kings and philosophers, writers of the law and orators, illustrious and the humble, rich and poor, male and female – the pride of humanity.” We may be soft, over-tolerant and indecisive, but there are others who are not, as you know and can clearly see. If it were true that all religions were pleasing to God, would the Muslims from all over the world attack Orthodoxy with such bloodthirsty violence? If that were the case, would not the Vatican have left us alone, once and for all? Would sectarians from East and West still be circling our homes in the hope of ensnaring someone that is dear to us?
The Church of Christ and our beautiful Orthodox faith will never disappear, but we will, unless we come to our senses and return to our roots. As an illustration of our relationship to our Orthodox faith I will recount Saint Bishop Nikolai’s story about good stewardship.
“There was a good and rich man who, as he neared the end of his life, called his sons to him and said: see, my children, the vast estate that I bequeath to you. I did not create this estate alone. My great-great grandfather started it. My great-grandfather worked on it and made it greater. My grandfather inherited this enlarged property, preserved it and added to it. My father inherited all of it and added on to it and I have done the same. It is your turn now. As in the changing of the guards, I am about to leave and you are about to take my place. As my last will, I leave to you three duties that my father also left to me. Your first duty is to preserve this estate in its entirety. The second is to add to it with your own sweat and toiling and the third is to leave this preserved and augmented estate to your sons. Is this not the image of God’s Church from generation to generation?” This is the question that Bishop Nikolai asks.
It is my turn now to ask of you to examine your lives and to see whether there is a place for each one of us in this image of the Holy Orthodox Church that Saint Bishop Nikolai presents to us so vividly. Our very survival in the vast and glorious family of Orthodox peoples depends on this. I wish all of you all the best as you set off on this journey of self-examination and discovery.