We have come to the end of the first week of the holy salvific, and great Lent.
We heard the prayerful canon of Saint Andrew of Crete, in which we recalled people and events from the history of the Church, the history of humanity. But it is not for the sake of a history lesson that we gathered in church each evening. While hearing about the sinners of old who lived thousands of years ago in far-away places, we sorrowfully recognized our own sins. But it turns out that from the righteous ones we are truly separated by thousands of years and miles.
Today, on the first Sunday of Great Lent, we recall one more event from Church history. In memory of the defeat of the iconoclast heresy, the Holy Church established in the 9th century the feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. This heresy, which tormented the Body of Christ for over a century, was condemned at the seventh Ecumenical Council and again by the Synod of Constantinople, the period of Christological debates within the Church came to an end, and the Orthodox teaching was re-established.
The iconoclast heresy rejected not only the icon as a window through which a ray of light may shine into the darkened human soul, but also the Orthodox teaching about Christ as fully God and fully human in the hypostasis of God the Son.
But, like everything in the Church, this feast is established not merely for historiographic reasons, and it is not by accident that the Fathers of the Church established this feast on the first Sunday of Great Lent. The Triumph of Orthodoxy in the soul of each one of us is the goal of Great Lent, triumph over falsehood, heresy, and the snares of the devil, and achieving Orthodoxy in our souls is the goal of our whole life. And one of the central issues of the Orthodox state of our soul and our life is the question of Who Christ is for us and how we worship Him. It is precisely this question that Christ posed to His disciples (Matthew 16:15), and upon the rock of Peter’s answer established His Church (Matthew 16:18).
In the end, it is an incorrect answer to this question that defines every heresy. “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). Only God, Who appeared in human form as a ghost, a mirage? Only human - a great prophet who knows the mysteries of God - but only human? Whom did the Most Holy Virgin bear - a human, who was destined to become the chosen vessel of the Holy Spirit, or pre-eternal God Himself?
Finally, which prototype does the Church venerate in the icon - undescribable and unimaginable God, Whom no one has ever seen (John 1:18), a created Body, which can be depicted but is a creature like all others, or the incarnate hypostasis of God the Son? How do we relate to Christ? As a hired servant, expecting to receive our reward according to a contract, as an accused man who is sure of his acquittal because someone else took the blame for his crime, or as a person dying from a fatal illness who entrusts his life to the hands of a merciful Physician, begging for healing? Each heresy found its own answers to these questions, and each time the Church Fathers rose up to defend the Orthodox teaching.
This is why our Church is holy, apostolic, and patristic. It is holy, because it is created by the Holy Spirit Who sanctifies, enlightens, cleanses, and makes the Church whiter than snow. The Spirit of God prepares the Church, the bride of Christ, to stand before the Divine Groom blameless, untarnished by sin, falsehood, and heresy.
We call the Church Apostolic, because the apostles, the pillars of the Church, having received God’s grace on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) and authority from Christ to bind and loose for the salvation of human souls (Matthew 16:19), freely gave this Grace through bishops to the entire Church. As grapes do not grow other than on a grapevine, in the same way there cannot be a Church without a bishop. Without apostolic succession there can only be a club of amateur gardeners who get together to read gardening manuals, but there cannot be a Church.
We call the Church patristic because the holy fathers brought the fruits of righteous life and true theology on Christ’s vine, from which we eat, being strengthened in our life and faith.
The Holy Orthodox Church, our loving mother, protects us, her children, from all evil. And gives us only the healthiest and most nutritious fruits, and shields us from harmful and poisonous things. We, in turn, often do not listen to the mother’s advice and run from good. Even worse, we begin to puff up with pride, imagining that we are more educated, wiser, and more spiritual than the holy fathers, and that the path that led them to salvation is not acceptable for us, that it is archaic, that we know better which rules and rubrics to follow and which ones to ignore. To borrow a description from the Protodeacon Andrei Kuraev, we act like a person who enters the cockpit of a modern jetliner and, not comprehending the purpose behind the controls, declares that half of them are unnecessary; or as a person who has not even passed Biology 101, but enters a neurosurgeon’s office and declares that half of the surgical instruments are useless because he does not understand their purpose.
It is just as unintelligent to come to the tree of the Church, not knowing how to grow and ripen fruit, and to declare that the roots are unnecessary, the trunk can be cut down, the branches broken off. It is not for us to create the Church, “I will create”, says Christ. Ours is either to be in it and bear fruit or to be cut off from the Church and to entertain ourselves by reading gardening manuals.
Let us then, brothers and sisters, follow the spirit of the holy fathers and apostles, emulating their lives. Let us follow the Church rubrics and keep the fast. Let us live our lives in such a way that the Triumph of Orthodoxy, defeat of heresy, may become the state of our souls and not merely a historic event.
We venerate Your most pure image, O Good One,
and ask forgiveness of our transgressions, O Christ God.
Of Your own will You were pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh
to deliver Your creatures from slavery to the enemy.
Therefore with thanksgiving we cry aloud to You,
"You have filled all with joy, O our Savior,
by coming to save the world.
No one could describe the Word of the Father,
but when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos, He accepted to be described,
and restored the fallen image to its former beauty.
We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images.
After the beheading of Saint John, his body was buried by his disciples in the Samaritan city of Sebaste, and his venerable head was hidden by Herodias in an unclean place. Saint Joanna, the wife of King Herod’s steward Chuza (Luke 8:3), secretly took the holy head and placed it into a vessel and buried it on the Mount of Olives in one of Herod’s properties.
After many years, this property passed into the possession of a government official who became a monk with the name of Innocent. He built a church and a cell there. When they started to dig the foundation, the vessel with the venerable head of John the Baptist was uncovered. Innocent recognized its great holiness from the signs of grace emanating from it. Thus occurred the First Finding of the Head.
Innocent preserved it with great piety, but fearful that the holy relic might be abused by unbelievers, before his own death he again hid it in that same place, where it was found. Upon his death the church fell into ruin and was destroyed.
During the days of Saint Constantine the Great, when Christianity began to flourish, the holy Forerunner appeared twice to two monks journeying to Jerusalem on pilgrimage to the holy places, and he revealed the location of his venerable head.
The monks uncovered the holy relic and, placing it into a sack of camel-hair, they proceeded homewards. Along the way they encountered an unnamed potter and gave him the precious burden to carry. Not knowing what he was carrying, the potter continued on his way. But the holy Forerunner appeared to him and ordered him to flee from the careless and lazy monks, with what he held in his hands. The potter concealed himself from the monks and at home he preserved the venerable head with reverence. Before his death he placed it in a water jug and gave it to his sister.
From that time the venerable head was successively preserved by devout Christians, until the priest Eustathius (infected with the Arian heresy) came into possession of it. He beguiled a multitude of the infirm who had been healed by the holy head, ascribing their cures to the fact that it was in the possession of an Arian. When his blasphemy was uncovered, he was compelled to flee. After he buried the holy relic in a cave, near Emesa, the heretic intended to return later and use it for disseminating falsehood. God, however, did not permit this. Pious monks settled in the cave, and then a monastery arose at this place. In the year 452 Saint John the Baptist appeared to Archimandrite Marcellus of this monastery, and indicated where his head was hidden. This became celebrated as the Second Finding. The holy relic was transferred to Emesa, and later to Constantinople.
The head of the Forerunner rose from the earth as a star,
brilliant with rays of healing and immortality.
It gathers the choirs of angels in heaven,
and assembles the human race on earth
to sing with one voice the glory of Christ our God.
O Prophet of God and Forerunner of Grace,
Your head has blossomed from the earth as a sacred rose.
We are ever being healed,
for as of old, You preach repentance to the world.