Sermon: Sunday of Orthodoxy
Below is the sermon on the Sunday of Orthodoxy from the book "The Cross Stands, While the World Turns" by Father John Behr.
Fr John looks at the historical reason for celebrating the Sunday of Orthodoxy and explains the significance for us today.
We have now completed the first week of Lent, and we arrive at what is known as the Sunday of Orthodox. This description is not simply a general reference to orthodoxy, and it is certainly not a congratulatory pat on the back after getting through the first week of Lent!
As we all should know, it commemorates the restoration of the icons, after two periods of iconoclasm, two periods when, for various reasons, iconography was prohibited, icons were destroyed, and those who defended the icons were persecuted. The first period ended with the Seventh Ecumenical Council, at Nicaea, in 787. Then, after another period of iconoclasm, the holy icons were definitively restored, on the first Sunday of Lent in 843, thereafter known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
The key theological teaching defended by the Second Council of Nicaea is that as Christ is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), we are able to depict him in colors; that iconography is a theological statement, an affirmation of our faith.
This has two further important consequences. First, that we do not look elsewhere to try to see or understand who and what God is: in Christ, the fullness of divinity dwells bodily (Col. 2:9) – the fullness: we do not find God elsewhere, by some other means. Second, the holy icons are not simply religious art. We don't place them in our churches and houses simply for decoration. While reflecting different artistic schools, icons are properly a theological statement, reflecting the transformative power of God at work in Christ: the light who shines in darkness, illuminating the darkness; the one who shows that the form of a servant is in fact the lordly form; the one who by his death destroys death.
The icons are a witness to this and continue to communicate this transformation for those who have eyes to see.
As the apostles depicted Christ in words, we also depict him in colors, including all the aspects of his work of salvation, all the various events we celebrate. We also depict all those who have put on Christ, all those in whose lives, words, and deeds we can see the Spirit of Christ breathing – the Theotokos and all the prophets, apostles, martyrs and saints of every age. We do not treat the icons as magic idols or ethnic art, and we certainly do not worship creation rather than the Creator; but venerating the icons, we pay honor to the ones depicted on them, and so worship the one God.
Such is the historical reason for celebrating this Sunday as the Sun’ day of Orthodoxy.
But there is more that we can take away from this commemoration today. Before the first Sunday of Lent commemorated the restoration of the icons, it was given over to remembering the prophets. This is why we had the readings from the Gospel and Epistle that we had today and why we heard much about the prophets in the hymnography last night.
In a very real sense, the confirmation of the icons is a reaffirmation of the prophets: what they had foretold, the icons confirm. So we just heard Philip telling Nathanael that “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth" (John 1:45). It is this that the icons confirm: Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ spoken of by the prophets, has come visibly in flesh.
When we turn our attention to the Epistle reading, we are taken a step further. There we heard of the sufferings endured by the prophets as they looked to the things that God had planned for us; or as we sang last night: "they refused to worship the creation instead of the Creator; they renounced the whole world for the Gospel’s sake, and in their suffering they were conformed to thy Passion which they had foretold."
The prophets, by concentrating all their hearts and strength on the promise of God – the gospel – by refusing to compromise with the world and enduring all the suffering that this entails, were themselves conformed to Christ's Passion, becoming images of Christ.
Make no mistake about this. It is to this that we also are called: to be icons ourselves, by being crucified with Christ, by being conformed to his image, by living the life that he opens up for us, the life of God himself.
The Epistle concluded by reminding us that, surrounded by a cloud of witnesses – all these icons, saints who have conformed themselves to Christ – we are ourselves to throw off everything that hinders us from running the race set before us, to lay aside every weight that holds us back, every sin and passion that attaches our heart to things in this world rather than to Christ.
We are, the Epistle says, to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the Cross, despising the shame, so that he now sits at the right hand of the Father.
These are truly striking words, if we allow ourselves to hear the challenge and hope that they contain! Nietzsche's most devastating criticism of Christians was that they have no joy! Yet these words from the Epistle place joy right at the heart of the faith.
The orthodoxy that we celebrate today is not fulfilled by having the right answers to particular questions, nor by preserving traditions for the sake of their antiquity or particular practices because we think that they will make us better Christians. No. The orthodoxy that we celebrate today is that of having our attention captivated by, our gaze fixed upon, our ears opened to, and our hearts enthralled with our Lord Jesus Christ. He is for us the beginning and the end of all things; he is the one who began our faith, and he is the one who will bring it to fulfillment.
For the joy that was set before him, he endured the Passion, and only by having his joy before us are we able to set our hearts on high, above the things of this world, focused on the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, so that he can conform us to his image.
Now, you don't need me to tell you how difficult this is; that is why the Epistle speaks as forcefully as it can. It is also, of course, why we are given the gift of Lent. Lent is a gift, not an endurance test, a set of arduous tasks we have to go through, so that we come out the other side satisfied with ourselves. No! Lent is a gift given to us so that we can learn where our true life is, and so come to know the joy given in Christ, the joy which alone can sustain us in this world.
I would suggest that What prevents most of us from experiencing this joy is not that we are living in great wickedness – murder, licentiousness, heresy; but that we have become numb to the gifts which God has bestowed upon us. We have become so familiar with our inheritance that we all too easily become insensitive to the challenge it contains and the path it opens up for us. We are also so bombarded in our consumerist society with the continual thrill of getting ever more – consumed by consumption, worshipping the creature rather than the Creator – that we are blind to that to which created reality points us.
The Apostle is very clear about the goal that is set before all of us: he proclaims that we have all been “predestined to be conformed to the image of the Son of God” (Rom. 8:29). We are re-shaped to be like Christ, to be clothed in him, to bear his image. “Those whom God foreknew," Paul writes, “he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, and those whom he predestined, he also called, and those he called he also justified, and those he justified he also glorified" (Rom. 8:30). If this is what God has planned for us, then there is no better time to begin taking our destiny seriously than right now, in this time of Great Lent, this forty – day gift of God to us.
If we are willing to say, “Amen” to the divine and saving plan of God for us, if we want to willingly cooperate with his working in us and for us, then it would be a mistake to think about the gift of Lent solely, or even primarily, in terms of dietary ingredients, church attendance, extra prayers and prostrations, or even about something as crucial and obligatory as giving to the poor. As absolutely necessary as these things are, we all know that we can dutifully perform all of them year in and year out, season after season, and still be left at the end of Lent only a little more worn out, a little thinner perhaps, even a little more pleased at our personal performance, but at the core of our being fundamentally unchanged – no more loving, no more joyful, no more thankful; in short, no more godly than when we began.
Lent becomes for us then a useless gift, something we have to “deal with.” It is something we have to “get through,” changing our diet and practices for forty days. But Lent is not about survival, about “getting through;” it is instead a “spring training” period that helps us reorient our lives in a manner that takes effect in every day of our life. Not, that is, that we should simply abstain from those things we have done without for forty days, but rather that by doing without them for a period, we begin to realize that we don’t depend upon them, but rather upon God who bestows all blessings, and that every good gift from God is a blessing to the extent that we share with others in a spirit of thanksgiving.
Lent is an intense period provided for us to focus again on what should be the content of every moment of our life – our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the beginning, the middle, and the end of Lent because he is the Alpha and the Omega of all creation – the first word and the last word of life itself – who, again, for the joy set before him accepted the Cross so that we might live, so that we might taste this joy as we also begin living, not for ourselves, but for God and others.
The transforming power offered to us in Lent doesn't originate here below in the human realm where we muddle along with our eyes on the ground or closed in slothfulness or sleep. Lent is our chance to look up, to wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. As the first Christians said: Maranatha! Our Lord is coming!
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