As the Prophets saw, as the Apostles have taught, as the Church has received, as the Teachers express in dogma, as the inhabited world understands and agrees together with them, as Grace illumines, as Truth has revealed, as falsehood and error have been banished, as Wisdom makes bold to declare, as Christ has assured, so we think, so we believe, so we speak, so we preach, and so we declare Christ our true God, and honor His Saints, in words, in writings, in thoughts, in deeds, in sacrifices, in churches, in holy icons, worshipping and adoring the One as God and Lord, and honoring them who are close to Him and serve Him as true servants of the Master of all, and giving to them due veneration. This is the Faith of the Apostles! This is the Faith of the Fathers! This is the Faith of the Orthodox! This Faith has established the Universe and makes fast the inhabited world!
(From the Synodikon of the Sunday of Orthodoxy)
This day, the Holy Church commemorates the victory of Orthodoxy over heresies and the restoration of holy icons for veneration by the faithful in churches and homes. It is why this day is also called the “Sunday of Orthodoxy”. The Synaxarion explains that the day celebrates “the restoration of the holy and venerable icons”, which happened in the first half of the 9th century (in 842) “by the Byzantine Emperor Michael, the holy and blessed Empress Theodora, and the Holy Methodius, Patriarch of Constantinople”.
This commemoration was established to celebrate the final victory of the Holy Church over the iconoclastic heresy. In the hymns for this day, the Holy Church, glorifying the holy icons, and also its right-believing adherents and inspiring in us the obligation of venerating icons, sings: “A feast of joy and gladness is revealed to us today. For the teachings of the true Faith shine in all their glory, and the Church of Christ is bright with splendor, adorned with the holy icons which now have been restored; and God has granted to the faithful unity of mind.” “
On this, the first Sunday of Great Lent, a pious brightness stretches over all, dispersing the flattery of the impious like a cloud, enlightening the hearts of all pious Orthodox Catholic Christians. Holy Mother Church calls to us saying: Come! O faithful children come! Come let us fall down with pious wisdom before the honorable icons of Christ, worshipping in the Orthodox way, and with due honor let us venerate the holy icons of Christ, of the all-pure Virgin, of the prophets, the martyrs, and the saints, whether depicted on walls, on wooden panels or on holy vessels, rejecting the impious teaching of the heretics.”
The Holy Church, at the time of victory over the iconoclasts in Her struggles against various heresies, finally explained and defined in the canons of the Seventh Ecumenical Council the Orthodox Catholic teaching that is the celebrated event we call the Triumph of Orthodoxy. It does not mean that after the 10th Century heresies would or could not appear anymore; but it means that all following heresies, even though they were numerous and various, find their accusation and refutation in the definitions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils.
The victory of Orthodoxy in the Greek Church itself was first celebrated on the first Sunday of Great Lent, thus the basis of the present celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy is firmly rooted in history. We therefore continue and hold fast to what our forefathers and foremothers began and handed down to us through the ages.
The Holy Church, through the celebration of the present day, means to grant great comfort to Her children who attend divine services. This intention agrees with the rules of faith and piety and the ascetic effort of the fast. The Church sees in this celebration of the triumph of Orthodoxy, and the rites which attend it, the proof of the faithful’s living communion according to their faith and life and finds in this the foundation for the prayerful petition to God for them.
In a few moments, we will serve the special Rite of Orthodoxy composed by St. Methodius. This service may seem quite harsh, especially to those among us who are not Orthodox Catholic, but the celebration and commemoration of the restoration of honoring and venerating the holy and venerable icons was annually prescribed “from that time these holy confessors appointed the annual commemoration of this solemnity, so that we might never again fall into a similar ignominy.”
Every generation faces its own heresies, its own false teachings, that require a defense drawn from the faith. Here in America, Orthodox Catholic Christians are confronted with many heresies. We live in a very increasingly secular society that does not believe as the Church has believed for more than 2,000 years. Truth and morality are, for most people today, relative. For many in our country, there are no moral absolutes.
Things work differently here. We have no emperor. We have no patriarch, at least not yet. What we have is the public square to debate and settle our differences, and that public square is often a noisy, raucous, and sometimes unfair place. Do you wonder why moral questions become political issues sometimes? That is why. Do you ask yourself why people get so emotionally invested in what otherwise would be private affairs? That is why too. Do you wish that sometimes the emotional temperature could be lowered a few degrees? I do too, but usually, it does not happen.
There are huge questions being debated today. Gay marriage, what constitutes a family, greed in the marketplace, our relationship to the environment, who should live and who should die – all sorts of question that portend a very different society down the road depending on how they are answered. But here too, we have to take a closer look. And, if you look closely past the immediate political posturing on the many sides of these issues, you will see that they pose this common question: What does it mean to be a human being? From the Orthodox Catholic point of view, we would sharpen that question even further: Who did God create us to be?
In theological language, we call this an “anthropological” question. “Anthropological” comes from the Greek word “Anthropos” which means, “man.” The question behind many of the questions in our culture today is really a question about what it means to be a human being – Who did God create us to be?
From that question flows a thousand others that crystallize around a handful of secondary ones — How do I understand myself? How do I understand others? How do I relate to others? How do I relate to the physical world around me? What is my responsibility to my neighbor?
I said earlier that this celebration, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, commemorates the restoration of icons that was really the restoration of the Orthodox Catholic faith. I also said that every generation faces their heresies, the false teachings, in its own time and way. I said too that in America, we have these great conflicts, but they express themselves in a different way. With that in mind, the Sunday of Orthodoxy is very relevant for America, especially the America we live in today.
The direct, no-nonsense, in-your-face reality of the Rite of Orthodoxy which we are about to celebrate is much like a sharp slap in the face, one that is intended to shock us out of our stupor, stupidity and ignorance and open our eyes to the dangerous road we are traveling on, a road that leads directly to destruction and annihilation. The anathemas which will be proclaimed are not symbolic. They are real. You will hear anathemas that have been proclaimed since 842 A.D., and you will hear anathema of heresies that have come into existence since then, even heresies which have developed and are being propagated in our own times.
The Truth does not change. The Truth endures forever. It is eternal. The Rite of Orthodoxy proclaims this in no uncertain terms. In the Rite of Orthodoxy, the Church declares and affirms all that has been handed down to Her from the Apostles and the Fathers. Nothing will change that. Yet, if the Church will not unabashedly proclaim, teach, and defend the Truth, then She is not being faithful to Christ and the mission He has entrusted to Her. And God, being a good God who loves mankind, philanthropos (translated as “the lover or mankind” or sometimes “the friend of man”), just might find another way to give it to them.
Orthodoxy has always been closely tied to culture. In fact, you cannot have religion without a corresponding cultural expression of it. Put another way, religious faith enervates, vivifies, makes alive, the culture in which we live. Religion is the ground of culture. The tradition is the structure that shapes culture so that culture itself points to and references the deepest truth of all – the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Orthodox Catholic Christianity, with its rich comprehension of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, speaks the truth to all people clearly and concisely. It is infused with the Light of Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is this reality which we proclaim and celebrate today.
The truth is often never easy to accept, and it is always difficult to hear. But I believe that all people, especially our brothers and sisters here in America, need to hear the Truth that Orthodoxy so fervently and ardently proclaims, upholds, and defends.
If we continue steadfast in our Faith, then we remain faithful to the legacy bequeathed to us that we celebrate and commemorate today. We can stand with the assurance and resolve that we too are meeting the challenge of our generation in the same way that Orthodox Catholics did over 2,000 years ago.
Ours is the Faith of the Apostles! Ours is the Faith of the Fathers! Ours is the Faith of the Orthodox Catholic Christians! This Faith has established the Universe and makes fast the inhabited world! God save, protect, strengthen, and prosper the Orthodox Catholic Faith and Church and all Orthodox Catholic Christians.