This sermon was delivered by Fr John Erickson at the Triumph of Orthodoxy Vespers at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in East Meadow, New York on February 25, 2007
We are here today for our annual celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy – to commemorate an event from what is now the very distant past: the official and definitive reestablishment of the veneration of the holy icons after over a century of controversy and sporadic persecution, an event that took place in Constantinople on the first Sunday of Lent in 843 AD. It would be easy for the professor in me to use this as an opportunity for an extended lecture about this past event and its circumstances – to explain, for example, the role of the empress of the day, Theodora, whose name is mentioned repeatedly in the troparia for the matins canon for the day – counted 6-7 times. “Our devout and pious Empress.” And what about her son the God-crowned emperor Michael, who also is mentioned, but much less often? Just hearing their names and titles reminds us how distant that past event now is, how remote Byzantium is from our world today.
I could provide lots of details about such past events. I won’t, not simply because you might get bored, or because that wouldn’t really be a sermon. That wouldn’t really be history either. As one of my favorite historians, Henry Glassie, has observed: “History is not the past. History is a story about the past, told in the present, and designed to be useful in constructing the future.” On an occasion like this, we naturally look back at the past, and we remember that past with affection and gratitude and pride. But as we do so, we have to remember where we are today, in the present – in 21st century America, not in 9th century Byzantium, not in a world of pious empresses and God-crowned emperors. What story do we tell about our glorious past, by our words but also by our actions, when we gather for a pan-Orthodox vespers service like this one, when we are in our home parishes, when we go about our daily lives? How do we present Orthodoxy to ourselves and to others? How we answer says a lot about what kind of future we can expect for Orthodoxy in America.
This evening we made an impressive procession with icons and proclaimed the triumph of Orthodoxy over the heresy of iconoclasm with the solemn reading of the Synodikon of Orthodoxy. But today isn’t just about icons, however beautiful. And it’s not just about controversies from the distant past. As all of us know, as we have heard many times, the controversy over the icons was not just about interior decoration. It was about the significance of the incarnation, the central doctrine of our faith. Today we are commemorating the restoration of the icons in 843 AD, but in doing so we are celebrating the coming of God in the flesh, which for us is the central event in human history.
We believe that with the incarnation a radical change came about in God’s relation to the world. This is how St. John of Damascus puts it: “Of old God was not depicted at all. But now that God has appeared in the flesh and lived among humans, I make an image of the God who can be seen. I do not worship matter, but I worship the Creator of matter who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter brought about my salvation.” (On the Divine Images 1.16)
Matter, in other words, is not the opposite of spirit, as the iconoclasts seemed to think. We don’t become spiritual by escaping from matter, by somehow fleeing from the time and space of this world. It is in and through matter, the common stuff of this world, that God has revealed himself – has revealed his love, his mercy, his power and his glory. He has revealed himself, fully and definitively, in Jesus Christ, who is not a dematerialized spirit but truly human, flesh and blood, who entered into the time and space of this world for the salvation of this world.
This fundamental teaching is what justifies the making and veneration of icons. It also poses several challenges for us today, as we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy. A friend of mine, a very good Orthodox priest, says that he always dreads this Sunday. Why? Because so often our celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy becomes a testimony to the triumphalism of Orthodoxy.
Just consider what message we are sending – to ourselves and to others: We get together for this once-a-year event, we display the rich diversity of our traditions – in many places we hear a little Slavonic, a little Greek, a little Arabic, maybe a little Romanian, In some places there may be a pot-luck reception featuring an assortment of ethnic specialties for Lent. We pay lip service to the ideal of eventual structural unity. We rightly say that this is “inevitable,” but we act as though this will happen without our active engagement. We may even set forth our dreams for “making America Orthodox.” But most of the time we are content to congratulate ourselves on our “spiritual” unity – as though this is all we need.. Who are we kidding? We claim to value visible, structural unity because unity is an essential mark of the Church, not just a desirable option. We believe that unity can’t remain simply “spiritual. It can’t remain disincarnate. To be faithful to Orthodoxy, we must express our spiritual unity in tangible, material ways. But as we all know, on a global level just as on a national level, we are divided. And as a result, we give a less-than-credible witness to the world. We appear to be simply a collection of fractious ethnic groups, with little to say to each other, and even less to say to the world in which we live.
Let’s turn back to another aspect of the iconoclast controversy – an aspect of the past that we easily can miss. The dispute was not just about the place of images in the church. It was also about the place of the church in society. Opposition to the icons had been spearheaded by a series of emperors who not only had theological reservations about “image worship” but also wanted to assert their own supreme authority in all aspects of the life of the empire, religion included. Defenders of the icons objected to the emperors’ attempts to dictate dogma, but their insistence on the Church’s integrity – its moral autonomy – had wider implications. They did not reject iconoclasm simply in order to preserve the otherworldly purity of the Church’s dogmas and cultic life – and with it the use of icons. Their goal was not just to be left alone in self-righteous isolation, to hand over “this world” and its life to the emperor and to the dictates of a society that did not take seriously the Gospel message. This would have been contrary to the very theology that they were defending – a theology that insists that matter can become sanctified, that “this world” can be filled with divine beauty, that this world is called to salvation, that it is capable of transfiguration and participation in divine life.
It is no coincidence that after the defeat of iconoclasm, the Church entered into a period of particularly lively engagement with the world and its concerns. The Church made its voice heard in the public square. It tried to mold society and state policy according to Christian standards. Even the image of imperial authority was affected. Hitherto emperors most often had been depicted as triumphant warrior-kings, just as they had been in pagan times. By contrast, the most famous portrayal of an emperor from the period after iconoclasm, a mosaic over one of the principal entrances to the great church of Haghia Sophia, shows the emperor prostrate before Christ the Pantokrator, Christ the ruler over all the world.
To this day we decorate our churches with this image of Christ the Pantokrator, the ruler over all – most often in the central dome. We decorate our churches with this image of Christ, and we may even accept Him as ruler over what happens within our churches. But do we really believe that his kingly rule extends more widely, beyond the walls of our churches to the whole world? Is Christ present – are we Orthodox Christians present – in the public square today? Do we take seriously the moral challenges facing the society in which we live, the society of which we are a part? Inside our churches, we proclaim the triumph of Orthodoxy, but outside we are mute, invisible, and perfectly content to be marginalized – except in cases when we feel that our public image has been slighted in some way, e.g., when the colorful eastern pageantry of our Holy Week and Pascha observances or our parish festivals have not been adequately covered by the press. What image do we project? What story do we tell? What story do we live out? In fact, as polls and statistics suggest, when it comes to moral and social issues we Orthodox in America simply reflect the opinions and behaviors of the wider society in which we live. Christos Yannaras, an important modern Greek theologian, has pointed out that “Sometimes the Church transfigures the world, and sometimes the Church is transfigured by the world.” We seem to be at this latter point, transfigured by the world, notwithstanding the images of Christ Pantokrator that adorn the domes of our churches.
As I said a moment ago, after the defeat of iconoclasm the Church entered into a period of particularly lively engagement with the world. This was expressed through the Church’s efforts to address the moral and social issues of the day – the sanctity of marriage, the problems of poverty and homelessness. But this was also expressed through mission. It is enough just to remind ourselves of the work of Sts. Cyril and Methodius among the Slavs in this period. They aimed – to use a fancy word – at enculturation, at incarnating the universal values of the Christian faith in what was then a new and very different cultural context. We today are heirs to their incarnational approach to mission, just as we are heirs to an incarnational understanding of the icon. And we very often take great pride in this approach to mission, contrasting it with the cultural chauvinism that we associate with western approaches. But how willing are we to support an Orthodox understanding of mission in our own lives?
I am always overjoyed to hear about the work of the OCMC, the Orthodox Christian Missions Center. OCMC has helped bring our attention back to the importance of mission – of responding to the Great Commission, to go out, preach, baptize even to the ends of the earth. OCMC – and other pan-Orthodox agencies, such as IOCC and Project Mexico – also have given us precious experience of working together, of acting like one church, despite our jurisdictional dividedness. But certainly we can do more. OCMC, for example, now supports approximately 17 long-term missionaries in places like Albania and Africa. This number may sound impressive to us, but it is miniscule compared to what is being done by other Christian – and non-Christian – groups. A single Protestant mega-church in the United States may support that many missionaries, not to mention other forms of evangelism and outreach.
We also have to consider our responsibility for mission and evangelism here at home, locally, on the personal and parish level. Icons of Sts Cyril and Methodius adorn many of our churches. But do we ourselves, in our daily lives, in any way try to imitate them? Our gospel reading this morning was from St. John’s account of the calling of the disciples. We read: “Philip found Nathanael and said to him: We have found Him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote – Jesus of Nazareth.” Nathanael was skeptical. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip says simply, “Come and see.” It’s easy to understand why this Gospel is appropriate for the day. With the incarnation, God has become visible in the flesh. He can be seen, and therefore he can be depicted in icons. But how can someone be expected to “see” if no one has first said “come”? How many of us even think of inviting co-workers, friends and acquaintances to come to church with us? We feel perfectly comfortable about recommending our favorite restaurant or mechanic or hair stylist to them, but we become acutely uncomfortable when it comes to matters related to our faith. I am not suggesting that we should get up on a soapbox at work, but I am suggesting that we stop hiding our Orthodox identity. If not through words, then at least through our behavior – by being fair and honest in our business dealings, by being conscientious employees rather than slackers, by being helpful to others, by being genuinely concerned about them, by avoiding sleaziness of all sorts – we should invite those around us to “come and see.”
This evening we have been looking back at the past, commemorating that first Sunday of Orthodoxy in 843 AD. But the stories we tell about that past event – right now in this present moment, through our words, through our actions – seem to take us in any number of contrary directions, suggesting that we have no clear vision for the future of Orthodoxy in America and in the world. We all agree on some things: on the importance of icons, for example, rooted as they are in the doctrine of the incarnation. I believe we also agree that Orthodoxy is meant to permeate the whole of life, the whole of culture, if it is to bring about the cosmic transformation that lies at the heart of our doctrine of salvation. But often our words and actions betray these professed beliefs. On the one hand, all too often our life at home, our conduct in the workplace, our involvement in the public square simply mirrors that of the society in which we live – so well-integrated are we into the American way of life and value system. We love to have our churches beautifully decorated with icons, but we see no pressing need to bring the theology that lies behind these icons into a wider world. On the other hand, we find in all our churches, whatever the jurisdiction, an increasingly vocal element arguing that America is incapable of the kind of transfiguration that once took place in our Old World empires, in Byzantium, in Holy Russia or Holy Serbia – arguing that to maintain authentic Orthodoxy we have to flee from the world, to withdraw from wider society in various ways, by adopting a style of life and practice that visibly distinguishes and separates us from the increasingly secular, pluralistic culture around us. In both cases, I suggest, we must acknowledge our lack of faith. We must acknowledge how weak our faith in God is.
All of us want to see the triumph of Orthodoxy, but often we conceive of this triumph in external terms. For some this means increased respectability on the American scene; for others this means increased purity of our Orthodox practice. For some this means increased income for maintaining our many philanthropic and cultural programs; for others this means an increased number of church services and prostrations at them. The real triumph of Orthodoxy cannot be measured so easily. From its very beginnings our faith has taken its power from a very unlikely source: Christ crucified, abandoned by nearly everyone, hanging on the cross. He never triumphed more gloriously or reigned more truly than when he hung there dying, his arms outstretched in love to embrace all, to draw the whole world to himself. “Now the son of man is glorified,” we read in St. John’s gospel. Though defeated, crucified, laid in the tomb, he arose in power, filling even the tomb with life. This is the foundation of the faith we claim to hold: “This is the apostolic faith; this is the Orthodox faith; this is the faith of our fathers; this is the faith that is the foundation of the world” – to quote the words of the Synodikon of Orthodoxy that we just recited. The real triumph of Orthodoxy in the future may not be marked by any of the external signs that we imagine, whether we are among those who risk becoming submerged in the world around us or among those who try to escape from this world. But by God’s grace Orthodoxy will triumph – or rather, the triumph of Christ will be fulfilled in his Church. Let us pray that his triumph will also be fulfilled in each one of us! Amen.