On the Sunday of Orthodoxy
Sermon Preached by Father Antony Hughes on Sunday, March 20, 2005
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
The goodness of God, His love, His mercy, His power and glory have been revealed to us in and through matter, the common stuff of this world. Many philosophers and religions have disparaged matter, saying that it is dirty and useless. Some have said that the body is nothing more than a prison for the spirit and that death is a release from that prison. Some have said that matter and spirit are enemies and opposites, that matter cannot be spiritual. Holy Orthodoxy contradicts these misperceptions.
In contrast to those who teach such things, we gather together this day to celebrate the central event in the history of the universe: the coming of God in the flesh, the glorification of matter, the deification of the human race. We are unashamed to preach this message even though it sounds absurd. For us the incarnation of the Son is proof positive that God loves His creation. It also demonstrates for us that the reason God made everything to begin with was to share his life with it. Matter is not bad if for no other reason than that God called it good, even very good.
The icons are living witnesses of this truth: God became man. The invisible became visible, the unapproachable became approachable. Philip told Nathanael to come and “see”. St. John puts it most eloquently in his First Epistle: “What was in the beginning, what we have heard, what we have see with our eyes, what we have looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of Life, for the life was made visible and we have seen it.” While the Israelites in the Old Testament were rightly forbidden to make images of the invisible God, the Incarnation of God has images indispensable to the proclamation of the Truth. God has become visible in the flesh and therefore he can now, must now, be pictured. The Truth of the Gospel is proclaimed through icons.
The victory we celebrate today (the return of the icons to the churches after a period of prohibition) is about the first and most important victory, that of the incarnate God over death. In the Orthodox mind the first is inextricably connected with the second. Icons have no place apart from this.
But there is something else we celebrate… we celebrate the fact that in spite of human weakness, outside influence, severe persecution, poverty and a multitude of other problems the Orthodox Faith has survived and in some places is thriving. Unfortunately, the picture is not altogether happy. The Church still suffers from ossification and a certain penchant for preferring the past to the challenge of actually living in the 21st century. We still haven’t adequately processed the news that Byzantium and Holy Russia are no more. Some say we have managed by-pass the 20th century altogether. Thank God we have another chance! There is no “Christian empire” in this modern world, not even ours. Some long for it, I do not. Too often under the authority of empires the Church became an apologist for the system, right and wrong, rather than its conscience. Sometimes survival was interpreted as the need to stay judiciously silent when the “Christian emperors” did very unchristian things. Professor Yannaras wrote that sometimes the Church transfigures the world and sometimes the Church is transfigured by the world. That is, we have a tendency to lose our prophetic voice, to cease to be leaven, light and salt in the world. Forgetting that the Gospel is uncomfortable we opt for comfort. We must resist this tendency so that the Light of Christ can shine brightly in this world.
Still, we celebrate, because ultimately the Church is God’s and in spite of us, He preserves her sanctity. Blunder we might, but God is able to do what is necessary to work His will. The glory of the Truth shines and cannot be overcome.
I am hoping that someday the Church will be able to proclaim still another triumph of Orthodoxy and institute another Feast to celebrate it. What will it be? The triumph of Orthodoxy over her own lamentable divisions, the triumph of Orthodoxy over her own parochialism, the final triumph of Orthodoxy over phyletism, that strange heresy that elevates ethnicity and culture over the Gospel? Well, we shall see what God has in store for us. Of this we can be sure: what God has in mind for his Beloved, the Church, is glorious.