St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

On the Sunday of Orthodoxy

Sermon Preached by Fr. Raphael Daly on Sunday, March 12, 2006

This morning, I would like to tell you the story of two women, who chose very different paths for their respective lives, but arrived at the same destination. The background for this story is the iconoclast controversy, and the feast we celebrate today - the Sunday of Orthodoxy. I won't get into the history of the iconoclast controversy this morning - there are many fine books on the subject already written, and chances are most of you know the story already. But for those that don't, in the 8th century, the church came under attack from those who proclaimed that having icons and venerating them is wrong. This error was refuted at the Seventh Ecumenical council, but unfortunately, the iconoclasts as they are known, had the emperors of Constantinople on their side for a time.

The story I'd like to tell you picks up towards the end of the iconoclast controversy - at the beginning of the reign of the Emperor Theophilus, the very last iconoclast emperor. Theophilus was a young man at the beginning of his reign, and he needed a wife. So his mother arranged a Brideshow for him. The most beautiful eligible noble women in the empire were gathered to the palace, and participated in a contest. The winner would be handed an apple made of gold and would become the empress. Theophilus narrowed the contestants down to six semi - finalists. Amongst the six were our two heroines - Cassiani and Theodora. Both were exquisitely beautiful and brilliant, but where Theodora was very modest and humble, Cassiani had something of a sharp tongue. Cassiani did not suffer fools gladly. Unfortunately for Cassiani, the emperor Theophilus was something of a fool. He was impressed most by Cassiani's beauty and went up to her, ready to give her the apple. But he decided to wax philosophical first, and I suppose looking at the apple and thinking of Eve in the Garden said, "From women flowed corruption." Without missing a beat Cassiani shot back "But also from woman sprang forth what is superior" (meaning that God himself deigned to be born of a woman, the Theotokos). Theophilus didn't have a comeback to that one. He opted instead to hand the apple to modest, silent Theodora. He and Theodora were married.

Losing the contest suited Cassiani just fine - she hadn't really wanted to be married to Theophilus, or empress. She was now free to pursue the life she really wanted - a life of prayer and study in a convent which she herself established and managed as Abbess. She still spoke her mind to the emperor however. When Theophilus continued to be a harsh enforcer of the laws attacking icons, Cassiani joined other monastics in publicly defying him. He had her persecuted and beaten, but she would not be silent, she continued to publicly defend icons and support those who venerated them. She believed one ought to speak out against injustice. Although monks and nuns are supposed to love silence, Cassiani once said, "I hate silence when it is time to speak!"

13 years after the brideshow, Theophilus died, and left Theodora as the regent. But what Theophilus didn't know - and never found out - was that his humble, submissive Theodora ALSO venerated icons and had raised his five daughters and one son to also venerate and love icons and Orthodoxy. On Mt. Athos, there's an icon that Theodora owned. One side is an icon, the other is a mirror. Whenever Theodora was alone she'd flip the it around and pray in front of the icon, and then flip it back to the mirror side when her husband came into her room. As soon as Theophilus was dead, she restored icons and the clergy who defended them. She permanently finished the iconoclast movement.

If you look at the icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, you'll see the empress Theodora and her son Michael standing next to the famous Directress Icon of the Theotokos. But in the corner, you'll see a nun standing with all the monks. That would be Cassiani. Cassiani was also a hymnographer, by the way. She wrote some of the most famous and important hymns during the year, including some very important parts of the Tridion season, which we are currently in.

Some people worry about the role women in the Church - whether they ought to be outspoken like Cassiani or submissive like Theodora. Both Theodora and Cassiani are now venerated as saints because they defended icons, and Orthodoxy itself. Each had her own method of defending Orthodoxy, but it was the faith they defended that matters ultimately. The triumph of the icons in the 9th century wasn't simply a victory of people who wanted to kiss icons, but of the faith of the Orthodox. They ensured that the Orthodox faith - our faith - would not bend to the whim of emperors and the currents of history. Our icons, our liturgy, monasticism, the clergy - are all part of this faith, the faith proclaimed by Prophets, Apostles and Teachers. Theodora and Cassiani have defended this faith and handed it to us, to defend and maintain as they did. We too, must uphold the faith we have received unchanged. We must resist and denounce, as they did, the idea that our faith must be reworked to accommodate the age we live in. We must offer our witness outspokenly to world, as Cassiani, and also to our children, as Theodora did.