SUNDAY OF ORTHODOXY
(19 March 2000)
Sermon of His Beatitude,
Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and all Greece
Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and all Greece
In all the nations for His Name
"The annual rendering of thanks due unto God, on which day we received the Church of God, together with the delivery of the doctrines of piety and the overthrow of the teachings of wickedness."
Your Excellency, Mr. President of the Hellenic Republic,
FESTIVE AND JOYOUS indeed is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, as we celebrate this Jubilee year of the 2000th year from the Birth of Jesus Christ, a celebration which adorns the Church with a yet more radiant splendour. We recall struggles and agonies, passions and hatred, exiles and persecutions, aspirations and degradations, magnanimity and pettiness -that amalgam of human actions, which passing through the "scheming of evildoers" (Ps. 63:3) has shaped the historic face of the Church. God's saints giving witness to their faith," conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises & destitute, afflicted, ill-treated & others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment & wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth" according to St Paul's characteristic description in his epistle to the Hebrews (11:33-39).
BUT WHAT IS IT that our Church celebrates today? Before what does she bend knee in joy and veneration? Why did she set apart the First Sunday in Great Lent as the Sunday of Orthodoxy?
We all know that today we celebrate the triumphal restoration of the Holy Icons, the end of iconoclasm. But what does this mean? Did our Church carry on a struggle during which thousands of faithful were tortured and untold numbers lost their lives, a struggle during which Bishops were exiled, monks persecuted, churches desecrated and set fire, monasteries destroyed, a struggle which lasted for more than a century, simply over a matter concerning the decoration of churches?
Who amongst us does not know that he can open up his heart to God without having to be inside a church? That he can do so even when he is in the heart of the desert or in the midst of the ocean? What then did the Church defend with her unflinching persistence without succumbing to persecutions? What is it that we celebrate today, living in the light of that struggle? In the final analysis, is it our Orthodox Church boasting of triumph, or actually triumphant?
The answer to this question is provided by the "Synodicon" or Conciliar decision of the Seventh Ecumenical Council held in Nicaea in 787, which restored the honour accorded to the sacred icons: "The annual rendering of thanks due unto God, on the day in which we have received the Church of God together with the delivery of the doctrines of piety and the overthrow of the impious teachings of wickedness." This means that we celebrate the living experience of divine truth, our sanctification through the Holy Spirit. As St Gregory Palamas states: "Those who belong to Christ's Church are of the truth, and those who are not of the truth, do not belong to Christ's Church". The Orthodox Church is ascesis and sanctification. Ascesis means self-censure, "to see my own faults and not to judge my brother", to use the words of the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian. Sanctification means the assumption of the world and its catharsis through purification, our purification. Sanctification is also repentance and self-awareness.
Our Church, however, does not celebrate events of a past age; it celebrates that which "remains on a lampstand, so that those who walk may see the light". Thus it is useful for us to see what this lamp reveals to us today, for the struggle against the icons does not belong only to the historic past.
ICONOCLASM was provoked by an attempt by the imperial throne to adapt religion to the needs of the State. Today, then we celebrate the Church's condescension to honour the State without, however, becoming its appendage. The Orthodox Church has refused and continues to refuse tenaciously to succumb to the temptation of the Grand Inquisitor, i.e. to take up the sword of catharsis.
Iconoclasm was provoked by the decision of the then Emperor to do away with the use of icons. Today, then we honour the Church's prowess not to submit to the powerful of the world, but to defend the faith of our Fathers.
Iconoclasm was brought about by those who wanted to sever Orthodoxy from Tradition; by those who required that the Church adapt to "new conditions, to the demands of the times".
Iconoclasm is always provoked by the very same circles, known throughout history, which even though they live far from the Church, desire to decide for the Church which is the "rational" faith and who is the "correct" believer. Usually these circles possess the power of the sons of darkness: the power to lead astray, to revel in vice, to threaten, to terrorize. Participants in the herd of evildoers, they behave lasciviously towards the truth, fighting against God and His image.
Iconoclasts have always existed. They were, however, defeated and shall always suffer defeat. The haughty, who are at a loss to realize the power that the believer possesses as he stands before God's image, have been defeated and shall always suffer defeat. And likewise all those who refuse to understand the power in the human hand when it lights a candle before an icon. All who refuse to feel the powerlessness and uselessness of human speculation before the prayer of a humble person shall always be crushed.
TODAY IN CELEBRATING, we affirm that the Christian churches are not simply places where we pray, but Ecclesiae, mystagogical gatherings, holy places where the believer experiences exactly that which St Maximus the Confessor describes: "for through the Temple, as through a body, [he perceives] ethical philosophy being put forth; through the Clergy, as through a soul, [he perceives] that which is seen as natural, being interpreted spiritually; and [he perceives] the Holy Altar, as if it were through his mind, revealing the mystical theology". In this holy space, then icons are not ornaments and decoration, but objects of Divine Worship, with full participation in the Divine Liturgy. "These sacred icons", wrote Meletios Pegas, the illustrious Patriarch of Alexandria, over 400 years ago, "being gazed upon, elevate the mind to the recalling of their prototypes. Just as the word of God alerts the mind unto the understanding of God's actions and Divine things, so, too, is it with these icons in their being honoured and venerated for the archetypes that they represent and to which they lead us, and to the prototype [God the Creator] of which we not only render veneration but also worship. Thus do those who slander the Church shamelessly lie: for the Church does not worship creatures but only the Creator, and today, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the blasphemers are put to shame and stand judged and convicted, and the Church emerges victorious and restores the sacred images, as the Saviour today renews, finds and repossesses His living image".
We celebrate today because, as the hymns of the Feast proclaim, "Christ's Church shines and is radiant, adorned with the restored images". The faithful seeing Christ and His Saints "in images" receive a precious breath, the spiritual fragrance derived from the alienation from secular concerns.
Today we celebrate as we observe the church as the House of God ever remaining as the unshakable witness to the Unity of the Church in Heaven, depicted in the Dome, with the Church on earth, represented by the choir of the Saints.
Today we celebrate by blessing the Lord, for by His Grace the Holy Martyrs kept our faith away far from any yielding before "the spirit of the times", far from the mindset of this world.
Today is not the Feast of Pentecost; we do not celebrate the Birth of the Church in the world. Today is the Feast of Orthodoxy. Today we celebrate the fact that our God-established Church is the Ark and sanctification of Tradition. The Church is not a Museum of Folklore but the manner by which humanity frees itself from the bonds of this world and offers itself to God; it is the space in which the voice and the work of our Fathers and Teachers are transformed into an incense of thanksgiving. It is the power to transform the things of this world that we celebrate on the First Sunday of Lent, at the beginning of a course which culminates in the Resurrection.
UNDERSTANDING this reality, we shall see that not only the sacred images, but the very Divine Liturgy itself, as well as the hymnology and everything else that transpires within the church constitute a complete break with the criteria of all that takes place in the world outside the church.
This break or rupture is expressed by our Lord when He says: "My Kingdom is not of this world". By so stating our Lord not only declares that the present world is a place of death, displacement and failure, but also that the world is unable to become man-befriending, with respect for all who are weak; that it cannot become a world devoid of pain.
The Church is "not of this world"; She does, however, live "in the world", for the world's salvation. Her word, the comprehensive and dialectic orthodox word, is in opposition to the "mind" of the world; at the same time, however, the object of her mission is man, who abides in the world. Her kerygma revolves around problems which beset man, not because she does not observe the many positive things that are being accomplished, but because she knows that the positive elements "of this world" are also carriers of death, unless they are transformed within her, into works unto God's glory. Otherwise, they remain works of human vanity. That which is positive for the world is always chained to the unjust, to that which is inhuman and demonic.
A good look at today's world will affirm the truth of what we say.
* The transplants of human organs, for instance, are a blessing because they save lives, and through them handicaps are overcome. However, they also create a relentless sale of human organs that drives the poor living in the so called Third-World countries to remove these organs from the elderly and from children and to sell them for a paltry sum of money -despite the efforts of the international community to stop such a thing.
* The improvement of the standard of living has banished the scepter of hunger and has released many millions of people from the bondage of poverty and need. At the same time, however, it has brought about the degradation of man by creating within him an insatiable consumerist appetite and a slavish mimicking of models imposed upon them by advertising workshops.
* The new technologies provide unhindered access to information and open the way to knowledge. Yet they have also become a super-weapon of corruption and perversion, with fearful consequences, especially upon the younger generations. Moreover, the new technologies lead to the gradual submission of the Press to a small group of vested interests, which convert the news media one after another into mechanisms that shamelessly distort events and mislead the masses.
* The demand for a just society has led to the creation of a society that completely subjugates man. The justified appeal for increase in national sentiment is easily transposed into frenzied nationalistic fever, resulting in barbarity and rivers of blood. The sense of emptiness will be intense.
We could continue to mention more examples. But we need only see the claw, in order to recognize the lion.
These new discoveries and many others may indeed be the food upon which human arrogance thrives, yet they do not make God superfluous. To the contrary, they make God necessary as a breakwater and a shield against the impending threat against His image.
MAN'S PROBLEMS are greater than ever before. Possibly for the first time in history, there exist powers that can kill not only the body but even the soul. There are powers that can control the thoughts and guide the will of entire peoples, powers able to convert the disdain for morality into virtue, powers able to convert scientific laboratories into dispatch departments of Hell. There are powers which, in full consciousness, short-sightedly blink at the truth, purposely support iniquity, and seek to muzzle and silence any word that might awaken man to his situation.
Within this whirlpool of darkness we light the candle of our mission. Within this clamor and uproar we are called to carry everywhere, unto all nations, the voice of the Lord.
The Church is in the world but rejects the logic of the world. She speaks to man every day, while at the same time calling upon him to overcome the routine and triteness of daily living.
This is something which we are obliged to protect. We are to preserve the Church's word authentic, that it able to speak to present-day man while at the same time leading him to her eternal source; that it participate in the life of the world without being trapped within its logic; that it be a powerful presence within its logic; that it be a powerful presence within the contemporary State, without being transformed into a secular authority.
TODAY THE CHURCH tries to prevent man from being trapped within new forms of the demonic. Today the threat of globalization looms large, as it appears under the innocent guise of world-wide economic progress. We would not have had any need to mention it here today, if it were but simply one more deception, simply the utopia of global prosperity to be achieved through unhindered commerce. That, however, which the authors of globalization seek to bring about, as they openly admit, is the abolishment of national identity, the imposition on the whole world not only of a single financial model, but also of a single language and a single culture for all the world's peoples.
It is easy for one to perceive that the doing away with national identities will transform Europe into a graveyard of dead cultures, and in the place of a multi-national and multi-lingual garden the stark and redundant barracks of a non-descript population will be erected.
It is easy for one to discern what will be the fate not only of Hellenism but of every Orthodox Nation if global homogenization is left unchecked. Who of us can remain indifferent in the face of the immediate threat of barbarization poised against our youth, in the face of the impending danger that they be severed from their roots, that their national tradition and heritage be wiped clean from their memories, that their language be done away with, that their faith be destroyed? Certainly not the Church. She shall ever remain that maternal bosom with open arms to which children and youth can have recourse, the bell-tower peeling the clarion call of the Orthodox spirit.
YET, globalization is a means and not an end; it is a means that leads to the imposition of syncretism. Syncretism is fostered by those very same powers that put forth and advance globalization. With extreme care, lest the consciences of the faithful be awakened, syncretism's advancement began with a general reference to religious liberty -which no one has any reason to oppose- and went on to the declare certain heresies as "Churches", within the framework of supposed religious freedom, only to culminate in the recognition of even satanic technique of brainwashing as a "Church"! Behind all this process are to be found an attempt to establish and sanction possessiveness, an unholy competitiveness, the arbitrariness of authority, the degradation of the human person, the domination over the masses.
The conspiracy of syncretism is discernable in the coordinated effort to erase the meaning of sin. Behaviours deviating from God's law and will are no longer characterized as sin but as personal preferences which the Church is called to respect in the name of human rights which are raised to level of the supreme regulators of human life. Here we have the implementation of the command of the Grand Inquisitor: "We shall allow them to sin. They are weak and powerless, and they will love us like children because we shall allow them to sin".
Who then, amongst us cannot realize that all these things are nothing other than a constantly renewed and continuously putrid form of Iconoclasm?
I HAVE PRESENTED the form of the ancient Serpent today on the Sunday of Orthodoxy in order to show you that the ancient enmity against Jesus and His Church has in no way abated; that day by day it raises its head all the more impudently; that it seeks the support of the empty wisdom of the present deceptive age; but also that the enmity is destined to be once again defeated; that whatever the Church must undergo, it will in every instance eternally triumph, "as it is written, 'for your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Rom. 8, 36-37).
THESE PRESENT DAYS constitute the epitome of the history of the world. They began with Clean Monday, a day of strict fasting but also a day of great joy, a day of joyful-sorrow because we entered into Great and Holy Lent and embarked on a course of triumph. We are now traversing a period of fasting, a period of trial and pain because of our fall, great pain which leads to the glory of victory. Within this spiritual climate we can encounter God, and in contrition live with Him to lead us to the unwaning Light of the Resurrection.
This is the world's course: from pristine purity to trial and pain, unto the absolute lucidity of the Resurrection.
This is the message that the Lord brings to man through His Church: the message of the Resurrection, his permanent exit and release from this world of pain.
Darkness never ceases to work terrible things against us; it never ceases to forge new chains of bondage for us. We, however, now that inevitably a mighty voice shall call out: "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! ... and the kings of the earth, who committed fornication with her ... will weep and wail over her ... and the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her" (Rev.18: 2,9,11).
"The one who testifies to these things says, 'Surely I am coming soon'" (Rev. 22.20).
This we know. We ponder upon this with humility.
We place our hope in this and we remain in silence, which is both the epilogue of all speech as well as the prologue to every action, and in quiet, which according to St. John Climacus, author of "The Ladder of Divine Ascent", is "the perfect and unending perfection of the perfect". Only in this way are we justified in celebrating the Jubilee marking the 2000 years from the birth of our Saviour.
And we pray daily, especially during these days of Holy and Great Lent: "Amen, Come Lord Jesus!" (Rev. 22:20).
The Grace of our Lord be with you all. Amen.