Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sunday of Orthodoxy Sermon, 2008

Archbishop Lazar.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
[People: Unto the ages of ages. Amen!]
Glory to the Holy Spirit!
[People: Amen!]

Brothers and sisters, it is by the grace of the Holy Spirit that we can come today to celebrate this feast day for the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Let us think together a little about the meaning of this feast. At the end of this service we will read from the Synodikon of the Sunday of Orthodoxy. In that document,we will be told that the Church of God does not consist in buildings, but in the faithful who come together to worship God in those buildings. The Kingdom of God is manifested first and foremost in the hearts of the faithful, in the community of the faithful who have opened their hearts to one another.
On the Sunday of Orthodoxy we think celebrating the triumph of the holy icons. We recall those years long ago when people wanted to destroy the icons and remove them from the churches and from people's homes. But what was the real problem in those times? What is it that we finally triumphed over, in that this Sunday is called "the Triumph of Orthodoxy?"
It was, of course a victory over all of the ancient heresies; but all of those ancient heresies and most of the modern ones can be seen in the actions of those who were against the holy icons.
A major part of the problem was that some people had begun to think that the material universe, the things that were created were somehow evil or in opposition against the spiritual. Even the human body, some of them thought, was evil and was in opposition to the soul. They began to teach that the soul is somehow a prisoner in the body, that the body is a prison which opposes the salvation of the soul and tries to keep it in bondage. They forgot that God had created all of material things. Some people misused the Scripture and mixed it with pagan philosophies to teach that the soul is a prisoner of the body, and many thought that the creation of the material universe was either a mistake or an act of malevolence. Not all the iconoclasts were members of the Gnostic sects that taught these things, but their opposition to holy icons was inspired by them to some degree.
Among those early false teachers, some wanted to destroy all of the ancient medical literature, because they considered it a sin to treat the body with medicines. They thought that the sooner the body was destroyed, the better because then the soul would be free from the body. So they did not want to have medicine, and some of them considered medical doctors to be evil.
It was through the efforts of the monastics and teachers of the early Church that all of this ancient medical literature was copied and preserved for us. A medical system began to take shape within the Church already in the time of the Holy Apostles.
The understanding given to us by the holy icons is that all those things created by God are good and that God created the material universe also. He created the human body and therefore the human body is not evil and not the enemy of the soul, but it is the partner of the soul, to work together for the mutual salvation of each, something like the way that a husband and wife are supposed to work together for their mutual salvation. The body and the soul work together as one for the salvation of the whole person.
We understand then that the created material universe has the blessing of God and that our love and respect for the created material universe is taught to us by the holy icons. You see when we reverence an icon, we say that the veneration that we give to the icon passes over to the one who is portrayed in the icon. Since man is created in the image or icon of God, the veneration of icons teaches us that, since every human being is the icon and likeness of God, we should have a reverence for every other human being. We must have this reverence regardless of what race, nationality or religion the person is. It may be that the image of God is more darkened in some than in others, but our attitude toward other humans, like our veneration of icons, passes over to the prototype, to God Himself. Thus, if we have hatred or condescension toward another human being, this attitude is reflected upon our relationship with God. If we have love and compassion toward other human beings, this also passes over to the prototype, to our relationship with God. But this reverence is not just for human beings. Those who were opposed to the icons did not want any material representation of the saints or of our Lord Jesus Christ. But our Saviour had appeared in a material, physical body. And we are told by the Apostle that we see the things of God in the things that are created [Rm.1:20]. "The heavens," the Prophet says, "proclaim the glory of God" [Ps.19:1-4]. Every created material thing can reveal to us something about God, about His love and about His compassion. When we see the spring blossoming of flowers and all the beauty of nature around us, surely we are seeing an icon of God also in this beauty and in the grace of this beauty that touches the earth.
So when we talk about the triumph of Orthodoxy, we are not just speaking of the victory of those who wanted to keep the icons and understood that the icons were also a form of the Holy Scripture, rather, we are speaking also of the understanding that the icon teaches us that matter itself can be grace-bearing, that God can bestow His grace upon and through material things. From this we understand that the human body is sacred as are all the things God created.
This is really what the Triumph of Holy Orthodoxy is about: to teach us to understand and reverence all the things that God created and to reverence our fellow human beings as icons of God. We are called to the realisation that God sometimes works miracles through material things, so that we do not forget that He was the One Who created them in the beginning, and that He blessed them and said they were very good.
This feast testifies to us and reminds us that God sometimes works His miracles through holy relics in order to confirm the Resurrection of the body, and through icons in order to teach us so that we not fall into the heresy of thinking that the human body is evil. Moreover, the material universe is not evil nor may we misuse and abuse the things that were created in this universe. Rather, we should treat them like a sacred trust.
All that God has made, both the spiritual and the material, we should reverence and use with care and with diligence. This is the greater reality of what the Triumph of Holy Orthodoxy and the re-establishment of the holy icons is about. Icons are also a testimony that our Lord Jesus Christ truly took on the flesh and became the Son of Man, although He was the Son of God, in order to reunite us with God. We portray Christ our God in icons because He appeared in the flesh and took on the material body, and so blessed and sanctified it and taught us that the human body is also blessed and sanctified.
Let us, then, venerate the image of God in our fellow human beings and not merely offer an empty veneration of holy icons simply as something that we are enjoined to do when we enter the church. To worship God in Orthodox fashion is to open our hearts to humanity and to cherish and nourish the world in which we live.

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