Today is the day in Lent when we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy. Commonly, it is a time when Orthodox churches gather together and celebrate a procession of icons like the one we will have at the end of liturgy today.
Please forgive my bluntness, but honestly, I think as Orthodox in America, we have never been further apart in my whole time as a priest than we are right now. Our own archdiocese has pulled out of the Episcopal Assembly because of a political situation that is complicated and has nothing to do with the US. Two other archdioceses have stated that their mission in America is to take care of “their own people”, to preserve the cultural identity of their people and that unity is not in their best interests. It seems that the Orthodox church really does not know what to do with America. Maybe it’s just a bad mix.
Putting that aside for a minute, let’s look back at the origin of the celebration. In 842, on the first Sunday of Lent, a Byzantine emperor and his mother finally put to rest the iconoclastic controversy. Icons were ruled to be an acceptable and important aspect of our worship. The iconoclasts believed that icons violated the prohibition against graven images. The emperor and his mother rightly understood that we did not worship the icons. Instead, icons were rightly understood as portals, windows into heaven, and that their veneration was really directed toward the heavenly reality that the icons portrayed. The blood was shed of many faithful people. The first Sunday of Lent became a day when we remember their dedication and sacrifice, and give thanks that we can worship the way we do.
Prior to this commemoration, the first Sunday of Lent remembered the prophets. These figures of the Old Testament yearned for the first coming of Christ like we hope for His second coming. They kept vigil, and did their best in terms of living and serving while they waited. We strive to do the same.
So Sunday of Orthodoxy has become a day when all Orthodox gather and celebrate the triumph of Orthodoxy. But what does that mean? As I already said, in terms of unity we are not exactly triumphing over anything. But to focus there exclusively would miss an important point.
We are Orthodox. Rightly understood, that means we know how to pray. This does not mean we are better than anyone, this does not mean we are right and every one else is wrong. It means that we understand that we have everything we need at our disposal to serve God and eventually, God willing, to find our way to heaven. This does not make us better than everyone else. It means that we have a greater responsibility, and in large part, we have more responsibility and fewer excuses.
So when looking for the triumph of Orthodoxy, I would suggest we look elsewhere. I would suggest looking to the Ukraine. Have you seen that amazing picture? On one side you see the protesters, armed with Molotov cocktails and clubs and bottles and stones; on the other you see the riot police and the military, armed and shielded, carrying guns and bigger things. Then in the middle, you see Orthodox priests. They are standing there, holding up their crosses, showing each side that there is a better way. A way of peace. This is the triumph of Orthodoxy.
In the same area, there is an unforgettable picture of a protester kneeling, with a priest standing next to him, his stole over the protester’s head as he gives his confession. All of this is happening in the foreground while the riot police stand in the background. Such an amazing sight to behold. This too, is the triumph of Orthodoxy.
You can also look locally. In Pittsburgh, a group called Focus is making a difference in the Hill District. They are using an old church, a church that was the first Orthodox church in Pittsburgh, the old Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Michael, as their base of operation. From there they are bringing hope in the form of free medical and dental visits, opportunities for education. They provide free clothing and shoes. They are bringing hope to a place in despair. This is the triumph of Orthodoxy.It happens in us, too. It happens every time we act on the mission given to us by our Lord that we heard on the Sunday of the Last Judgment. When we feed and give drink to those in need, when we provide clothing or when we visit someone, we are witnessing the Triumph of Orthodoxy.This is what we need to remember, to hold on to during this season. We do not need to get distraught over our lack of unity in America. We will find ways to work together. In the meantime, we need to keep our minds set properly, and to do the things that are holy. In so doing, we will once again and always behold the true triumph of Orthodoxy.