The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (1:43-51)
Jesus Christ existed (and continues to exist). He is not a myth or a legend. We know that He existed and became a part of our human story. The Son of God took flesh and became man and because He has entered into human history in the flesh, He has forever transformed the world and especially those who choose to follow Him.
This same one who lived about 2000 years ago as a historical figure, also left with us a sign of His presence, an everlasting memorial of His body. He instituted for us His body, the Church. This Church is not some abstract idea. It is a concrete reality in much the same way as Christ Himself is a concrete reality. This Church, founded upon the disciples and the apostles, is a historical reality. It does not exist only as an idea or a theory, it actually exists and is easily found by those who are hungry for the truth. Because Christ existed, His body the Church also exists. Christ established His Church with His own blood, with His own life. He did this because He desires to share His presence, to allow all of the world to partake of Him and of the gifts that He offers to us.
Since the Lord founded the Church it is important for us to understand that the Church is one! There were not two churches founded by Christ. Just as there is one Lord, so there is one church. The Lord Jesus Christ established only one Church (what today we might refer to as a denomination) and this is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. It still exists and is readily accessible and discovered by those who desire to go deeper in their faith.
Since the Church is a historical reality and was not simply a modern invention, we have a story that connects us directly to Christ and His apostles and disciples. A story about how we came to be and what struggles we faced along the way as well as the important figures (both good and bad) who played a part in this story. Ultimately it is a story about how God has protected and sustained His people and safeguarded the Church as an entity and as a keeper of a sacred and unchanged faith in the Holy Trinity.
Today, on the first Sunday of Great and Holy Lent we commemorate one episode from the story of the life of the Church. The restoration of icons, which occurred on the first Sunday of Great Lent in the year 843a.d. in Constantinople. To understand the gravity and the weight of the history of the Church we have to understand that this happened long (nearly 700 years) before the Protestant reformation. It happened roughly 200 years before the Great Schism between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic as well. Why do I mention these events? To remind you that this episode from history is part of the common faith of all who claim to be Christians. Christians pray with iconography. While lively debates existed, ultimately the truth of our faith was proclaimed and upheld by the Church. We can say this firmly and unequivocally because Christ and His Church are historical.
The Church has a story. We are reminded that every time we enter into the church on a Sunday morning we enter into the story of Christ, indeed our whole lives find their meaning in Christ and we are members of the historical church. We were baptized into Christ and His body. That we come and proclaim the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the restoration of icons, means that we are the keepers of this sacred tradition. It is our treasure to safeguard, teach and keep alive. We aren’t simply looking back at an event that happened a long time ago. We are affirming that we are in fact the same Church now as we were then. Our faith, dogma and theology have remained the same and they will remain forever because God is the same, Christ is the same and the Spirit is the same yesterday, today and forever.
Fr. Alexander writing about the Sunday of Orthodoxy said many beautiful things. I would like to share just a few quotes. He said,
“Our faith is rooted in that strange defeat which became the most glorious victory — the defeat of a man nailed to the cross, who rose again from the dead, who is the Lord and the Master of the world. This is the first triumph of Orthodoxy. This is the content of all our commemorations and of all our joy. This man selected and chose twelve men, gave them power to preach about that defeat and that victory, and sent them to the whole world saying preach and baptize, build up the Church, announce the Kingdom of God. And you know, my brothers and sisters, how those twelve men — very simple men indeed, simple fishermen — went out and preached. The world hated them, the Roman Empire persecuted them, and they were covered with blood. But that blood was another victory. The Church grew, the Church covered the universe with the true faith. After 300 years of the most unequal conflict between the powerful Roman Empire and the powerless Christian Church, the Roman Empire accepted Christ as Lord and Master.”
He continues saying,
“As we approach the most important moment of the Eucharist, the priest says, “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess….” What is the condition of the real triumph of Orthodoxy? What is the way leading to the real, the final, the ultimate victory of our faith? The answer comes from the Gospel. The answer comes from Christ Himself and from the whole tradition of Orthodoxy. It is love. Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess . . . confess our faith, our Orthodoxy. Let us, from now on, feel responsible for each other. Let us understand that even if we are divided in small parishes, in small dioceses, we first of all belong to one another. We belong together, to Christ, to His Body, to the Church. Let us feel responsible for each other, and let us love one another.”
Again he continues,
“At the end of the first century — when the Church was still a very small group, a very small minority, in a society which was definitely anti-Christian when the persecution was beginning — St. John the Divine, the beloved disciple of Christ, wrote these words: “And this is the victory, our faith, this is the victory.” There was no victory at that time, and yet he knew that in his faith he had the victory that can be applied to us today. We have the promise of Christ, that the gates of hell will never prevail against the Church. We have the promise of Christ that if we have faith, all things are possible. We have the promise of the Holy Spirit, that He will fill all that which is weak, that He will help us at the moment when we need help. In other words, we have all the possibilities, we have everything that we need, and therefore the victory is ours.”
The victory of Christ over death, the victory of righteousness over sin, these victories belong to Christ and to His body the Church, of which you are members. His victory over sin and death is our victory and His life is our life through the life giving Church. May these holy days be an invitation for each of us to offer praise and to enter more fully into the way, the truth and the life that is offered to us. AMEN.