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Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy

The Triumph of Orthodoxy

First Sunday of Lent—Triumph of Orthodoxy / St. Sophronius of Jerusalem / Heb. 11.24-26, 32 – 12.2; John 1.43-51

F/S/HS. Brothers and sisters, this morning is the first Sunday in Great and Holy Lent, a Sunday titled by our ancient church as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” 

That word triumph.  Personally I love the word.  But with others I know and respect, I am as well wary of the word triumph, in part because of how some Orthodox Christians have abused the word by coopting it ways that mean something other than how traditional Orthodoxy has intended its use.

Listen to the words of St. Paisios on the proper use of the word triumph. Where we claim the triumph of our faith over the heterodox, over those who in no way practice our faith, let us do so with the humble meekness of our Lord, absent any vestiges of the gleeful triumphalism that assert one’s self as saved while others are condemned.  Where such triumphalism exist, you O Christian have failed to take the axe to the root of your pride, excising that triumphal root through humility, self-accusation, and love of your neighbor, who, though he not believe as you do, is nonetheless loved by God, Who seeks his salvation.

That I personally love the word triumph is to say that it captures the majestic heights of something extraordinary, even miraculous, experiences in our life that move our soul. 

I suspect that many of you here this morning can remember such experiences in your own life, some of these experiences very personal in nature, where the word triumph rightly captures that experience.  Says St. Maria Skobtsova: All of us, every single one of us, need triumphs in our life, to help us along the journey of our faith, to help us ever fall in love with God Who is the triumph of all life.

I was with a husband and wife recently.  She had undergone a most difficult longsuffering pregnancy, followed by a staggeringly long labor, when, finally, their little girl came forth into the world.  She used these words to describe her labor and birth: Father Daniel, looking back on my experience, the word triumph best captures what I went through.  Her husband looked at her, tears in his eyes.  Triumph—what a beautiful word, he said.

Similarly, I was speaking with one of you recently, who has fought so long and hard to overcome a particular passion, an addiction really, one that has haunted you for years.  God’s grace and mercy has been so abundant recently, you shared, your face, your smile the most intriguing mixture of smile and sobriety.  That grace and mercy, you then continued, helped me triumph over this struggle.  It feels so overwhelmingly freeing to have achieved such a triumph.

Two others amongst us are—in my mind—living exemplars of the word triumph.  We could well have lost our brother, Stephen Gerling, following his freak accident only a few weeks back.  Stephen has fought the good fight: The fight to heal his body, the fight to draw more near to God in intercessory prayer and gratitude amidst a crisis in his life; the fight to live life to its fullest with his beloved, Julia.  Steven characterizes all of this, he shared with me a few days ago, as something of a triumph.

And there is another of you amongst us, Bethany Redd.  Bethany is one of the only persons living, who, given her thoracic T-12 complications and spina bifida, has succeeded in learning how to walk, with the help of her crutches.  She has broken her legs multiple times, in multiple places, during that effort to walk.  Words like miracle have commonly been used to characterize Bethany’s achievements.  One word that repeatedly comes to me, as I’ve come to know Bethany, is the word triumph.

The reality of triumph is everywhere in the tradition and history of we Orthodox Christians, dear ones.  This morning’s Epistle tolls loudly with triumph.  The roll call of Old Testament figures—Samson and Jephthah, David and Samuel, and the prophets—who, through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouth of lions, quenched the violence of fire … on and on Paul triumphantly goes in his Epistle to the Hebrews.  Women received their dead raised to life again.  Others were tortured, mocked, imprisoned, left destitute and wandering in deserts and the mountains.  Through their faith they persevered (Heb. 11.32ff).

This dear ones is the triumph of the cloud of witnesses that surrounds us, that inspires us to lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and inspires us to run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12.1-2).

The ultimate triumph of course is the triumph of our Lord over death, where, by His death the God-man Jesus has trampled down our own death.

Exactly six weeks from last night we will gather here in this temple, in the dark of night, and hear the triumphant words of St. John Chrysostom, Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.  He that was taken by death has annihilated it!… O death, where thy sting?  O hades, where is thy victory?  Christ is Risen, and you (O death) are overthrown.  I ask you dear sisters and brothers, what word best captures St. John’s sentiment, his proclamation?  For me that word is triumph.

Some 800 years following our Lord’s death and Resurrection, another triumph would occur, the one we honor and celebrate this morning.  With the spiritual aid of St. John of Damascus and his defense of the role of icons, a defense rooted in the Incarnation of God as the God-man Jesus Christ, the Seventh Ecumenical Counsel was called to adjudicate the role of icons in Christian worship, both in Churches and in person’s homes.

Yet even though that council affirmed the use of icons, the debate about icons raged on for decades thereafter.  Some seventy years after that Seventh Council, the Emperor Theophilos was still opposed to the role of icons in Christian life.  With his death, his very own wife, the Empress Theodora and their son, Michael, along with the Patriarch, Patriarch Methodius, summoned a synod in 843 to try and bring final peace on the subject of icons.  Talk about a house divided: A husband and father, Theophilos, who despised icons; and a wife and son who embraced their use!

At the conclusion of the first session of that synod meeting, a huge throng of people, led by Theodora and Michael and Patriarch Methodius, made a triumphal procession from the church at Blachernae to another church, Hagia Sophia, to honor the triumphal restoration of the use of icons in Christian worship.  A perpetual feast was decreed from that time forward, that every first Sunday of Great and Holy Lent would be a day of honor, in honor of the role of icons in the life of those who call themselves Christians.

How very easy for us dear ones to take for granted the long suffering triumph of those back in the 8th and 9th centuries, who, through their suffering labors, have bequeathed to us the greatest of gifts. 

When our new narthex walls were being painted these last weeks, and therefore entirely bare and void of all icons, I thought to myself while standing alone here one evening after vespers: What would our temple be like, what would this faith be like, what would I be like, if we did not have these icons adorning our walls, icons which bear witness to the lives of the saints who loved God, and who intercede for us.  God forbid!  Thank God for the triumph of a genuine Orthodoxy.

An Orthodoxy that is rooted in tradition and the Scriptures; rooted in the humility of the saints; rooted in a spirit of meek and humble love; rooted in repentance and contrition of heart; rooted in that last stanza of the prayer that we pray throughout this season of Holy Lent—the Prayer of St. Ephraim: Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own failings and not condemn my brother

This, brothers and sisters, is the Orthodoxy that we gladly proclaim as triumphant this morning.  Not a puny, tiny Orthodoxy made puny and tiny because we create boxes for who is safely in God’s Kingdom, and who is exempt.  Not an Orthodoxy that claims wholesale affiliation with a particular party or politic.  Not an Orthodoxy that says you must align yourself with a particular ideology.  Not an Orthodoxy of might makes right.  Not an Orthodoxy that renders judgment, absent love and mercy. 

Such an Orthodoxy is in no way a triumphal Orthodoxy.  Instead, it is an Orthodoxy that creates scandal, the scandal born out of bearing witness to a Christianity that is made more in one’s own image than the image of the living Jesus Christ.  May our Lord’s living life, His way, His truth, His Cross and Resurrection be our way of life and our triumph in this broken world of ours.  Thank God for the fragrance of such a triumph!  F/S/HS.