By Brother Christopher
Every year on the first Sunday of Lent we celebrate the “Triumph of Orthodoxy,” which officially commemorates the Seventh Ecumenical Council’s proclamation of the doctrine of the veneration of icons in the 9th century: 842 A.D. to be precise. That’s a long time ago: 1176 years. Nevertheless, it’s always a joyful occasion, one we fittingly repeat each year at the beginning of Lent. Yet, we misunderstand the feast if we view it solely in historical terms, looking backwards nostalgically to the “glory days” of Orthodoxy, when it spanned the Roman Empire, when it was understood as “Christianity” and not simply one small denomination among a vast diversity of Christian churches. We can be tempted to be self-conscious about our numerically challenged church, intimidated by our larger Christian neighbors, and miss focusing on the real challenge this feast offers us: the very revelation of God. For what is at the core of venerating icons isn’t so much a nostalgic homage to tradition as an absolute living faith in the power of the incarnation.
Through icons, the invisible, inaccessible God—the God whom the Old Testament forbade ever to be represented in art—is seen, not as a historical portrait, but as a symbolic image that expresses an invisible spiritual reality, that leads us to worship the reality which the icon depicts, which is why any true icon becomes a true meeting place between the human being and God. It doesn’t really matter what its theme is—Christ, the Virgin Mary, a saint, a biblical scene—every icon is a ray of light that emanates from God, that reveals a particular aspect of the divine presence. The power of the icon is that it speaks the truth of the Risen Christ, and of the Church that makes up his mystical body.
This is why we can enter into this celebration wholeheartedly, without a trace of defensiveness or self-consciousness. For it is not our triumph that we speak about, but God’s triumph: God’s triumph, which overcomes all human limitations, all human imperfections, all human sin. As Saint Paul reminds us so memorably, when all is said and done, God will be all in all, not in a manner that robs us of our personal identity, but in a manner that transforms it into a free act of communion. God’s triumph is a victory of life over death, light over darkness, hope over despair. For in Jesus, the unknowable God draws near to each of us and is known, not in the image of a despotic and fearsome ruler, but in the image of the suffering servant, the God whose love is so steady and faithful that he goes off in search of whichever sheep has lost its way; indeed, who ultimately lays down his life for this sheep. This is the God the icon reveals, that we venerate every time we reverence an icon. This is what we glory in: the God whose love is more expansive and incomprehensible than we could ever dream of, whose reality sets us free to love in return. For God loves us absolutely, no matter how personally unlovable we may feel. God believes in us, and it is this faith that has the power to unleash heretofore unrealized energies of love in the Church.
If any of you doubt this power, if you think it a pipedream, something “too good to be true,” I’d invite you to reflect on what really leads to personal change and transformation. What has made the most difference in you becoming your best self? Has it been the fear of punishment, the threat of eternal damnation, or has it been the understanding and encouragement of those who believed in you no matter what difficulties you were going through? Was it experiencing that love, that goodness that freed you to really change, to become a new you? I would maintain in the strongest possible terms that this is precisely an image of the way God works, and it is witnessed to abundantly in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
So “Orthodoxy Sunday” is a feast of good news—of joy. Yet, on this Sunday of triumph, it is important to remember what sort of triumph we are speaking of. Orthodoxy’s triumph is counter-intuitive; it comes only through a progressive identification with the Lord Jesus, and thus it resists any sort of triumphalistic notions. The great danger in such a feast is that we may make it about ourselves instead of God. How easy it is to believe our own press releases and fall into a toxic triumphalism that distorts the gospel by presuming that the reason we’ve been given this gift is that somehow we merit it, that we’re in fact better than others, more deserving of God’s love than those of other denominations or religions, that being Orthodox allows us to snub, ignore, or dismiss others. The example of Jesus makes it infinitely clear that this has nothing to do with real Orthodoxy. Real Orthodoxy is less about an institution than it is about loving in the image of Jesus. We are Orthodox to the extent that we do this. And if being Orthodox is something other than this, then forgive me for asking “But what good is it?” Jesus models a love for us that transcends all division, that seeks to promote understanding and communion—and even when disagreements separate us from other Christians, we can be gracious and loving in our encounters with them. What an in-your-face triumphalism reveals is a fear and defensiveness more reflective of doubt and insecurity than mature faith and conviction.
Brothers and Sisters, the message of Orthodoxy Sunday is something to be kept in mind throughout the year, not just during Great Lent. Let us firmly resolve to focus on the triumph of God, on God’s power working in us, leading us to express this concretely in a disciplined life of gratitude and humility. This is the legacy of the saints, this is the legacy of the Orthodox.