After concelebrating the Divine Liturgy at Saints Peter and Paul Church, South River, NJ on the morning of Orthodoxy Sunday—February 25, 2018—His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon; His Eminence, Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America; and His Eminence, Archbishop Michael of the Orthodox Church in America’s Diocese of New York and New Jersey attended the Triumph of Orthodoxy Vespers in the evening at the same church.
Clergy and faithful from across the region filled the church for the service, which was hosted by the OCA’s New Jersey Deanery.
The text of the homily delivered by Metropolitan Joseph appears below.
In 2017, Metropolitan Joseph welcomed Metropolitan Tikhon and Archbishop Michael at the Antiochian Archdiocese’s Saint Nicholas Cathedral, Brooklyn, NY, for the celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy Vespers, at which Metropolitan Tikhon preached. [See related story.]
Triumph of Sunday of Orthodoxy Vespers
Homily Delivered by His Eminence, Metropolitan Joseph of the
Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
Saints Peter and Paul Church, South River, New Jersey
February 25, 2018
Your Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon, Your Eminence Archbishop Michael, Reverend Clergy, Beloved Faithful:
Christ is in our midst!
We are blessed to gather together today in this beautiful church on this Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, having traversed – by God’s grace – the first week of the Great Fast. Earlier this week, the Church called us in her sacred hymnography: “Let us begin the pure fast, O people, which is the salvation of our souls. Let us serve the Lord with fear; let us anoint our heads with the oil of good deeds. Let us wash our faces with waters of purity. Let us not use empty phrases in prayer, but as we have been taught, let us cry out: Our Father in heaven, forgive us our trespasses, for You are the Lover of Mankind.”
This beautiful hymn reminds us that our fast should be a “pure” fast, not merely a fast. To have a pure fast, we should add to our fasting from foods asking forgiveness of one another, repenting of our sins, increasing our prayer, attending divine services, refraining from idle chatter, doing good deeds, and bringing our focus to the “one thing needful.”
From a worldly perspective, our ascetical endeavors in Lent seem to be borne of self-hatred, a morbid deprivation of all the things that make life enjoyable. And, furthermore, the “triumph” we are celebrating today is a restoral of artwork that is not sensual or passionate but otherworldly and spiritual. Critics of our Church – sometimes even fellow Christians – may argue that our spiritual practices during Lent and the sacred art we honor on its first Sunday are in some ways “anti-human.”
We answer that nothing could be more beneficial to our souls and bodies – to our humanity – than this time of the Great Fast. Our journey in Great Lent should not be simply a rush to “do it all” – attend all the services, strictly observe all the dietary rules, and say all the correct prayers. We are reminded that we need to repent – to truly change our ways of thinking and being. To truly repent, we need three things: reconciliation, purification, and restoration. Without these three things, our fasting and prayers are – as the hymn says – empty. To be forgiven, we are called to forgive. When our hearts are softened by this reconciliation, they can become purified. Once our hearts are purified, we are granted restoration. Let us delve more deeply into the meaning of this process of restoration.
As we reflected last weekend on the casting out of our forebears, Adam and Eve, from their prefect communion with God in paradise, we are reminded that we live this life in exile. By chasing after our own egotistical desires, we become inclined to more and more shameful passions. We become more and more enslaved. We continue to cover over the image and likeness of our Creator. We lose our dignity as sons and daughters of God and become incapable of seeing that divine dignity in our neighbors.
So much of our human life – what the secular world may describe as “living life to the fullest” – is really nothing more than learning to cope with this estrangement from God. Whether or not we are conscious of it, we all are thirsting for the communion our forebears had in the Garden of Eden. Yet, instead of returning to the Father, as we saw the Prodigal Son do a few short weeks ago, our world wants us to continue to live in the mire of the pig sty. The late Father Thomas Hopko would often say that we read self-help books and magazines in order to learn how to live a happier and better life in the pig sty!
When we forget our Creator, and His high calling for us to live as His sons and daughters, we lose His image and likeness, and we lose our humanity. During this time of the Great Fast, we rise up, like the Prodigal Son, to come to our senses and realize that we are living in the mire of the pig sty. We run home to live as servants in our Father’s house, yet He runs to embrace us and give us a robe of virtues, a ring of divine contemplation, and a banquet consisting of the Holy Eucharist. When we free ourselves from slavery to our passions, God restores to us our freedom, our true humanity.
This is why our celebration of the Holy Icons is so important on this first Sunday of Lent. Why? Saint Athanasios, in his work On The Incarnation, teaches about how Mankind had lost its knowledge of the True God. It had forgotten what human beings were supposed to be like. He asks: What was God to do? He answers in terms of art: “You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-Holy Son of God.”
In other words, we are meant to reflect our Creator as a portrait is meant to reflect its subject. We are called to be holy as God is holy, perfect as God is perfect. Our Lord Jesus Christ came to show us once again what it means to be truly human. To be restored to that pristine image and likeness. To rise up from the “pig sty” and return again to communion with God in our Father’s House.
And Our Lord did not come merely to model what it means to be truly human. His taking flesh meant the deification of our human nature. As Saint Athanasios so profoundly taught, He took on all that we are by nature, that we might take on all that He is by Grace. By destroying death by death, He opened the gates of Paradise and welcomed us once again into participation in Divine Life.
These holy icons are in our churches today because of this unshakeable belief in the actual incarnation in the flesh of the Son and Word of God. The iconoclasts attributed the prohibition of images in the Old Testament to the icons, because they forgot to realize that the prohibition was against portraying God, Whom none at that time had seen. When Christ became man, man was able to see God. This celebration today is a very powerful affirmation that God truly became a human being. He truly ennobled our human nature. He truly united Himself to us.
And what do we see around us on this Sunday? Not merely artwork that portrays the physical reality of some people we admire. No, we honor holy icons of saints who became truly human. These icons are not a rejection of human nature – as lovers of Renaissance art may claim – but a proclamation of what human nature is meant to be because of the incarnation of the Son and Word of God.
We live in a world that is actually full of images. We have our television sets, our smart phones, our tablets, bulletin boards along the highways, posters on buildings – we are inundated with images. These images are often glamorous and pleasing to the eye. Many times they are highly sexualized with persons of great earthly beauty. The images often come with passionate music, witty banter, rousing speeches. In a world like this, our Holy Icons may seem boring at best, or as we said earlier, a rejection of human “nature.” But what kind of nature is this? A human nature that is full of itself. Full of its fleeting outward beauty at the expense of eternal inner beauty. Full of its outward show at the expense of inner depth. Full of its self-promotion at the expense of self-sacrificial love.
And the world we see around us? Full of madness. We see violence throughout the world. Persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Destructive civil wars. Threats of nuclear annihilation. Racial enmity. And unimaginable shootings of the most innocent, most precious, most God-like of our humanity – our children – as we have tragically witnessed most recently in Parkland, Florida.
Without honoring the holy images of true humanity within the Grace-filled life of the Church, we see how the world descends into demonic insanity. We see how we become unable to recognize the image and likeness of God in the other – not even in pure and innocent children. When we lose the sight of the image God in one another, we witness the way in which we destroy one another.
Beloved in Christ, let us not process today with the Icons and reverence them merely out of habit. Let us not mindlessly take part in the Great Fast as though we are merely on a diet to lose weight. This Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, let us embrace a triumph of our true human nature. Therefore – If we honor the icons, we must honor the Savior who took on our flesh to sanctify us. Let us embrace that sanctification through our fasting, prayer, and good deeds. If we reverence the icons of the Savior and His Mother and the Saints today, let us reverence the living icons of the people we see in our everyday lives. If we claim to honor God in the images we have on the icons, it is a great blasphemy to refuse to honor the image of God in our neighbor!
We proclaim today that the Orthodox Faith established the universe. Let us as those who have inherited that Faith strive during this time of Great Lent to live that Faith. When we live that Faith – as taught Saint Seraphim of Sarov – a thousand souls around us will be saved.
May Our Lord Jesus Christ grant to all of us a holy and blessed time of the Great Fast! May the Holy Icons provide us with spiritual inspiration and may those whom they portray intercede for us! May we be found worthy to worship His Life-giving and Saving Passion and His Glorious Third-day Resurrection! And by participation in these great saving acts of God, may we be ever more truly human!
May the Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of us unto the ages of ages. Amen.