The First Sunday of Great Lent: The Triumph of Orthodoxy [Hebrews 11:24-26, 11:32-12:2; John 1:43-51]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be!

Today, on the first Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy. Every year we have the same commemorations on the Sundays of Lent, because the Father’s of the Church want us to be reminded every year of certain things from the life of our Church. From an historical perspective, the first Sunday of the Great Fast was originally a commemoration of the Prophets Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. But in the modern Orthodox Church (since the mid-850’s), we celebrate and remember the restoration of the Holy Icons into the Churches.

In the Byzantine Empire during the 8th and 9th centuries, there were a series of emperors who were iconoclasts—they rejected the use of icons for various reasons. The Empress St. Theodora convened a council of the Church in 843 that once again affirmed the decision of the 7th Ecumenical Council (787), which had stated:
“We define that the holy icons, whether in color, mosaic, or some other material, should be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and liturgical vestments, on the walls, furnishings, and in houses and along the roads, namely the icons of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, that of our Lady the Theotokos, those of the venerable angels and those of all saintly people. Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to commemorate and love their prototype. We define also that they should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honor (timitiki proskynisis), but not of worship (latreia), which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper only for the divine nature … he who venerates the icon, venerates in it the reality for which it stands.”
This council has been remembered ever since, on the first Sunday of Great Lent, as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.”

The battle in Byzantium was between those who accepted the Faith as taught since the time of the Apostles, and those who would question that Faith and use their own reason to determine what the boundaries of the Christian Church should be. The Triumph of Orthodoxy is not only about the restoration of the Icons, but about the victory of the True Faith over those who would be innovators. And today, as we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy, we give thanks to God that the fullness of the revelation of Jesus Christ has been maintained in this world.

St. Jude, in his Epistle, writes about the presence of false teachers in the Church. And these false teachers are a problem primarily because by their false teaching they compromise the salvation of those who listen to them and believe them. The New Testament constantly warns us not to be led astray by false teachers. The Father’s further explain this by saying when we believe false things about God, we’re in danger of worshipping a god that’s not the True God. St. Jude writes that we’re to reject these teachers of falsehood, and we’re to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (verse 3). Once and for all delivered—if it’s ever lost, if it’s ever compromised, then it would disappear from the face of the earth forever. But as Christ promises the Apostles, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against [the Church]” (Matthew 16:18)

Today is a day of gratitude, because this faith that was once delivered has been preserved. Today is not a day of pride; it’s not a day to look down on or judge others; it’s not a day of condemnation on those outside the Church. In fact, in the Rite of the Triumph of Orthodoxy that we celebrate right after the Liturgy, we pray time and time again that all people be brought to the fullness of the Church for their salvation. And so at the beginning of our repentance, at the outset of our fast, we remind ourselves of exactly how good the Lord is. He’s given us everything we need for healing and salvation in His Holy Body, the Orthodox Christian Church. As we heard in the Gospel this morning, “You shall see greater things than these…you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:50-51). Jesus Christ is man’s access to God, in Him Heaven and earth are united. In Him, and His Body, are we saved.

Through two millennia of persecution and trials and temptations and sin and corruption, through two millennia of our failure as human beings, Christ has upheld and maintained His Church. We are the inheritors of this promise, we are handed the torch of the Faith by those gone on before us. We’ve been given a wonderful gift in the Church, and we’re called to share it. To let our fellow man know, there’s a place you can go for rest, and for healing, there’s a place you can go that will help you make sense of the mess of your life in this world.

We’re created for life with God. And today we give thanks that this path has been left open, and we remind ourselves of our duty—to maintain this gift, and to pass it on to others for their eternal life. As St. Paul writes, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us [let us embrace life in Christ’s Holy Church, let us judge all things by the revelation of the Gospel], looking to Jesus, the author and the finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). Glory to God for His gracious protection of the precious gift of the Body of Christ on earth. And glory to God for revealing this Truth to us, His unworthy servants. May we be found worthy of this inheritance on the Final Day.

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!