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"What is This Victory?" Metropolitan Joseph on the Sunday of Orthodoxy

On March 1, 2015, His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph presided over the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy for the Sunday of Orthodoxy at St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Brooklyn, NY, with host The Very Reverend Thomas Zain. Other hierarchs present were The Right Reverend Michael, bishop of New York and New Jersey (Orthodox Church in America); The Right Reverend Bishop Nicholas, auxiliary of Brooklyn and resident assistant to the Metropolitan; and His Grace John, bishop of Naro-Fominsk and administrator of the Patriarchal Parishes in the USA.

For the evening's Vespers, Metropolitan Joseph joined Bishop Michael, Bishop Nicholas, area clergy, Antiochian seminarians, and the faithful who braved the snowy weather, at St. John the Baptist (OCA) in Passaic, NJ. He offered the following reflections on the significance of the day. (View the photo gallery on Facebook.)

As the Prophets beheld, as the Apostles have taught , as the Church has received, as the Teachers have dogmatized, as the universe has agreed, as Grace has shown forth, as Truth has revealed, as falsehood has been dissolved, as Wisdom has presented, as Christ has awarded: thus we declare, thus we assert, thus we preach Christ our true God, and honor His Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy Icons; on the one hand worshiping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord; and on the other hand honoring as true servants of the same Lord of all, and accordingly offering them veneration. This is the Faith of the Apostles; this is the Faith of the Fathers; this is the Faith of the Orthodox; this is the Faith which has established the universe! 

(The Synodicon : The Affirmation of the Orthodox Faith) 

I greet you with joy on this glorious Sunday of Orthodoxy which commemorates the victory of truth and wisdom over the forces of falsehood.

The Affirmation of the Orthodox Faith quoted above was first proclaimed in the year 843 by the Holy Fathers of the Synod of Constantinople.  After almost one hundred years of persecution against the veneration of icons, these Holy Fathers proclaim that the Church possesses the truth.  That truth tells us that not only are the icons acceptable for veneration, but they are necessary.  For we cannot believe that God became fully human unless we also embrace the holy icon of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We cannot believe that His saints are well pleasing to Him unless we venerate their holy icons with a kiss of love and respect. 

In his three treatises called Against Those Who Attack The Divine Images, St. John of Damascus explains how God can be portrayed now because He took upon Himself flesh and became man.  He writes "If we attempted to make an image of the invisible God, this would be sinful indeed and if we made images of men and believed them to be gods we would be truly impious. We do neither of these things. But we are not mistaken if we make the image of God incarnate, Who was seen on earth in the flesh, associated with men, and in His unspeakable goodness assumed the nature, feeling, form, and color of our flesh."

So, in one sense, we remember the events which occurred over eleven hundred years ago.  But it is never true for the Orthodox that we only remember these events.  We do not treat these events as only historical and sentimental, with some nice ceremony to commemorate them.  Rather, we actually participate today in the victory of the Orthodox Faith over falsehood.  If our actions were only consigned to the past, we would truly have a dead faith, content to simply remember those things that occurred long ago, but having no current vibrancy or life.  But you might ask, exactly what is this victory?

First and foremost, our victory comes from our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ who was nailed to the Cross, and who rose from the dead on the third day.  It is the victory of the empty tomb that is the source of all of our hope and consolation.  We must always remember that although we still engage in warfare against the Prince of this world, the final victory has already been won by our Lord Jesus Christ, and we are the inheritors of that victory.

Second, we celebrate the victory of gathering together tonight as one Orthodox community, as brothers and sisters in the Faith, not as separate jurisdictions.  As the psalmist writes in Psalm 133 verse 1, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”.  I must emphasize that in coming together as one Orthodox community we in no way minimize the treasured things that have been given to us by our ancestors who came to this land with courage and established the churches according to the cultures of their homelands.  Rather we rejoice in this diversity of cultures and ethnic traditions and we strive to weave together a beautiful unified Orthodox tapestry which embraces our ancestral heritage.

Third, we celebrate the presence of the Holy Orthodox Church in North America and Her perseverance in the face of a culture which embraces values which are so foreign to our Faith.  A culture which emphasizes material wealth, the elevation of self over the other, and the worship of many things which are not the True God.

Now allow me to give a warning that we not rest on the laurels of these victories.  The future will be upon us as soon as tomorrow, and we have much work to do.

We have inherited a Faith which has been upheld by the blood of many martyrs, and now it is our responsibility to carry the torch of our faith.  We do this with the remembrance of the promise of our Lord that “upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18)

Today, we have made our procession of victory with the Holy Icons which bring to life for us the blessed lives of the Saints.  But this is not sufficient.  Each of us must become a living icon which shines forth with the bright reflection of God.  In this way, the brilliance of the reflection of God will overshadow any of our differences; we will see only the holiness of the icon.  We must not distract ourselves with any discussion of our differences but rather focus on each of us as the reflection of God.

We live in a world where there is much suffering.  One only needs to call to mind the current tragedy which is occurring in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Ukraine and parts of Africa.  Trying to help these suffering people without first becoming the reflection of God would be as impossible as the Apostles themselves trying to multiply the five loaves and two fish to feed the five thousand.  It will only be when we empty ourselves, and bring the suffering of these people to our Lord that He will cause the healing.

One of our main challenges is to reengage the people of the Church, especially our young people.  We must work very hard to rekindle a burning passion for the Church in the heart of every faithful Orthodox Christian.  A passion which will compel us to place the Church first and foremost among all of our priorities.  Why must it be true that our people can become passionate about seeing a Broadway show, or going on vacation, but they cannot have the same passion for the Church.  This goal is well within our reach, but it will take strong and courageous leadership, and most importantly, love.  If I was going to sum up the main problem that we have today it would be that we do not have the love of Jesus Christ burning within each and every heart.  Our young people especially are yearning to be loved, yearning to belong to something larger than themselves, and they are yearning for heroes.  The Orthodox Faith has everything that they need, but they do not know it yet.  We must speak to our young people in contemporary terms while retaining the timeless truths of our faith.  The Orthodox faith does not exist as a museum where people can come and dust off old exhibits and comment on how beautiful they used to be.  The Orthodox faith is vibrant, alive, and relevant here and now.  Our challenge is to show, by our example, this vibrancy and life. 

We now find ourselves having completed the first week of this Great Fast as we prepare ourselves to participate in the glorious resurrection of our Lord.  It is clear that there is only one appropriate path to follow on our journey to the empty tomb, and that is the path of a loving child who returns to their loving Father.  A path which offers up to God the only thing that we can offer, and the only thing that He asks of us.  That is the offering of ourselves, which requires a change in heart, a radical departure from all of the things of this world which separate us from God.  A departure from all of the things which prevent us from fulfilling our ultimate destiny, that is to strive to “be perfect just as your Father in Heaven is perfect”. (Matthew 5:48)

Our gathering this evening is a strong message to all of our clergy and our faithful, young and old alike, that we are one Orthodox community.  But we cannot fully realize the beauty of our Faith until we immerse ourselves in the prayer, fasting, and almsgiving of this Holy Season of Great Lent.

Therefore my beloved in Christ, I ask you to join me in this Lenten journey which will culminate in the glorious resurrection of our Lord.  I ask you to join me in resisting the ways of our secular culture and to utilize this season to cleanse, renew and restore our souls and our hearts.  I ask you to join me in waiting patiently for the time of this season when we will indeed leap for joy as we witness the light of the Empty Tomb.  I ask you to simply open your hearts to God so that He may fill them with the peace, love, and joy that can never be taken away.