Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, March 13, 2022
Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40; John 1:43-51
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Ten years ago, I was present at a sermon on the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy given by the late Fr. Thomas Hopko, three years before he died. The title he gave the sermon was “What Triumph of Orthodoxy?” And he said that there never really was such a thing.
For a few minutes I want to meditate on this theme today of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. We often call today the “Sunday of Orthodoxy,” but it really is the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, a commemoration of the return in the year 843 of icons to Orthodox churches after a period of about a century of iconoclasm, the removal of icons and their destruction. It was a moment of restoration, a moment of triumph. Or so it seemed.
As we look around in our world, the idea that Orthodox Christianity is triumphant probably seems like something of a sad, ironic joke. Here in 2022, we are torn by the wounds of a society that has discovered deep divisions that erupt now into not just angry exchanges on social media and a total-war approach to politics but actual violence in the streets. Where is the message of peace and brotherhood? Where is the peace of the Prince of Peace? Is Orthodoxy triumphant here?
Or what about the vision of humane wholeness that the Church presents from Christ? Today, we have a radical revision of what it means to be men and women, what it means to be human itself, being preached in our institutions and supported by our governments. Is Orthodoxy triumphant here?
We have had vicious arguments over the worldwide pandemic. Some say it does not even exist. Some say that the relevant vaccines are unethical. Some say that the vaccines are even an eschatological sign—a “precursor” to the Mark of the Beast or even the Mark itself. Some say that those who refuse vaccines hate their fellow human beings and want them to die.
Some say that church leaders who take one position or another are apostates, heretics, schismatics. You can even find approved lists of “safe” parishes or bishops who adopt one approach or another, with warnings to stay away from compromised ones who will fatally stain your Christianity and prevent your salvation. And some even say that the whole Church has finally fallen away.
Many pronouncements are charged with a millenarian fervor, that the end of the world is coming or that one’s ideological opponents are trying to hasten the world’s end. Is Orthodoxy triumphant here?
But it is not just that the world is not being changed by Orthodox Christianity. Internally within the Church, consider that we have just recently been witnessing the invasion of one state by another state, and both states primarily include nations that are traditionally Orthodox Christians who even derive their traditions from the same historical community, namely, Kyivan Rus’.
Innocent people are dying, and many millions more are fleeing from their homes and lives, thrust suddenly into poverty and the unknown in neighboring countries or internally displaced in their own. Is Orthodoxy triumphant here?
At this present moment, there are also multiple Orthodox churches out of communion with each other, breaks in brotherhood on the basis of claims of territory and history. These breaks might seem faraway to us here in America, but their significance reaches even here, where some Orthodox clergy cannot serve with others, where there are arguments and dissensions between Orthodox Christians over who is right, who is the invader, who is behaving uncanonically. Is Orthodoxy triumphant here?
Perhaps less alarmingly—though it should be alarming to us—many Orthodox churches, including right here in North America, are experiencing demographic free-fall, as parishes and families watch whole generations simply slip away from life in the Church. For most, it is not so much that they are against the Church as that they find Christianity irrelevant and uncompelling. Is Orthodoxy triumphant here?
I could go on, but I won’t. You get the idea. Whether you look outside the Church or inside the Church, Orthodoxy does not seem very triumphant.
This failure of triumph presents a problem for us. For many Orthodox Christians, imagining a grand, peaceful Christendom, presided over perhaps by a Byzantine or Russian emperor, where everyone is an Orthodox Christian and the faith of the Church is woven into the warp and woof of every moment of life, in a glorious tapestry that re-presents to us the very Kingdom of Heaven itself—this is part of what forms our imagination of what it means to be Orthodox Christians.
Even those for whom this does not rise to the level of nationalistic fervor or fetishization of human monarchies may have some sense that that triumphal, integral Christendom really is how things ought to be. Earth ought to be an image of Paradise in Heaven, right? Are we not called to make the place we’re in into Paradise, a place where God dwells with His people?
And if that really is so, why is it that, after some 2,000 years at it, Orthodox Christianity has basically failed to turn the world into a triumph of Orthodoxy?
We might be tempted to give the answer that it is forces “out there” who have prevented us, but it is clear that even things entirely within the control of Orthodox Christians “in here” are not going that triumphantly well.
In that homily I heard in 2012 from Fr. Thomas Hopko, he said that the Church has never had an earthly triumph. But, he said, “the Church’s triumph is small groups of people who have remained faithful to God through the years. That’s it; nothing more. And they have suffered and been persecuted for it. O God Almighty, let us try to be one of those few and maybe God will have mercy on us. And even if we are unable or can’t be one of those few, let us at least try to emulate their example.”
But if that’s all the Church’s triumph will ever be, what hope do we have in this world? In the face of possible suffering and persecution, why should we strive to be one of those few faithful?
One of my favorite authors, J. R. R. Tolkien, said that, as a Christian, “I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory” (Letter 195).
There is something in us that wants that “final victory.” The continental United States has not seen war on its soil since the 1860s, and with the exception of some terrorist actions, it has been since the 1940s that any US territory was attacked in a major way. So, for those of us who live in a pretty peaceful part of the world, that things simply ought to be progressing toward a triumph of all that is good may be all the more frustrating for us when they do not. I mean, we are even people who complain when our cellphone service goes out.
But it is not wrong to want that “final victory.” In fact, as Christians, we really ought to want it. But also as Christians, we should understand that history itself is indeed one long defeat. And why should we expect differently? Christ told us that in this world we would have trouble and suffering. But He also said that we should be of good cheer, because He has overcome the world (John 16:33).
One of the images that Orthodox Christians sometimes feel triumphant about is when Christ said that He has established His Church upon the rock of faith, the confession of St. Peter. He said that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church (Matt. 16:18). From this, we conclude that the Church will not fall. And that is true.
But we should recall that gates are defensive structures, not offensive. That means that it’s Hell that’s on the defensive in this image, not the Church.
We have now just begun our Lenten journey. It is a journey of purification, a journey of suffering and struggle. But it is also a journey toward something, and that is the great Pascha of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.
And we will stand with Him as the gates of Hell do not prevail against Him, as His divine-human voice shivers their bolts and locks to their very foundation, as the brazen doors buckle under the force of the hammer of His Cross, as the devil himself is pinned beneath them as he wails out “Who is this King of Glory?!”
It is the Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in war. The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory.
He has thrown down the dark powers from their thrones. He has wiped away the stain of sin through His atoning forgiveness. And He is now defeating the last enemy, which is death.
And that, brothers and sisters, is the Triumph of Orthodoxy.
When He comes in His Kingdom, may we be found faithful.
To Him therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.