Fr John Behr’s Homily at Westchester Pan-Orthodox Vespers

Members of the St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary community attended the Pan-Orthodox Vespers on the Sunday of Orthodoxy (2/21/10), celebrated this year at Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church, Yonkers. The SVS contingent very much appreciated the hospitality showed by V. Rev. Jaroslav Sudick and his parish community. V. Rev. John Behr (SVS Dean) gave the Homily this evening. This is what he said...

"Today, the first Sunday in Lent, is known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy. This isn't just a general reference to orthodoxy, and it is not a congratulatory pat on the back after getting through the first week of Lent!

No, it commemorates something very specific: the restoration of the icons, after two periods of iconoclasm, two periods when, for various reasons, iconography was prohibited and icons were destroyed and those who defended the icons were persecuted. The holy icons are not simply religious art, and we don't place them in our churches and houses simply for decoration. They are a theological statement: they depict key aspects of our faith. Most importantly, of course, they show that God himself, whom no one has ever seen (and so all images were prohibited, as idolatry), this God has now become visible in his Son - our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the image of the invisible God - it is to him that we look to see and understand who and what God is, for in him the fullness of divinity dwells bodily - the fullness of divinity: we do not find God anywhere else.

So, as the apostles depicted him in words, we also depict him in colors, and all the aspects of his work of salvation, all the various events we celebrate; and we also depict all those who have put on Christ, all those in whose lives, words and deeds we can see the Spirit of Christ breathing - all the prophets, the Theotokos, apostles, martyrs and saints of every age. And we venerate these icons of Christ and his saints, not treating them as magic idols, certainly not worshipping creation rather than the creator, but we venerate the icons, paying honor to the ones depicted on them, worshipping the one God.

This is what we commemorate today, as we proclaim the Synodikon of Orthodoxy: What the prophets proclaimed and the apostles taught - that Christ is indeed true God; this is what the Church has received and this is the tradition that we maintain. This is what we proclaim in venerating an icon; honoring the saint and worshipping Christ as Lord. This is the one for whom the whole of creation was called into being; and so this is the faith which establishes the universe.

At the heart of our faith stands this mystery of Christ - let us never change it for anything else! Even before the first Sunday of Lent became the Sunday of Orthodoxy, commemorating the restoration of the icons, it still pointed in the same direction. From many centuries earlier, the first Sunday of Lent was given over to remembering the prophets; that is why we heard so much about them in the hymnography last night and again this morning in the Gospel and the Epistle during the liturgy. This commemoration of the prophets is really another aspect of the same mystery: the icons confirm what the prophets foretold.

But we are now also taken a step further. In the Liturgy we heard, in the Gospel, that when Christ called Philip, Philip went to tell Nathanial that: "We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote - Jesus of Nazareth" (John 1:45). Or, as we sang last night, the prophets spoke of the one who from all eternity was born from the immaterial and bodiless womb of the Father, yet was made flesh by being born from the Virgin, and so was seen by us on earth. The message of the apostles - that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ spoken of by the prophets - this is what the icons confirm: he has come visibly in the flesh.

Then in the Epistle we heard of the sufferings endured by the prophets as they looked to the things that God had planned for us. Or again as we sang last night: "the prophets refused to worship the creation instead of the Creator; they renounced the whole world for the Gospel's sake, and in their suffering they were conformed to thy Passion which they had foretold." The prophets, by concentrating all their hearts and strength on the promise of God, the Gospel, refusing to compromise with the world, and enduring all the suffering that this entails, in this way they themselves were conformed to Christ's passion, in this way THEY became images of Christ.

And let us make no mistake about this, this is what WE are also called to: not simply to be proud of our orthodoxy - that we have icons - but to become icons ourselves. We are to be sharers in Christ's passion, to be crucified with him, and so be conformed to the image of the Son of God. Thus, the Epistle finished by exhorting us: Being surrounded by this cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders us, let us throw off the sin that so easily entangles us, so that we can run with perseverance the race that is set out before us. We are, the Apostle says, to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, so that he now sits at the right hand of the Father (Heb 12:1-2).

What amazingly powerful words! The orthodoxy that we celebrate today is fulfilled not simply by having the right answers to particular questions, nor by preserving traditions for the sake of their antiquity, or particular practices because we think that they will make us better Christians. No, the goal is to have our attention captivated by, our gaze fixed upon, our ears opened to, and our hearts enthralled with our Lord Jesus Christ. He is for us the beginning and the end of all things: he is the one who began our faith and the one who will bring it to fulfillment.

For the joy that was set before him, he endured the Passion, and only by having his joy before us, are we able to set our hearts on high, above the things of this world, focused on the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, so that he can fashion us in his image.

But we all know how difficult this is, especially when everything about this world is thrown into uncertainty and confusion, when we can no longer feel safe and secure. If we no longer feel safe in whatever kind of security we had thought that we had established for ourselves, let us now take this opportunity to see where the treasure of our heart really lies...

If we are going to follow Christ on his path to Golgotha, to be able to enter the joy that lay before him, well, we need to set our hearts on high - above the supposed good things of this world. The Epistle already urged us to discard everything that holds us back, every sin and passion that entangles us in the things of this world. And this, of course, is why we are given the gift of Lent. Not so that we can undertake arduous tasks, and get through Lent, coming out at the other end satisfied with our performance (Lent is not here for us to "get through unscathed"), but so that we can learn again the joy that is given to us in Christ, the joy which alone can sustain us in this world. And, I would suggest, what prevents most of us from experiencing this joy is not that we are living in great wickedness - murder, licentiousness, heresy, and so on - but that we have become numb to the gifts which God has bestowed upon us. We are so familiar with the riches of our orthodoxy, that we overlook what they point us to.

That our minds and hearts should be captivated, held fast by Christ, also speaks to the other great theme of this Vespers on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, one that dates back not to some far off age and place, but to our contemporary situation.

We come together, from all jurisdictions, to celebrate this feast of Orthodoxy together, so making a powerful statement of faith: our common witness as the one, undivided, body of Christ. As the one body of Christ, it is vitally important that we not only acknowledge, but also express our unity. St Paul speaks very forcefully of the church as the body of Christ, pointing out that every member is needed: the hand cannot work if the eye is not sound and working together with the hand; nor can any other bodily member function properly without the whole body working together.

This is often taken as speaking of the hierarchical structure of the Church, and that is certainly true: all are needed, and all are needed to fulfill their God-given roles harmoniously together.

But it is also true of us as different church communities; when we overcome our differences - ethnic, social, family - whatever they may be - and come together in the common faith in Christ, then Christ is all the more manifest in us. Our differences are no longer obstacles to unity, but in fact become an expression of our unity: St Irenaeus, writing in the second century, when the churches were much more diverse than they are now, commented that "our differences in practice confirm our unity in faith."

But it will only be so, if we do indeed come together in the common faith, if it is Christ himself and he alone who binds us together, as the head does all the members of the body, not if it is anything else. If we try to come together in the name of anything else, it will be our own efforts, and bound to fail. If we come together in Christ - the one that the prophets saw, the apostles taught, the Church received, and whose presence we maintain - then God can work and overcome all our human limitations.

So again we are directed back to Christ - the image of God, the fullness of divinity - as our only hope. By his shed blood and his broken body, Christ has called us to be his Church.

We like to use the language of the Church triumphant: the glorious body with a mission to bring the whole world within its fold, and so manifest the Kingdom of God upon this earth. And this is indeed our mission: go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Mat 28:19).

But let us be careful that in doing this, in striving to bring all peoples to Christ, we don't accommodate ourselves to this world, begin to think in its terms, or reduce the Church to a worldly or national organization. We are called to come together, here and now, to be the one body of Christ,

overcoming all the differences of our backgrounds, bearing witness to the hope that one-day we will be able to overcome all the institutional, jurisdictional, structures that separate us, so that we will no longer be, as the apostle Paul puts it, xenoi kai paroikoi, "strangers and sojourners", that we won't simply be the diaspora of a nation, expats living abroad, waiting to go home.

But let us be careful how we now identify ourselves. For, the apostle continues, that we are no longer strangers and foreigners, is not because we have now become indigenous (replacing one national identity with another), but because we have become "fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God" (Eph 2.19).

If this is our citizenship - being members of the household of God - then we will always be in diaspora in this world. The Church must always understand herself as being in diaspora - never settled down, never accommodating herself to a particular time or place within this world and its history. Christians live by faith, the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, so that they are ‘strangers and exiles on this earth', searching for their true ‘homeland' (Heb 11.13-4), having no abiding city here on earth, but seeking the one which is to come (Heb 13.14). Or as the second century Epistle to Diognetus puts it: Christians "dwell in their own fatherlands, but as if sojourners in them; they shall all things as citizens, but suffer all things as strangers; every foreign country is their fatherland and every fatherland a foreign country" (Chap. 5).

We are in this world, but not of it; we must indeed live somewhere, in some country and culture, but we can never settle down anywhere and claim it as our own, our proper home, or allow ourselves to be identified in this way.

In a world in which being a Christian is becoming ever harder - whether because of the oppression of others, or because of "secularism" or because of our own addiction to consumption - let us make sure that we don't take refuge in any other identity - nationalistic, economic, political ... whatever it is that is offered to us, even under religious cover, as a means of understanding ourselves and belonging to a larger group. Let us accept no other identity but that of Christ alone.

Only if we realize that our identity does not lie in whatever identities we create in this world, or have foisted upon us by the circumstances of our birth, education, and society (or "jurisdiction"), but rather that our identity lies hidden with Christ in God, only then and in this way can we actually begin to find and manifest our unity together, here and now, as the one body of Christ.

But this requires that we accompany him to his Passion, that just like the prophets in their suffering, and like the martyrs in theirs, we also may become images of Christ, icons of him.

This and nothing else is our task: that we conform ourselves to Christ. And this is why we are given the gift of Lent; that, sharing in the joy set before him, we too can follow the path to Golgotha and the empty tomb, with a broken but merciful heart, so being conformed to his image, so becoming ourselves icons of God.

Only in this way will we be celebrating the feast of Orthodoxy in spirit and in truth."