The title given to this Sunday, the first Sunday of Great Lent, is the Triumph of Orthodoxy. Now, many Orthodox commentators today dislike this title quite strongly. It smacks of triumphalism, they say. They feel that Orthodoxy should be more humble, more self-effacing but to assert the victory of one’s faith is not necessarily triumphalist at all. Scripture commends it. Listen to St John in his first letter chapter 5 and verse 4: ‘This is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith.’
But why would we want to overcome the world? Doesn’t our faith declare that God made the world good and that Christ died for the world? Clearly we are using the word “world” in two quite different ways. In the literal and plain meaning of the word the “world” simply means the Earth we live on or the society in which we live. This is not what we are to overcome. Our faith is a victory over worldliness, in a word, that which opposes God, be it secularism, hedonism (the pursuit of pleasure), or human pride. It is this worldliness that fights against God and of which our Lord speaks in the gospel of St John when He warns his disciples of impending persecution and unbelief.
“I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”[John 17:14-16]
This is what we have to overcome, triumph over, and only faith will give us this victory and so we come to the point of this day’s celebration. The faith that overcomes the world is the true faith, Orthodoxy, not heterodoxy or otherwise believing. Other versions of Christianity may retain much of what is good and true but they are always deficient in some measure if not downright heretical. It really does matter therefore for the sake of gaining victory over the world that we embrace the true faith, Orthodoxy, as the fathers taught it.
If we try to dig a hole in the garden with a toothpick then we soon discover the importance of using the right tools. Think of faith like this. It’s not just that we have the tool, we have the right tool. There are some versions of the Christian faith, heterodox ones, which simply are not up to the task of overcoming the world. These usually end up surrendering to the world rather than transforming it.
However, we Orthodox need to be careful. Being in the right Church isn’t a guarantee that Orthodoxy will just grow on us and within us effortlessly. People may hear the true faith being expounded Sunday after Sunday in church and still completely miss the point. What is required is a critical mind, an open mind, a mind doing business with God. It also requires a heart … a heart in love with God and with our neighbours. Not just a heart of course. It requires a strong and effective will so that Orthodoxy can be translated into Orthopraxy … “right action” as well as “true belief.” This then is what overcomes the world, a true faith, consciously, deliberately and effectively lived for God.
Such a man who lived this faith was St. Athanasios the Great of Alexandria. I choose him to illustrate my theme because he spent such a long part of his active ministry “contra mundum” – “against the world” as it has often been described. He was fighting a pernicious heresy called Arianism which taught that Christ was not true God. So widespread had this heresy become, that, as St. Jerome lamented:- “The world woke up and groaned to find itself Arian.” St. Athanasios fought against this heresy throughout much of his life and only in his closing years did he have any respite. He longed for the Triumph of Orthodoxy but he knew that it would not come about unless there was holiness of life. It is fitting, therefore, at this time of Great Lent that we listen to this saint as he closes his great work: “On the Incarnation of the Word.”
“But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so. Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will receive that which is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven.”
- On The Incarnation of the Word (9:57)