Occasional lectures by Fr. Liviu Barbu, an Orthodox priest and scholar living and working in the UK. Fr. Liviu is a noted scholar, the rector of the parish of St. Philothea the Martyr and the Venerable Bede in Norwich, and the associate priest of St. George Romanian Orthodox Church in London.
Fr. Liviu Barbu, Rector of the Romanian Orthodox Church in Norwich and Tutor at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, UK, delivers the homily at Vespers of the Sunday of Orthodoxy at the Antiochian Cathedral of Saint George, London. The presiding hierarch is the Greek Archbishop Gregorios of Thyaira and Great Britain.
March 18, 2014 Length: 12:41
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Your Graces, fellow Fathers and Mothers, beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, we celebrate today the triumph of the true faith over the heresy of iconoclasm and all wrong teachings that befell Christianity: victory proclaimed in Byzantium in the year of 845, Christian Era. Before that, there had been seven ecumenical councils and many local ones, organized through the care of the Church and of the political leaders, zealous in seeking the truth and in preserving our faith as it was handed down by our Lord Jesus Christ to the apostles and to the saints after their own days. Whenever the evil one attacked the Church, this faith had been debated, explained, deepened, and proclaimed true by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This faith has its rock foundation the confession that Christ is the Son of God, the testimony on which God has built his Church against which the gates of hell will not prevail. Thus, by divine protection, the Church and its teaching will always be triumphant.
Our faith is rooted in that of our ancestors, back to Patriarch Abraham, as we sing in the procession of icons: “As the prophets beheld, as the apostles have taught, as the Church has received: this is the faith of the Orthodox.” This confession of faith has been sealed by the blood of Christ, shed on the cross, and it has been confirmed as true in his resurrection. It has also been shielded by the blood of the holy martyrs, like those 40 from Sebaste whose memory we have celebrated today. The true teaching tells us about who Christ is within the Holy Trinity, the true God of true God, of essence with the Father. Our faith also tells us about who Christ is amongst us: He became man for our salvation, for us to know him, he by whom all things were made, and also to know his Father, the Author of all creation; and the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier of the universe.
Today we celebrate the victory of the true Christian teaching, not only against the heresies of the past but against all adverse powers and their misleading doctrines, teachings, misconceptions, ways of life, proclaimed loud and openly as new truths or professed secretly. Christ himself is the truth and the only truth in which all other truthful expressions find their rightful place. Our faith is a combination of things seen and unseen, consciously felt and hoped for. It has nonetheless an empirical quality that cannot be ignored.
Christ, the Word of God, is preached throughout the world because he was seen in human flesh. The apostles had seen his glory on Mount Tabor, in his crucifixion, and witnessed the glory of his resurrection and ascension. St. John the Evangelist, the beloved apostle, the one who leaned his head on the Lord’s chest, declares to us, in the name of the other apostles what they saw with their eyes and touched with their hands (1 John 1-3). In the epistle to the Hebrews, we are enjoined to find peace with all men and holiness without which no man shall see the Lord. The first thing required for holiness is the confession of a true faith, of the things in heaven and on earth as they have been established and revealed to us by God and not changed according to the minds of men.
This is an act of humility and humbleness, namely, to receive and to pass on exactly what we have received. This makes one great in the sight of God, a true apostle, passing on not from his own but from God’s. The invitation to become holy is addressed to us all: “Be you holy even as your Father in heaven is holy” (Matthew 5:48). We are all on the same footing, equally loved by God, equally potentially great in the sight of God. God does not need servants. He is inviting us to a banquet, sharing with us all the blessings of his heavenly kingdom. Before his passion, Christ says to the apostles and to us:
Henceforth, I call you not servants, for the servant knowest not what his lord does, but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.
Orthodoxia, the right faith, is confirmed in orthopraxia, the true practice of faith, and vice-versa. Those who claim to uphold the true faith have to show it in their ways of life, and, conversely, a holy life is backed up by a true confession of faith. A genuine faith manifests in heartfelt repentance and in receiving the holy body and blood of Christ which is offered on the altars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The Christian faith has wrought humanity in godliness. This faith has given Christians a sure path to a personal God that reveals himself to those who seek and love him. It has healed our human nature through the life-giving passion of our Lord and God. It has given men the knowledge of who they really are: the image and likeness of their Creator. In the words of St. Cyril of Jerusalem:
The Christian faith teaches, universally and completely, one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men’s knowledge concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly, and because it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of mankind, governors and governed, learned and unlearned, and because it universally treats and heals the whole class of sins which are committed by soul and body, and possesses every form of virtue which is namely both in deeds in words and in every kind of spiritual gifts.
The Church Fathers teach that man was created in the image of the Son who is in turn the express image of the Father (Hebrews 1:3). When the image was in danger to perish because of sin, the Prototype became himself what he created in order to restore his icon in humanity. Because the first Christians had seen the face of God made man, they depicted in icons his image. Icons are the other divine revelation alongside the word of God, showing the Son of God united with us intimately in human flesh.
When we see in an icon the face of God, meek and humble, we may want to contemplate our own lives. How much is left in us from the image that God originally imprinted on us? Can we be as our great God, as he is seen in an Orthodox icon, meek and humble, good and merciful? The icons of saints show Christians who made themselves like the Lord, allowing the Holy Spirit to engulf their beings, a fact most visibly noticed in the aura around their head, but also deeply captured in their gaze and in their transfigured faces and bodies. A saint is a most beautiful human being. To paraphrase St. Irenaeus, the glory of God is shown in a human being who lives his life to the full. This is what deification means in the Orthodox tradition.
We can only rejoice at the sight of Orthodox icons found today in the cathedrals and churches of other Christian traditions, in front of which people kneel in prayer. Our icons are great missionaries. They are, in a way, ahead of us, because they express an unadulterated truth of the Christian faith. They are sought out and recognized by those who search out the truth as a dear treasury, lost long ago and now found.
The pastoral challenges that we face today call for a careful upholding of our tradition, yet not in the letter but in the spirit. We should not, however, allow pressures of any kind to diminish what we have received from our forefathers: a pearl of great price. The youthfulness of the Orthodox tradition resides in what is given from above through our continuous intercessory prayers, again and again, and not by keeping in pace with a world that reinvents itself every generation, only to fall out of fashion in the next one.
To continue in the triumphant faith that we have received, we have prayed together today as a sign of our unity and fellowship. The greatest witness we can offer to the world: “Love one another as I have loved you; by this shall all men know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35). The faithful Orthodox Christians that travel the spiritual journey of the Lent are crucified, buried, and resurrected every year. In the words of Patriarch Daniel of Romania:
The joy of Pascha is the assurance of our faith. The Resurrection is the breaking of death, the manifestation of the eternal life, a taste of the life to come, which breaks into our present life as a torrent of joy, coming, like the light in Jerusalem, from outside our world.
The beauty of Orthodoxy is light and joy in the Holy Spirit. May today’s celebration, in the expectation of the Easter joy, give us forbearance in the face of all adversity and strength to carry our crosses throughout the period of this great and holy Lent, to the glory of God, now and forever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.