Orthodoxy Sunday: Proclaiming the Apostolic Faith

On the first Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy in the historic restoration of holy icons.  And as the Church has done since 843 AD, we boldly proclaim to the world, “This is the Apostolic Faith.” Is this a statement of fact or a question?

There’s a simple test to measure this: to what extent do we imitate the apostles in following Christ in the hard realities of His Gospel—keeping the commandments, seeing Christ in the least of the brethren, being clean on the inside amidst temptations from the outside, forgiving those who would kill us, plucking out eyes and cutting off arms to prevent us from sinning, overcoming evil with good, blessing those who curse us?  This is the icon of godly life Our Lord offers for veneration to those who would follow Him.

In these terms, we must honestly confess today that our lives are often the epitome of iconoclasm—not a shattering of wood and painted images but a desecration of the very icon of godly life announced and manifested by Our Lord and followed by the apostles.

We raise up our holy icons on the Sunday of Orthodoxy yet often forget each and every icon, regardless of who or what is depicted, invariably points only to Jesus Christ, “the icon of God.” We often fail to comprehend their relevance to our modern lives, that through them, just as on Pascha night, the Risen Lord shows us His hands and His side, gives us His peace, and reminds us that He endured everything for our salvation.

How often do our icons inspire us to echo words like Mary’s Magnificat: “for He Who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name” (Luke 1:49).  We’re sometimes quicker to critique an icon’s artistic style than piously kiss it. And we probably spend considerably more time venerating the 42-inch flat-screen plasma icon at home than the precious, holy icons of Our Church.

Ultimately, despite all their personal shortcomings and fears, every apostle, save one, followed Christ in similar fashion, laying down their lives “for the life of the world and its salvation.”  This was the price the apostles paid, willingly, for the right, privilege, and honor of following Jesus Christ. This was their painful realization of Saint Paul’s words to Timothy: “Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2/3:12).

Let’s fast-forward to 2015 and consider also the heroic martyric witness of our countless Orthodox brethren in the Middle East today—whose lives resemble those we laud in the Orthodoxy Sunday epistle from Hebrews—who, because of their apostolic faith “were tortured… suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword… destitute, afflicted, ill-treated… wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”  Are we as diligent to read such testimony as we are the ingredients on food labels?

The best way to celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy is to work ceaselessly to conform our lives to our bold declaration—“This is the Apostolic Faith”—to assure it’s not a question but a statement of fact. How do we do this?

After Peter protested Jesus’ announcement that He was going to Jerusalem where He’d die and rise again, Our Lord responded to Peter saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Matthew 16:23).  That’s where apostles belong—following along behind Our Lord, in His footsteps; yes, even as those footsteps lead to Golgotha—to follow Him when the burden is light and when we feel the full weight of the Cross, to follow Him as the Victorious Lord and Master of our lives Who alone can triumph over all things and without Whom we can triumph over nothing.

It’s because the apostles knew their place—behind the Lord—that their mission was successful, that “their proclamation went out into all the earth and their words to the ends of the universe, that “the Lord added daily to the Church those who were being saved.”  It’s because they humbly venerated the icon of godly life revealed by their Master that Truth prevailed.  This is the fruit of Apostolic Faith we must work together to harvest today, that Orthodoxy may truly triumph—first in our personal lives, then in our parish communities, and ultimately, in the world.

As our sacred words and holy images proclaim, may we increasingly become, with Peter, “eyewitnesses of the majesty of God.” May we say with Thomas: “My Lord and My God,” with Philip “Come and see,” and with John, “That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us” (1 John 1:3).  Only then can Orthodoxy really triumph and the sequel to the Acts of the Apostles be written in our day.

May we ambitiously take up this challenge and fulfill our great apostolic commission as people “sent” by God.