The Triumph of Orthodoxy: A Cloud of Witnesses

This homily was given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church on March 9, 7529 (March 22, 2021). Afterward, those worshipping went around the block in procession, following the Cross, holding icons of our faith and the Gospel, censing, and chanting, in the middle of Lewisburg, PA, a secular university town, past emblems of secular radicalism on some homes and apartment buildings. There were a few surprised looks, some smiles and nods, and one older gentleman who, seeing the Cross, took off his hat and stood in respect.

Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, 7529 (2021).

Brothers and sisters, the scriptural readings today remind us that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, as do the icons around us of our spiritual family, the saints, at their head the most holy Mother of God. They are witnesses, prophetically, historically, personally, to the Incarnation of God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Whom we worship, and in Whose very body and blood we participate in the Church.

We are never alone, brothers and sisters, because He is always with us, and our spiritual family is always with us, as we march together on this Sunday of Orthodoxy. If we feel alone, let us pray to our Lord, and ask the saints our spiritual family for their intercessions, for as scripture tells us, the Lord setteth the solitary into families.

Through our Lord we gain friendship that is deeper and more authentic and more real than any we can hope for materially apart from Him. In our faith we have the answer to today’s epidemic of loneliness from the faithlessness in our world today.

The icons remind us of this. And so, amid the rigors and blessed struggle of the start of Great Lent, we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy, and the restoration of the veneration of icons in the Orthodox faith for all time, by the Seventh Ecumenical Council and the pious rulers and right-believing hierarchs and faithful who supported its decree, completing the teachings and canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils that based in Holy Scripture and Tradition direct the Orthodox Church to this day.

“By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter,” the Apostle Paul tells us, “choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt.” And he goes on to tell us of all those mighty spiritual ancestors or ours who through faith achieved seemingly impossible witness for the Christian faith amid all trials.

“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,” the Apostle tells us. And then he asks us to gaze upward towards Him Who is above and beyond infinitely all the others. “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Nathaniel doubts that Jesus is the Messiah, probably because Jesus comes from rural simple Nazareth, and not as a magnificent king. But his friend Phillip didn’t contradict this prejudice, as Archbishop Averky of blessed memory notes in his commentary. Phillip simply said “Come and see!” Come and see! This is the invitation to us every day before our icons at home in prayer, and to come join in worship in our Lord’s Church, His Body and the Bride of the Lamb. This is the invitation we make to our neighbors as we march through our community today in procession.

The Lord meeting Nathaniel says He saw him under the fig tree. As Archbishop Averky writes:

“What happened to Nathaniel under the fig tree? This is hidden from us, and it seems that this was a mystery that no one could possibly know other than Nathaniel and God Himself.”

Perhaps Nathaniel had regular prayer under a certain fig tree, and had had a particular moving experience in that prayer recently. Hearing those words of recognition, Nathaniel in his heart knew they proved that our Lord is the Messiah. “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Nathaniel said.

Indeed, the Incarnation made Israel the Church, to which all, Gentiles and Jews, could join, of which Christ is King. Our King sees us in prayer under our fig trees, and we see Him in the icon on our banner, as we process today behind it as our standard of spiritual warfare before us, for this Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. As we process around the center of our town, we bear the banner with the Icon not Made by Hands of our Lord, and the Cross, which on one side depicts His crucifixion, and on the other His Resurrection.

We chant and proclaim the kingdom of our King, which is His Church, and invite others to join with Him from under their fig trees, as we journey further into Great Lent, the time of bright sorrow and repentance and ascetic struggle, toward the light of the Resurrection, which now is always with us. “Come and see” is the message of our proclamation of the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

For as our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ has told us, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” and “Lo I am with you, even unto the end of the world.”

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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