"By faith they blocked the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness they were made strong." (Heb.11:33-34)
Today, First Sunday of Lent, our Church projects the victory of the Orthodox faith against all those who fought the veneration of holy icons. At the same time, it strongly affirms the fact that the faithful do not venerate the materials from which icons are made, but only the holy persons they portray.
In today’s apostolic reading we heard Saint Paul reminding the Jews who had become Christians the exploits of their ancestors. They believed in God, but without having known Jesus Christ yet: Daniel in the den of lions shut the mouths of wild beasts and with his faith was saved. The three young men, inside the burning furnace into which they had been thrown, they managed to turn the flames into dew by their prayer and did not suffer absolutely nothing. David firmly believed that God would protect him in a time of need, and he finally escaped the sword of his enemy. Also, when the Gospel of grace and truth started being declared, since the Apostolic times to the present, the history of our Church is full of the exploits of the heroes of faith.
During the first centuries of Christianity, persecutors used to throw Christians in the fire to burn them alive because they refused to offer sacrifice to the Emperor. But, paradoxically the fire was extinguished, as was the case with Saint Kriski here at the city of Myra in Lycia. Others were thrown into the Roman amphitheatres, to be devoured by the tigers and lions, because they did not worship idols, but courageously confessed their faith in Christ. And amazingly enough, those wild beasts were tamed through the prayer of the martyrs and sat quietly near them. This is exactly what happened also with Saint Thekla at the Auditorium of Antioch of Pisidia. Some others, after having been harshly tortured and soaked in blood they were locked up in prison throughout the night. The next day, when they were taken back to court in order to be forced to deny their faith, they were seen completely healthy with no signs of wounds. This happened with Saint Marina in Pisidia!
After these miraculous happenings with Christians, many pagans came to believe in Christ, and the Church, despite all the persecutions, made great successes and continuously increased and expanded in the East and the West.
"Great are the exploits of the Faith” exclaims the Church hymnographer!
Similar achievements were accomplished by the faith of the Orthodox Christians in their effort to defend the true teaching of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. After three centuries of persecutions against Christians by the pagans, the dangerous doctrines of heretics began to spread out, which lasted for almost six centuries. The Church, through the Ecumenical Councils that were occasionally convened, formulated with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit the truth about the Triune God, Jesus Christ and His redeeming work, and the Theotokos. At the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787) the Church reaffirmed the honorary veneration of sacred icons, and in the year 843 established the first Sunday of Great Lent as the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Since then, every year, in all Orthodox churches, the triumph of the Orthodox Church is celebrated against its persecutors who sought her destruction. The Church was combatted hard, but with the faith of its members, who were inspired by the Triune God, was not defeated. The words of St. John Chrysostom still apply to this day:
"Such greatness holds the Church! When they fight her, she is victorious; when she is cursed, she becomes brighter; she accepts injuries, but does not fall from wounds; she is shaken, but is not sunk; she is ravaged by storms, but she is not a wreck; she fights, but remains undefeated; she struggles, but is not defeated. "
This irrefutable spiritual experience strengthens the faith of Christians today in the face of persecution, massacres, torture, slander, injustices which occur in our nearby neighbourhood and farther in the world.
The victorious races of the heroes of the faith provide us all with inspiration, courage and strength to remain united in the Body of Christ, His Church, for which he shed His blood and then the chorus of the witnesses of the faith followed.
My dear brothers and sisters,
The Lord has foretold that there will appear pseudo-messiahs and false prophets - like those we hear about from time to time, - to deceive, if possible, even the elect believers (Matth.24:24). Therefore, He urges us: “Be careful not to be fooled (Lk. 21:8). Whoever remains steadfast in faith to the end, he shall be saved (Matth. 24:13). While St. Paul admonishes us: “Be alert, stand fast in faith, be brave, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13)
Armed with this faith that our fathers have kept with so many sacrifices and gave it to us, let us also give worthy testimony, so that we may to be deemed worthy of eternal life, to which God has called us! (I Tim. 6:12).
Sunday of Orthodoxy 2017