Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Throughout the world on this Sunday of Orthodoxy, it is a common practice for the Faithful of various communities to gather together and proclaim the unity of our Faith.
As the Prophet and Psalmist says, “How good and pleasant it is for brothers dwell together in unity!” Unity is one of God’s greatest gifts. Truly, to be moving toward a common goal together, sharing a common understanding of how to reach it, and bearing within us the same Spirit and source of strength can only be of God.
This unity is being celebrated within all of Orthodoxy today. As we hold the holy icons which bear the deified image of our common goal, those who are depicted proclaim their shared understanding, affirmed uniquely by the life that each one led; like the lives that we heard in the Epistle reading this morning. They call us to “come and see” by continually inviting the Holy Spirit into our own lives, and to rediscover this only true source of strength for our journey together.
Perhaps one of the reasons why the Church celebrates the return of the holy icons on the first Sunday of Great Lent – and invites us to pick them up and hold them in our hands – is as a tangible remembrance of the gift of self-correction, and the fruit that it bears. For there were many who had fallen prey to the heresy of iconoclasm, but upon understanding that we are not worshipping matter, but the creator of matter who used matter for our salvation, as St. John Damascene has said, they came to the awareness of their need for repentance.
This gift of repentance, made possible for us by our Lord’s life, death, and Resurrection, is possibly the greatest gift we have been given by God.
To help us recognize and receive this gift of repentance, in the divine services throughout this past week we heard Old Testament readings about the fall of our forbears, their resistance to self-correction, and the remedy of death that followed. We read from the Canon of St. Andrew, who reviewed “Moses’ account of the creation of the world, and then all of the canonical Scripture that tells the story of both the righteous and the wicked,” in an effort to woo his own soul, and ours with his, toward repentance and charity. Alongside his words we cried out to our soul, saying, “My soul, my soul, arise! Why are you sleeping? The end is drawing near, and you will be confounded. Awake, then, and be watchful, that Christ our God may spare you, Who is everywhere present and fills all things.”
We have also now ceased celebration of the Divine Liturgy during the weekdays to serve as a type of spiritual desert, and to grant us a longing for the Lord, helping us to realize – alongside Adam and Eve – that we only appreciate what we have once it is gone.
I confess that in my youth there were years that I didn’t make a strong enough effort to come to as many of these services of Clean Week as I could have. Last year, I was terribly sick and was unable to serve for any of them. I have learned the hard way that if we have not attended the services, afterward we will struggle with the knowledge that we have missed out on precious, potently-reflective, and enlivening gifts from God. And only He knows if they will be offered to us again in this life.
Yet, God’s mercy and love for us is eternal, “desiring not the death of the sinner, but that he should turn from his way and live.” So even now, though the potency of Clean Week has passed by, we can be consoled by the fact that the six weeks yet to come in the Fast also holds great potential, and we can make the firm decision not to allow them to slip by unharnessed as well.
But we do not have to wait until then to begin our repentance, for in this very moment, and in every moment before our death, a new beginning is offered to us by God. Let us commit to self-correction now, running to confession and strengthened thereby, running to give alms and take care of those in need.
On this day in which we celebrate the triumph of repentance and so too the triumph of salvation, we also celebrate the realization of our common goal. Through the divine services we are not only given the understanding of how to reach toward our goal, but are offered the source of inspiration and strength in the Holy Spirit.
Let us utilize this precious time of the Fast to grow in our longing for the Lord and be joined to Him, the author and finisher of our Faith. Amen.