Today we give thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ for the holy icons that fill our churches with His beauty. But this is part of a larger celebration. In this feast we celebrate the triumph of Orthodoxy over all heresies. So let us consider why this is important. In a world where people believe so many different things, why does it matter what we believe?
True theology is actually the most practical of all subjects. It tells us who God is, who we are as human beings, what kind of world we live in, and what we can ultimately hope to become. In order to reach our destination in God's Kingdom, we need to know where we came from, where we are now, what the lay of the land around us is, and where we are going. The Church's teachings are the roadmap that tells us all these things. God in His infinite love has made the truth known to His people.
Orthodoxy means "right belief," but it also means right worship, and the two go together. Our Lord's first and great commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength - that is, with every part of our being. So the Church engages every part of us in worship. Our eyes behold the icons, our ears hear the music, our nose smells the incense, our hand makes the sign of the cross, our whole body does the prostrations. We offer our bodies, our senses, and our hearts to God, but we must also offer our minds, and this is very important. In the Liturgy, the Creed is a confession of faith, but it is also a song of praise. The hymns are beautiful poetry and music, but they also express all of the Church's theology as the glorification of God. We need to absorb the meaning of these words into our minds and hearts as we offer them to God in prayer. Incidentally, this is why it is important to have services in a language people can understand. Otherwise, a whole dimension of the worship is missing.
God has revealed the truth, and our task is to receive it by opening the inmost core of our being to Him, that is our "heart" in the Biblical sense. This means letting Him imprint the true faith there so we can accept it, and letting Him imprint His holy commandments there so we can obey them. We must pray fervently that He will do this. God enables us to know Him by faith, not by scientific proof. He does this out of love, so He can give more of Himself to us, because by faith we can know and receive far more of Him than our limited intellects can conceptualize or contain. Yet we are also called to use our intellects to learn more and more about our faith. The wonderful thing about the Orthodox Tradition is that there is always more to learn. We can always hope to discover more of God than we already know. Even our doubts can help us, if we use them as opportunities to dig deeper, to pray, to ask others, to study Scripture and the Fathers, until we find the answers to our questions.
The fathers say there are temptations on the right hand and on the left. In regard to faith there are two opposite temptations we need to avoid. One is the idea that we have to figure out all the answers for ourselves before we can believe and before we can commit ourselves to life in the Church. We are afraid that otherwise our faith is a blind leap in the dark, a kind of wishful thinking that lacks any integrity. This approach will not work, because we need God's help to receive the truth and to persevere in it, so we need to ask Him for help instead of relying only on our own brain power.
Sometimes people today have been educated to be radically skeptical of everything. I teach at a small Anglican seminary, and what is taught there is actually very close to the Orthodox faith. We all know that there are temptations during Great Lent. Let me tell you what happened on Monday, the very first day of the fast. I have a student who has kept silent in my classes for a semester and a half, and on Monday he decided to open up. He argued vigorously against the doctrine of the Trinity, a subject he'd heard about for months from me and his other teachers. I was completely surprised. The week before he told me how much he loved the Desert Fathers. I realized that there is a terrible split inside this young man between the spiritual core of his being and his reasoning intellect. He has a deep longing for God, but the secular college where he went as an undergraduate taught him all the arguments against believing.
St. Gregory the Theologian was highly educated and used all the tools of logic, philosophy, and rhetoric to argue against heretics. But at the end he remembered that argumentation by itself cannot prove the truth definitively. Someone can always come up with another argument on the other side. So if we rely only on reason, our faith is on shaky ground. As St. Gregory says, "the frailty of our reasoning looks like a frailty in our creed." He adds that "faith is what gives fullness to our reasoning" (the Orations 29.21). When we start with faith, our reason can grow stronger and help our faith to grow.
Christ calls us to a life of wholeness, to worship God with our mind as part of our whole being. In Orthodoxy, the Holy Spirit gives us a gift of revealed truth, theology that is also worship. With our Lord's help participation in the Church's life can heal the terrible split between the spiritual core of the self that longs for God and the skeptical intellect. It is also important to remember that faith belongs to the whole community. It belongs to the communion of saints, that "great cloud of witnesses" in today's epistle (Heb. 12:1). It also belongs to the community gathered here. So we do not need to figure out everything by ourselves. We are each invited to share the strong faith that is tangibly present among our brothers and sisters in Christ.
If unbelief is one temptation, the opposite temptation is an arrogant triumphalism. The fullness of truth really is present in the Orthodox Church. Today we thank God for this with great joy. But this does not mean that outside the Orthodox community there is nothing but darkness, that all of Western civilization is of the devil, that all of it can just be written off. No. Because we belong to the true Church, we can afford to be generous. It is our responsibility to recognize and acknowledge truth wherever we find it, with thanksgiving to God. All genuine truth belongs to Christ and ultimately has its source in Him and glorifies Him. "Finally," as St. Paul says, "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Phil. 4:8). And through these things let us glorify God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.