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We celebrate the victory of Christian Faith over Depersonalisation

Sermon of the Most Rev. Anthimos of Alexandroupolis on the Sunday of Orthodoxy 2007

Your Excellency Mr President of the Hellenic Republic,

Today we, the Orthodox Church, are celebrating the restoration of our icons and of the human person. One could wonder at today’s celebration, if one has observed that our Church never established a specific ideology nor does She celebrate vague ideas. Our faith is a proclamation of facts and in the Church we celebrate only persons and incidents. The only exception is this day, on which, if we truly celebrate Orthodoxy and not merely for the sake of the laity’s observing the protocol and for the sake of the clergy’s observing the liturgical directory, we should at least wonder: What is the Church? Who is this great unknown? Let this question not seem blasphemous to you, please. No one may boast that he or she knows the Mystery of the Church and what is more, no one dares to think of intervening in Her course. There is also something stranger: nowhere in the History of Ecclesiastic Literature is there a definition of the Church. Maybe because the Church existed before History was written down and will continue to exist after the end of this world. Maybe because Her worldly state of affairs, too, does not fit into moulds and has no limits. It has been said that our Church is the entelechy of History but, believe me, we are least interested in something like that. As a definition we would prefer to say that the Church is the way of sinners towards salvation.

It was not founded but revealed on the warm beach of a large lake. It was word divine and human at the same time, inviting a fallen world to “rise”, a dead world to “be resurrected”. It was a “scandal unheard of”, which, by abolishing religionisation of any kind, caused a disconcerted Peter to exclaim to God: “You shall never wash my feet!” (John 13,8). It was “nonsense never seen before”, the gathering of peoples around the empty tomb of a God, who came to die the death of a criminal, claiming that His death would become our life.

This was the great and unique truth of the Church, which is no dogmatic ideology. Although, when we speak of the Church, a “dogma” is each piece of Her ascertained experience, the review of which is not forbidden but is merely a waste of time. The great and unique truth of the Church is no theory, it is a person. It is the only person in History that self-consciously said: “I am the truth” (John 14,6).

Convinced by facts and believing in miracles, the Church then went out with this truth of Hers on the “marble threshing floors” of values, the “intellectual market place”.

She had already left behind Her the contact with God “by hearing” entertained by pastoral peoples: “Hear, Israel”, “the Lord says these words”, “listen to my voice”. That was God whom the Prophets did not see; they just heard Him.

Soon She found the dark religious mysticism of Orpheus on Her way. She rejected it. This is why She resists up until today and does not wish to become a religion and woe be to us, if She becomes one.

Nor did She find rest on the Aristotelian God, who was “self-contemplative thought” (noesis noeseos). It was this perception of God that kept theological and scientific thought bound in chains in Europe up until the two Bacons, Roger (in the 13th century) and Francis (in the 16th century). It was the God who became a concept, in other terms ceased to have life, was substituted by mathematical formulae of Science and as such became increasingly destructive. Fortunately, the death of that God was proclaimed by a terrified Nietzsche.

Nevertheless, the divine Plato had called some archetypal images of an “entirely other” “ideas”, from the Greek verb form “idein”. Plato’s ideas were not abstract formations of the mind; they had an illustrative character. Since the times when Diotima taught Socrates “the contemplation of beauty absolute” (Symposium 211a), our wise ancestor considered that the philosophers were “those who are fond of the sight of truth”. The words of Jesus Christ came to respond perfectly to Plato’s insight: “he who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14,9). Thus the answer of the Church to the tragic impasse of Plato, who concluded that “god does not mix with men”, was that “God was revealed in flesh” and, a few years later, on the island of Patmos, the Apocalyptic literature “saw in the right hand of Him who was seated …”, “and I saw when he opened the seal …” “and a great sign was seen…”.

This proposal of life, of the sight of God, was brought by the Church and, seeking a globalisation of the “Civitas Dei”, let Herself be tightly embraced by the sharp-witted and powerful of the Earth. In the course of a millenary promenade with them, dressed in the most precious purple of the time, She bore doctrines of life, culture and arts, as gifts to mankind. We do not know if She herself benefited, however, She pronounced Herself once and for all on the possibilities of survival of Greek Philosophy within the boundaries of the Christian world. The following detail is surely not accidental: iconoclasm was conducted by Emperors coming from the East, whereas the restoration of the icons was carried out by Empresses, one of whom came from Athens and the other from Paflagonia.

Are we through with iconoclasm? The historian Paparigopoulos regards iconoclasts as precursors of the principles of rationalism and of the French Revolution. Zakythenos points out the intellectual origins of the opponents. Renaissance painting made pictures more faithful to their originals; however, this was the beginning of infidelity in Europe. Modern man tried to ban them.

This is why, to our mind, the planet lives the most dramatic experience of depersonalisation of man. And when the person is stripped off its theological responsibility, then concepts and values are tragically relativised, as they lose their authentic content. There are several examples to cite from the mass media, where we are addicted everyday to the humiliation of the living and the desecration of the memory of the dead, to a hypocritical puritanism of morals, with the exclusively economic-technical advancement of civilisation that greedily demands the degeneration of virtues and leads to the creation of refugees, the buying and selling of peoples and the closing of the balance of the dead at the end of each undeclared war.

The way out of such observations is, to our mind, simple and understandable. A re-orientation of civilisation is needed. And this will be effected through a turn to what once made civilisation a milestone achievement in the history of our planet.

The Church proposes the theology of Her icons, through which man is fully recognised in his perennial perspective. The Saints, whose persons we embrace, are repented sinners. Behind this expression lies the greatness of man who deserves serenity and salvation, whoever he is, what ever he has done, however he has smeared the image of his person. To our Faith there is nothing that cannot be remedied under the light of Resurrection. We should remember how tough and inhuman uniconic religions are.

Orthodox Theology, while preserving the person, even as a relic, assures us that, whether we like it or not, one day we shall rise. This is why She urges us to accept one another, so that we may understand, like and eventually love one another.

Christ came so that man’s body may be saved, too. With the resurrection of the dead, whether we like it or not, our souls will be reunited with our bodies and in this manner the transition from the crushing of death to a relationship of life is realised.

This certainty is not unwitnessed. It is the experience of the Church. It is our awe before the Mystery of the Church, which, for 2000 years now, saves others before Herself, cleanses others before Herself. The Church is not afraid of life, since Christ exclaimed: “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16,33). The Church is not perplexed by the sins of Her faithful, She cleanses them, no matter how many they may be: “though [they] are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1,18). The Church is not even afraid of death, turned man’s body into a church, turned death into sleep and graveyards into cemeteries. And the paean of Resurrection resonates through the centuries, shaming all human declarations and the nihilism of cremation.

Two thousand years, my dears, are many, too many for it all to be preserved, if it is not true! And the Church continues Her uphill path, loaded with the rust of Her friends and with the mud of her enemies. She carries on, “condemned” as She is by Her Founder never to know death! To see peoples, races and languages, entire civilisations passing under Her feet and waning behind Her as time goes by; everything changing but Herself advancing to a natural end, of which again She assures us that it will be a Beginning!

Your Excellency Mr President,

Today we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy for the 1164th time. Or rather, to put it better, it is the Sunday of Orthodoxy that celebrates with us this year. It started then, on March 11, 843, with a formal Mass in the Church of Saint Sophia of the Word Incarnate, in the presence of the ever-memorable emperors Michael and Theodora. And up to this day, that strange fight between iconoclasts and iconolaters shows us only one miracle: that, in the end, the Church won! At that time, there was a clash between two ways of experiencing the ontological foundations of man: the Eastern and the popular Greek one. In the end, Orthodoxy triumphed, in other terms, the firm Hellenism.

One hundred and fifty years ago Konstantinos Economos of Economon passed away in our land. He was a symbol of the genuine Orthodox popular ecclesiastic consciousness of his time. His victory was only apparently pyrrhic. The same fight for the awakening of the people’s ecclesiastic consciousness is continued, and must be continued, without any margin of choice and at any personal cost, by the Venerable Prelate of our Church, Archbishop Christodoulos, and by the Holy Synod of Her Bishops around him, sometimes going through Laestrygonians and Cyclops. It is in such times that our people hears the frenzy of tensions, because these too are allowed by the democratic structure and operation of the Church of Greece, so that we may be delivered, as a people, from the polarising ankylosis between “conservatives” and “progressives”, envisaging a oneness of the ecclesiastic event, only in order to salvage mankind’s hope, which gives meaning and inspiration to life and gains a victory over ennui and death.

Nowadays, our people shows again signs of weariness under the burdensome legacy, the golden pages of its history, the lure of power and secular complications. One thing, however, our people has never grown weary of doing: worshipping and respecting Christ, when they see Him Crucified. It is time we took all velvet off the bare shoulders of the Nazarene, linguistic, ritualistic, state, national kinds of velvet. The words are weighty but time is pressing. We need a revolution, but we are short of revolutionaries. And yet the only revolution was brought about by Jesus. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”, he said (Matth. 10,34). It is the revolutionary sword of the spirit that still tacitly undoes the order of this world.

And the vessel of the Church continues its course through the centuries, saving souls from Hades and bodies from decay. Waves are breaking only on the sides of the ship, muffled, but the sailing carries on, until it takes us to the calm port of His Kingdom.


[Translation into English by
Dr Nikolaos C. Petropoulos,
M.St., D.Phil. {Oxon.}]

In Greek

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