"The Future of Orthodoxy in America"

The Future of Orthodoxy in America

By Rev. Fr. Alexander Schmemann

On the Sunday of Orthodoxy

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

Rejoicing today in the triumph of Orthodoxy on this first Sunday of Lent, we

joyfully commemorate three events: one event belonging to the past; one

event to the present; and one event which still belongs to the future.

Whenever we have any feast or joy in the Church, we Orthodox first of all

look back - for in our present life we depend on what happened in the past.

We depend first of all, of course, on the first and the ultimate triumph --

that of Christ Himself. Our faith is rooted in that strange defeat which

became the most glorious victory - the defeat of a man nailed to the cross,

who rose again from the dead, who is the Lord and the Master of the world.

This is the first triumph of Orthodoxy. This is the content of all our

commemorations and of all our joy. This man selected and chose twelve men,

gave them power to preach about that defeat and that victory, and sent them

to the whole world saying preach and baptize, build up the Church, announce

the Kingdom of God. And you know, my brothers and sisters, how those twelve

men - very simple men indeed, simple fishermen - went out and preached. The

world hated them, the Roman Empire persecuted them, and they were covered

with blood. But that blood was another victory. The Church grew, the Church

covered the universe with the true faith. After 300 years of the most

unequal conflict between the powerful Roman Empire and the powerless

Christian Church, the Roman Empire accepted Christ as Lord and Master. That

was the second triumph of Orthodoxy. The Roman Empire recognized the one

whom it crucified and those whom it persecuted as the bearers of truth, and

their teaching as the teaching of life eternal. The Church triumphed. But

then the second period of troubles began.

The following centuries saw many attempts to distort the faith, to adjust it

to human needs, to fill it with human content. In each generation there were

those who could not accept that message of the cross and resurrection and

life eternal. They tried to change it, and those changes we call heresies.

Again there were persecutions. Again, Orthodox bishops, monks and laymen

defended their faith and were condemned and went into exile and were covered

with blood. And after five centuries of those conflicts and persecutions and

discussions, the day came which we commemorate today, the day of the final

victory of Orthodoxy as the true faith over all the heresies. It happened on

the first Sunday of Lent in the year 843 in Constantinople. After almost 100

years of persecution directed against the worship of the holy icons, the

Church finally proclaimed that the truth had been defined, that the truth

was fully in the possession of the Church. And since then all Orthodox

people, wherever they live, have gathered on this Sunday to proclaim before

the world their faith in that truth, their belief that their Church is truly

apostolic, truly Orthodox, truly universal. This is the event of the past

that we commemorate today.

But let us ask ourselves one question: Do all the triumphs of Orthodoxy, all

the victories, belong to the past? Looking at the present today, we

sometimes feel that our only consolation is to remember the past. Then

Orthodoxy was glorious, then the Orthodox Church was powerful, then it

dominated. But what about the present? My dear friends, if the triumph of

Orthodoxy belongs to the past only, if there is nothing else for us to do

but commemorate, to repeat to ourselves how glorious was the past, then

Orthodoxy is dead. But we are here tonight to witness to the fact that

Orthodoxy not only is not dead but also that it is once more and forever

celebrating its own triumph - the triumph of Orthodoxy. We don't have to

fight heresies among ourselves, but we have other things that once more

challenge our Orthodox faith.

Today, gathered here together, Orthodox of various national backgrounds, we

proclaim and we glorify first of all our unity in Orthodoxy. This is the

triumph of Orthodoxy in the present. This is a most wonderful event: that

all of us, with all our differences, with all our limitations, with all our

weaknesses, can come together and say we belong to that Orthodox faith, that

we are one in Christ and in Orthodoxy. We are living very far from the

traditional centers of Orthodoxy. We call ourselves Eastern Orthodox, and

yet we are here in the West, so far from those glorious cities which were

centers of the Orthodox faith for centuries - Constantinople, Alexandria,

Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow. How far are those cities. And yet, don't we have

the feeling that something of a miracle has happened, that God has sent us

here, far into the West, not just in order to settle here, to increase our

income, to build up a community. He also has sent us as apostles of

Orthodoxy, so that this faith, which historically was limited to the East,

now is becoming a faith which is truly and completely universal.

This is a thrilling moment in the history of Orthodoxy. That is why it is so

important for us to be here tonight and to understand, to realize, to have

that vision of what is going on. People were crossing the ocean, coming

here, not thinking so much about their faith as about themselves, about

their lives, about their future. They were usually poor people, they had a

difficult life, and they built those little Orthodox churches everywhere in

America not for other people but for themselves, just to remember their

homes, to perpetuate their tradition. They didn't think of the future. And

yet this is what happened: the Orthodox Church was sent here through and

with those poor men. The truth itself, the fullness of the apostolic

faith -- all this came here, and here we are now, filling this hall and

proclaiming this apostolic faith - the faith that has strengthened the

universe. And this leads us to the event which still belongs to the future.

If today we can only proclaim, if we can only pray for that coming triumph

of Orthodoxy in this country and in the world, our Orthodox faith forces us

to believe that it is not by accident but by divine providence that the

Orthodox faith today has reached all countries, all cities, all continents

of the universe. After that historic weakness of our religion, after the

persecutions by the Roman Empire, by the Turks, by the godless atheists,

after all the troubles that we had to go through, today a new day begins.

Something new is going to happen. And it is this future of Orthodoxy that we

have to rejoice about today.

We can already have a vision of that future when, in the West, a strong

American Orthodox Church comes into existence. We can see how this faith,

which for such a long time was an alien faith here, will become truly and

completely universal in the sense that we will answer the questions of all

men, and also all their questions. For if we believe in that word:

"Orthodoxy," "the true faith"; if for one moment we try to understand what

it means: the true, the full Christianity, as it has been proclaimed by

Christ and His disciples; if our Church has preserved for all ages the

message of the apostles and of the fathers and of the saints in its purest

form, then, my dear friends, here is the answer to the questions and to the

problems and to the sufferings of our world. You know that our world today

is so complex. It is changing all the time. And the more it changes, the

more people fear, the more they are frightened by the future, the morethey

are preoccupied by what will happen to them. And this is where Orthodoxy

must answer their problem; this is where Orthodoxy must accept the challenge

of modern civilization and reveal to men of all nations, to all men in the

whole world, that it has remained the force of God left in history for the

transformation, for the deification, for the transfiguration of human life.

The past, the present, the future: At the beginning, one lonely man on the

cross - the complete defeat. And if at that time we had been there with all

our human calculations, we probably would have said: "That's the end.

Nothing else will happen." The twelve left Him. There was no one, no one to

hope. The world was in darkness. Everything seemed finished. And you know

what happened three days later. Three days later He appeared. He appeared to

His disciples, and their hearts were burning within them because they knew

that He was the risen Lord. And since then, in every generation, there have

been people with burning hearts, people who have felt that this victory of

Christ had to be carried again and again into this world, to be proclaimed

in order to win new human souls and to be the transforming force in history.

Today this responsibility belongs to us. We feel that we are weak. We feel

that we are limited, we are divided, we are still separated in so many

groups, we have so many obstacles to overcome. But today, on the Sunday of

Orthodoxy, we close our eyes for a second and we rejoice in that unity which

is already here: priests of various national churches praying together,

people of all backgrounds uniting in prayer for the triumph of Orthodoxy. We

are already in a triumph, and may God help us keep that triumph in our

hearts, so that we never give up hope in that future event in the history of

orthodoxy when Orthodoxy will become the victory which eternally overcomes

all the obstacles, because that victory is the victory of Christ Himself.

As we approach the most important moment of the Eucharist, the priest says,

"Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess...." What is the

condition of the real triumph of Orthodoxy? What is the way leading to the

real, the final, the ultimate victory of our faith? The answer comes from

the Gospel. The answer comes from Christ Himself and from the whole

tradition of Orthodoxy. It is love. Let us love one another, that with one

mind we may confess . . . confess our faith, our Orthodoxy. Let us, from now

on, feel responsible for each other. Let us understand that even if we are

divided in small parishes, in small dioceses, we first of all belong to one

another. We belong together, to Christ, to His Body, to the Church. Let us

feel responsible for each other, and let us love one another. Let us put

above everything else the interests of Orthodoxy in this country. Let us

understand that each one of us today has to be the apostle of Orthodoxy in a

country which is not yet Orthodox, in a society which is asking us: "What do

you believe?" "What is your faith?" And let us, above everything else, keep

the memory, keep the experience, keep the taste of that unity which we are

anticipating tonight.

At the end of the first century - when the Church was still a very small

group, a very small minority, in a society which was definitely

anti-Christian when the persecution was beginning - St. John the Divine, the

beloved disciple of Christ, wrote these words: "And this is the victory, our

faith, this is the victory." There was no victory at that time, and yet he

knew that in his faith he had the victory that can be applied to us today.

We have the promise of Christ, that the gates of hell will never prevail

against the Church. We have the promise of Christ that if we have faith, all

things are possible. We have the promise of the Holy Spirit, that He will

fill all that which is weak, that He will help us at the moment when we need

help. In other words, we have all the possibilities, we have everything that

we need, and therefore the victory is ours. It is not a human victory which

can be defined in terms of money, of human success, of human achievements.

What we are preaching tonight, what we are proclaiming tonight, what we are

praying for tonight, is the victory of Christ in me, in us, in all of you in

the Orthodox Church in America. And that victory of Christ in us, of the one

who for us was crucified and rose again from the dead, that victory will be

the victory of His Church.

Today is the triumph of Orthodoxy, and a hymn sung today states solemnly and

simply: "This is the Apostolic faith, this is the Orthodox faith, this is

the faith of the Fathers, this is the faith that is the foundation of the

world." My dear brothers and sisters, this is also our own faith. We are

chosen. We are elected. We are the happy few that can say of our faith,

"apostolic," "universal," "the faith of our fathers," "Orthodoxy," "the

truth." Having this wonderful treasure, let us preserve it, let us keep it,

and let us also use it in such a way that this treasure becomes the victory

of Christ in us and in His Church. Amen.