The first Sunday of Great Lent is always observed as the “Sunday of Orthodoxy” in our Churches. It marks both the return of the icons to the Churches following the end of the Iconoclast Controversy, but also as a summation of all the Holy Teachings of the faith which Orthodoxy holds and for which many have died. Most of our parishes will have a procession around the Church with adults and children carrying icons. In local parishes the service concludes with a simple proclamation, a small portion of the Synodicon of Orthodoxy (the summary of the faith) proclaimed at the last council.
On a different day, a small assembly occurred in the Holy Land. Three angels gathered at the tent of Abraham and Sarah. Sometime later these same angels would “travel in procession” to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. According to the account in Genesis, when the angels stopped and partook of the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, they encountered the prayers of this righteous man. He began to beg mercy for the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Beginning with the number fifty, the Lord agreed with him that if only fifty righteous souls could be found in those wicked cities then all of the inhabitants would be spared.
Eventually, Abraham managed to successfully be promised that if only ten could be found the cities would be spared.
Many focus on these stories noting that not even ten righteous souls could be found in these two great cities. But they miss several important points that are buried in the story. For one – the presence of only a few righteous souls is enough to preserve all those around them. Second, God was not troubled that Abraham begged mercy for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
I draw a few conclusions, or at least questions for our modern world. How many righteous souls must there be for the unrighteous world to be spared? I do not know the answer but I do believe that our wicked world is spared because of God’s mercy and the prayers of the saints among us. And for those who are troubled about the prayers of saints I need only point to Abraham. That great saint literally sought to save the unrighteous through His prayers to the merciful God. That’s the Biblical account.
Though we will celebrate the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” this Sunday and affirm the faith of the Orthodox through the ages, and condemn the errors of heretics – nonetheless, we must remain mindful that it is the task of a saint to pray for the whole world, including the souls of the unrighteous. We must cultivate a heart of mercy, not a heart that looks for justification for triumph over others. I have often thought that the service of the Triumph of Orthodoxy should be offered with tears.
A further question: by whose prayers are you being spared? I know that my unrighteous soul is sustained by the prayers of others. I simply do not know their names (though I have my suspicions). Should any of us be so arrogant as to assume that God’s mercy is not being extended to us through the prayers of others?
As we should with our guardian angels, thanksgiving should be offered for these righteous holy saints.
O Fathers of the Holy Seven Ecumenical Councils, on this day of Triumph, pray for us sinners, and for the whole world!