I know of a family who came back from Spain, talking about all the tours they have been in. One of the interesting points of history about Spain is its Muslim history. Many parts of the tour, as I hear, were visiting churches and cathedrals that used to be mosques. During this time, the government was Christian, and in possessing these buildings, some of which might have been previously churches and others which might have been mosques from the very beginning, you can imagine the triumphalist feelings of those Christians in ridding their nation of the Moors. I read also in further back in ancient history how Christians, after the Roman empire made Christianity the state religion, took over and possessed pagan temples, and turned them into churches, increasing the triumphalist voices.
I also imagine as well the many times when this turned against us, on our heads, when the Islamic invasions of our previously Orthodox lands lead to possession of many churches, turning them into mosques. I personally can think of many examples of this in the history of Egypt. The destruction of altars, the desecration of the icons, the breaking of crosses, the melting of the patens and cups into coins and jewelry. And this becomes even more heightened with emotion when we see ISIS doing similar things on ancient artifacts. I think this requires that we learn something very provocative and offensive for us all, that this is the Providence of God Himself destroying our very own buildings and icons, not that they are not blessed, but that we refocus our lives and not consider ourselves triumphalist for any building or gifts from God’s consecration that we receive. And so I imagine, suppose, a famous building, say the Hagia Sophia, was repossessed by Orthodox Christians once again, after a long battle to claim it. What should a bishop or a patriarch say? Thankfully, I am an anonymous person who is only a Reader of my Church, and I would not claim to tell a bishop what he should say. However, in my anonymity, I will use this opportunity to write down what I think would be the Christian thing to say:
from Ardas Photography
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, our one God, to whom all blessing and glory is due. Amen!
Dearly beloved in Christ,
We are gathered here in this historical cathedral on this historic day, built by our ancient fathers, taken away from us, and given back to us by the grace and mercy of our Lord, Jesus Christ. I do not come here and stand here before you in my sermon in a manner of victory as a general of war, but in a spirit of thankfulness, and I wish all of you to listen very attentively to my words, and to debase yourselves before the Lord in a humble spirit as you listen.
It is true for centuries we were persecuted. It is true for centuries our churches have been taken away, our monasteries destroyed, and our treasured writings and relics burned and desecrated. However, let us learn from these saints, these great luminaries of our Church, who in shining to us the divine light of Christ, showed us their brightness through their humility and their peace. Their enemies reviled them, and they in turn prayed for them. Their enemies cursed them, and they in turn blessed them. Their enemies spat on their faces, and they in turn wiped off their enemies tears when the opportunity was there. Their enemies beat them, and they in turn lent them a helping hand. Their enemies accused them falsely in court, and they in turn did not reveal their crimes. Their enemies destroyed their homes, and they in turn gladly gave them their possessions. Their enemies destroyed their church buildings, and they in turn built for their poor shelters and became a church to them. Their enemies destroyed the icons of the Church, and they in turn became icons of the Church to them. Their enemies destroyed the altar, and they in turn manifested the indwelling of God in their hearts. They persecuted the clergy, and they in turn became true priests, sacrificing their lives for them. They even persecuted them, and they gladly accepted it as an assurance of the Kingdom, and even forgave them openly, witnessing Christ to them on their last breath.
If you would ever wonder what is the Church? You see the Church truly manifest in them, not in buildings or stone, not in paint or gold, not in domes or bells, not in physical strength or irrational anger, but in their virtues, in their communion with Christ, in their partaking of the divine nature, that when their persecutors broke them, the cracks revealed a light so bright, it blinded many Sauls into repentance, and brought the persecutors and enemies of the Church into the salvation of Damascus, producing many more sons of God because of the blood of the martyrs. Our ancestors were the Stephens to their enemies, that their enemies may become the Pauls of the Church, no longer being enemies of God, but our true brethren in Christ.
Therefore, beloved in Christ, do not forget to remain humble. For many of you were once sons of persecutors. If therefore you are now the majority, and the enemies of God still roam around in our neighborhood, do not lift your heads higher than them in haughtiness, but be ready to always love them and to give them hope. If they curse you, bless them. If they still spit at you, be ready to wipe their tears of anguish when they need you. We do have our blessed cathedral back. But ask yourself for how long? If we act like we own the world, then we do not deserve this cathedral, but one day, new enemies will appear, and we will deservedly lose it, that we may be reminded that the true Church is not stones and domes, but the body of Christ, and our conforming to His true body, and not just any body, but the crucified body of Christ. Our ancestors who were persecuted truly carried the image of the persecuted and crucified Christ, and you can see the manifestation of their victory in our gaining this land and this building, a revelation of His true Resurrection. But this is not “our” victory. This is “their” victory. The victory of the glory of God. Do not glorify yourselves for being here and for being the majority. But glorify God.
Yes, they who previously persecuted us are now a minority, but do not change your behavior just because you are now in charge of this land. You are not lord over their lives. Do not pressure them to believe in the hope that you have in you. Do not even pressure anyone of your own if many decided to apostatize and become one of them. It is not fair that at one moment you kept yourselves humble before them only to reveal an evil spirit when you are the majority. Do not force them out of their own prayer buildings or destroy them. If their buildings become churches, that let it be done through their own hands, not through ours, that it may be revealed that the grace of God truly is great to convert the hearts of our enemies into salvation.
True desecration and destruction of this building and the icons and gifts in this building are not by physical destruction and burning, but by our vices and sins, and unChristian behaviors. Take away the triumphalist temptation. Do not be like the Pharisee who says “I thank you Lord that I am not like them”, but like the publican, you come into this building with broken and contrite hearts, thinking of yourselves as the worst sinner, even worse than the sins of the minority. Always think that they have a better chance to reach the Kingdom before you even if they do not believe in Christ.
For this is what the high and exalted One says:
he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
I live in a high and holy place,
but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
and to revive the heart of the contrite.
Therefore, the moment you feel triumphalist, that is the moment you will incur God’s wrath upon you, and that is the true moment this building and these icons are truly desecrated and destroyed. Their physical destruction are only a manifestation of your fault in their destruction, not their’s. Only Christ “lives in a high and holy place,” not you. When it comes to you, you should be contrite in heart, before God, before me (the most unworthy servant bishop for Christ), before your brothers and sisters in Christ, and before those who do not believe in Christ, who even curse Christ and you with Him. Be contrite in all these things, that you may not lose the divine peace in you in communion with the blessings of the heavenly saints who consecrated this land with their holy blood for you to enjoy these holy and uncreated blessings.
To Christ our Good Savior be the glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and to the ages of all ages! Amen!