Getting Our Robes Dirty

by Fr. Paul Schroeder

There is a legend about St. Nicholas and St. John Cassian that explains why it is that St. John has a feast day only once every four years while there are two feast days a year for St. Nicholas.

It is said that centuries ago St. Nicholas and St. John Cassian came down from heaven to earth to see how everything was going and report back to the Lord. Having finished their inspection, they were preparing to return to heaven when they noticed a farmer struggling to pull his cart out of the mud. St. Nicholas immediately said, “We should go help him out,” but St. John Cassian looked down at their sparkling white robes and said “I don’t think we should get our robes dirty.” St. Nicholas, however, was already up to his knees in the mud, helping the poor farmer.

When they got back to heaven, the Lord looked at them both and sighed, but there was a smile in His eyes. He turned to St. Nicholas and said, “Nicholas, because you have returned to heaven with your robes stained with the soil of such a good deed, your feast day will be celebrated not once, but two times each year.” And to this day we celebrate St. Nicholas, not only on December 6, but also on May 9. Then the Lord turned to St. John Cassian and said, “John, because you have returned with your robes devoid of any such stain, your feast day will fall only once every four years, on February 29.”

What was most amazing of all was that, as St. Nicholas and St. John Cassian looked intently at the Lord, they recognized in His face the face of the man whose wagon had been stuck in the mud.

“Getting our robes dirty” in a real sense, this is a challenge that is being offered to us. As Orthodox Christians, we understand that orthodoxia, our Orthodox faith, means nothing if it is divorced from orthopraxia, works that are consonant with that faith. As St. James says, faith without works especially works of mercy on behalf of the needy is dead. We are called to live out orthodoxia, our Orthodox faith, in orthopraxia: actions of mercy and compassion towards our fellow human beings. We are being called to get our robes dirty in service to our neighbor, in whom Christ is hidden.

Every year we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy, a day that challenges us to “get our robes dirty.” On the Sunday of Orthodoxy we celebrate the victory of the Orthodox over the heresy of iconoclasm. The iconoclasts were, of course, those who opposed the veneration of the holy icons. In a real sense, the theology of the iconoclasts was a theology that did not want to soil its robes with matter, the stuff of this world. The iconoclasts could not imagine a God who entered fully into the human experience to the extent of taking on flesh, a God who would dirty His hands with common matter. They could not imagine a God with a face like ours.

The heresy of iconoclasm was defeated in the ninth century with the restoration of the holy icons that we celebrate today. Yet I submit that there is a new iconoclasm at work today, against which we must take up the struggle. This new spirit of iconoclasm desecrates the icon of Christ, not by destroying images of wood and paint, but by neglecting the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society: the poor, the lowly, the abandoned; it desecrates the image of Christ in the faces of our brothers and sisters in need. Every Sunday of Orthodoxy, we carry icons in a procession around the church, and we are careful to carry the icons with care and dignity. But do we realize that God has entrusted to us our brothers and sisters in need, so that we should carry their lives in our hands with just this kind of reverence and respect? I am reminded of a passage from St. John Chrysostom, who said, “Do you wish to honor the Body of the Savior? Do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honor it in church with silk vestments while outside it is naked and numb with cold. For he who said ‘This is my Body,’ and made it so by His word, is the same one who said, ‘You saw me hungry, and gave me no food. As you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” In the same way, we cannot venerate the image of Christ in the Church, but turn away from His image on the streets when it comes to us poor, and hungry, and pleading for help.

This new iconoclasm seeks to drive a wedge between orthodoxia and orthopraxia, between right faith and right practice, suggesting that it is enough for us to simply repeat the words of the Fathers, without imitating their deeds. We have only to think of St. John Chrysostom, who was feeding and housing thousands of people every day as the parish priest of the poorest neighborhoods in Antioch; St. Basil the Great, founder of the first hospital system in the Byzantine Empire; St. John the Merciful, working for social reform among the refugee population of Alexandria. My brothers and sisters, we have had an Orthodox presence in this country for two centuries. Where are our hospitals and clinics? Where are our shelters and soup kitchens and food pantries? I do not wish to suggest that we are doing nothing in this regard; we have a few Orthodox ministries that are doing marvelous work in these areas, but they are so few. As Orthodox Christians, we pride ourselves on having kept the phonema ton pateron, the mind of the Fathers. But have we kept the heart of the Fathers, their unquenchable passion for justice and mercy in society? Like the iconoclasts of old, are we unwilling to get our robes dirty by going forth to engage the needs of a suffering world?

We are called to get our robes dirty, not only by the themes of the Sunday of Orthodoxy, but by the Lenten season itself. There are three traditional aspects of Lenten practice, three pillars of Lenten spirituality: fasting, prayer, and works of mercy. We often talk a great deal about fasting during Lent, and some about prayer as well. But we often don’t talk very much about the third category: acts of mercy. Yet liturgically, we hear the call to this kind of action throughout Lent. In the Presanctified Liturgy on the Friday before the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we heard: “Let us lay aside the pleasures of the flesh, and increase the spiritual gifts of our soul; let us give bread to those in need, and so let us draw near to Christ…” During Vespers the next day, we heard the words: “Come, let us cleanse ourselves by almsgiving and acts of mercy to the poor, not sounding a trumpet or making a show of our charity. Let not our left hand know what our right hand is doing; let not vainglory scatter the fruit of our almsgiving; but in secret let us call on Him who knows all secrets: ‘Father, forgive our trespasses, for you love humankind.’” Two weeks earlier, while we were still preparing ourselves to embark upon the Lenten season, we heard the Gospel of the Last Judgment, those fearful words: “I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, a stranger and you took me in, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me. Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these my brothers, the least of these my sisters, you did it to me.”

I want to offer a quotation from the newest saint of the Orthodox Church, someone who was recognized as a saint just a few days ago by the Patriarchal Synod in Constantinople: St. Maria of Paris. St. Maria, or as those who love her will always call her, Mother Maria, emigrated from Russia to Paris, France, where she ministered as a nun who lived out her monastic vocation in the world. She spent her life sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and ministering to all those on the margins of society. And when the Nazis came to Paris, she expanded her ministry to hiding Jews and helping them to flee to the unoccupied territories. She was caught, and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp, where she died on Good Friday, 1945, after taking the place of another prisoner in the line leading to the gas chamber. Mother Maria wrote, “At the Last Judgment, I shall not be asked how many prostrations I made, or how faithful I was in my ascetic exercises. I will be asked, did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoner. That is all I will be asked.”

Mother Maria goes on to say that when Christ says “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was naked,” He puts an equal sign between Himself and every person in need. And here I want to say a word about a movie that has been somewhat controversial, that some of you may have seen or may be planning to see: The Passion of the Christ. I would like to suggest that if you want to see Christ’s passion, if you want to truly witness His sufferings, you don’t need to go to a movie theater. Go to the poorest neighborhoods, to the slums and the barrios. Go to the clinics and the shelters and the soup kitchens. There you will see Christ hungry, and thirsty, and naked, and a stranger, and sick, and imprisoned. There you will truly see the sufferings of Christ, where there is no makeup, or special effects, or stunt doubles, or retakes. And take the twenty dollars you would have spent and give it to one of the many agencies that is working in your local community to alleviate poverty, and hunger, and homelessness. Or give it to Trinity Children and Family Services. Or give it to Project Mexico. Let’s not be bystanders of the sufferings of Christ. Let’s get our robes dirty.

Finally, I submit that the cause of Orthodox unity summons us to get our robes dirty in service to our neighbor. And I know this is an important subject to many of you. We are all waiting for a fuller expression of the unity of the American Orthodox Church. We have come a long way in the cause of Orthodox unity. And I think that services like this are tremendously important opportunities for us to pray together, break bread together, and remember that we are all members of one body, one Church. But in addition to praying together, I think that we need to create opportunities to serve together, to work shoulder to shoulder with one another. In fact, I would suggest that serving together is one of the most important ways that we can develop and strengthen our unity. There is so much that we can be doing together at the grass roots level.

To this end, I would like to offer a modest proposal, something to think about for next year’s Sunday of Orthodoxy. I would like to challenge you to find a way to come together on the Saturday before the Sunday of Orthodoxy to perform some work of service to the local community. You might consider coming together to serve a meal at a local soup kitchen. You might also have a canned food drive on Forgiveness Sunday, and then come together at a local food bank to sort cans and pack boxes. You might clean up a park, or paint a community center. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination, and your willingness to try. And I would further challenge the lay leadership of the parishes to step forward and lead the way this project. We priests are so busy, we have so much on our plate, that yet another project, especially during Lent, may become the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. This is an opportunity for the people of God to exercise their ministry as members of the royal priesthood, ordained to service by their baptism and chrismation. If we are ever going to build Orthodox shelters and hospitals and soup kitchens, we will begin when we learn to work together.

In closing, let me return to the theme of the icon. An icon is more than just a picture of Christ or of a particular saint: an icon is a ray of hope, a window on the Kingdom of God. In the icon, we catch a glimpse of that world where everything is peace, and harmony, and balance. No longer do we see a world where some are rich while others go hungry, where some have enough and to spare while others have nothing. My brothers and sisters, we ourselves are called to become icons, rays of light in a world of darkness, reflecting here and now the values of the coming Kingdom: justice, mercy, and radical equality. We are called to live out the prayer “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are called to let our light so shine before people that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. And when we learn to do this, it will not only be in our churches that the Sunday of Orthodoxy will celebrated. Then the whole world will look at us and say, “this is the faith of the Apostles. This is the faith of the Fathers. This is the faith of the Orthodox. This is the faith that upholds the universe!”

Fr. Paul Schroeder directs the St. Nicholas Ranch Conference and Retreat Center near Fresno, California. He formerly served as Chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of San Francisco. His essays include “The Mystery of Love: Paradigms of Marital Authority and Submission in the Writings of St. John Chrysostom” and “Suffering Towards Personhood: John Zizioulas and Fyodor Dostoevsky in Conversation on Freedom and the Human Person.”

Published in the Spring 2004 issue of In Communion, the quarterly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Copyright by the author.