The following homily was delivered by Bishop Irenei of London and Western Europe at the Divine Liturgy for the feastday of St Irenei of Lyon, 23 August / 5 September 2021, celebrated at the tomb of St Irenei in the city of Lyon, France.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!
My dear brothers and sisters:
It is my tremendous happiness to be here amongst you, celebrating this beautiful Liturgy on a feastday of such personal significance, and this occasion and your heartfelt prayer fill me with deep joy. However, even in our moments of rejoicing, we are called by God always to temper our contentment with realism. We live today in a strange and troubling age, and our contemporary world is a difficult place. Ours is an age of widespread apostasy, of rejection of faith and morality and even truth itself. Ours is a worldwide culture content to live in a self-imposed delusion — about human nature, about identity, about almost everything. The world of these latter days is one of increased materials troubles: storms, fires, droughts, disease, earthquakes, all these are far from rarities. And the world around us is absolutely overwhelmed by fear, driven to doubt God, grace, and even the testimony of one’s own eyes, not to mention the illumined testimony of the saints. And within the Church, also, there are those who doubt the Holy Fathers, who act against the Sacred Canons, who seek their own will rather than God’s and act against the peace and unity of His Body. These things, too, are unfortunately, not unfamiliar in these troubled days.
And yet we who are Christians, when we observe and speak of such troubling things, do not do so out of depression, fear or despair. We are the children of a living and loving God Who is sovereign over all things! We are the members of His Body, which is stronger than the world! We are the inheritors of the spiritual legacy of the saints, who teach us how to believe, and walk, and keep the right faith alive in the world, and in our hearts.
Today we are keeping the sacred memory of just such a saint: the great bishop and hieromartyr Irenaeus of Lyons, who exercised his God-graced ministry in this city, and whose relics first rested here, in this very place where we now stand; and I say to you aloud what I know you already feel in your souls: that in his presence, receiving his witness, it is impossible for any Christian to grow discouraged by the darkness of the world around him.
St Irenaeus lived in a period of profound strife, in many ways bearing similarities to our own. His, too, was a century of apostasy, of rejection of truth, and of widespread abandonment of morality and ethical life. The world around him was actively, even energetically, inventing new ‘truths’, which of course were actually new delusions, about human nature, and identity, and culture, and religion. There were perils of disease and famine, as well as persecutions and internal strifes. And God’s Holy Church, which was only in its second century, was already being attacked by those without and within, who sought to alter her traditions, defy her unity, and in so doing, alter her Gospel.
But the Bishop of Lyon was not content to stand idly by, letting the tendencies of the world dictate truth or the way of life for Christian people. For St Irenaeus, the truth of Christ, of His Gospel, was non-negotiable, non-subjective, and unbending. While those around him tried to read the Scriptures in their own ways, using their readings to justify whatever thoughts or actions they sought to promote, St Irenaeus knew and proclaimed that there is one right reading of the Scriptures, one right reception of the inheritance of the Apostles. One chalice; one Christianity; one Truth; one Church.
St Irenaeus knew that there were those around him — as, indeed, there are those always around us — who claim to maintain the truth while in fact modifying it after their own designs. He used the metaphor of a mosaic of a king, beautifully crafted of precious stones and portraying the king’s likeness, which someone takes into hand and begins moving the stones around. They remain the same stones, yes; but the image they present is now something else. Something very different indeed. St Irenaeus speaks of turning the image of a king into the image of a dog: this is what is done when truth is ‘altered’ by those driven by their own agendas, whether in hostility or in apparent peace. When someone takes the inheritance we have received and alters it, he may still have the same texts, the same ‘raw materials’, but what they produce is something else indeed. This St Irenaeus beheld in the various groups that were active inside and outside the Church in his day; and in responding to them with the power that he did, St Irenaeus set a standard for Christians for centuries to follow.
Truth is not alterable: this is St Irenaeus’ testimony to us. It is the very source of our stability and joy! For Truth is a Person, Jesus Christ, Who has revealed Himself to us and given us His Body, His Church. He has not simply provided the world with a collection of ‘raw materials’ or building blocks for faith, to be put together however one deems best. He has bestowed upon us His own Life, and showed us how to live it. We live in the unity He has established, not that which anyone fashions — even if they try to do so in His name, as was so often done by those in St Irenaeus’ day. For St Irenaeus knew something clearly: that those who depart from this truth are always departing into error; there is no other option. This is St Irenaeus’ clear and vivid testimony. And yet the great saint does more than simply identify this nature of error: he also gives us a pious and pastoral example of how to respond to it, when we encounter it in the world. Our response to those who engage in such things must always be that of St Irenaeus himself: to ‘love them more than they seem to love themselves’, as he once said — to identify error as error, so that it can overthrow and refute itself; and to demonstrate the Truth, that it may shine more brightly in the darkness; and always proclaim the path of repentance, that those who have departed from the Truth, to whatever degree and in whatever form and due to whatever provocation or temptation, may know the path back to Godliness and piety.
We honour today a saint for our times, for the world today is inundated with such similar problems as St Irenaeus faced; and it was another saint of the early Church who said of St Irenaeus that ‘he was a man who lived up to his name’ — for ‘Irenaeus’ means ‘peace-maker’, and we discover in his holy example what it means to foster and create true peace: not to accommodate error, not to run in fear from the darkness of the world, not to retreat to the limits of our personal understandings or designs, but to stand firmly on the unchanging Truth of Jesus Christ; to abide by His teachings, whatever we may hear from the world around us; to follow the sacred teachings and canons of His Church, whatever forces may try to provoke us away from them; to be united in the singular reality of His life. This is the only way; there is no other! And if we cling to it with all our hearts, then our hearts will find peace, true peace — for the King of Peace shall reign in them, unhindered, conquering our sin and leading us to a pious life. This is the wonderful news that we receive today, here in this crypt, in the presence of this saint, receiving the Divine Mysteries of his God and our God. There is, in truth, a path that leads to life. It is there for all to follow; so let us follow it completely, energetically, filled with love and fortitude, and arrive by God’s mercy at His Kingdom which has no end.
Holy Father Irenaeus, pray to God for us!