Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Triumph of Orthodoxy

Last Sunday, Orthodox Christians celebrated the Triumph of Orthodoxy. We remembered a time when a group called the Iconoclasts (“icon-smashers”) attempted to eradicate the presence and veneration of icons in the life of the Church. They may have been influenced by both the teachings of Judaism and Islam, which prohibit at least some kinds of images, especially images of God. During this period, certain emperors influenced by the iconoclasts enforced the prohibition on icons and sometimes severely persecuted those who continued to honor them. The Triumph of Orthodoxy celebrates the public restoration of the icons to the churches under the leadership of the Empress Theodora in the year 843. During the reign of her husband, the iconoclast Emperor Theophilos, she had secretly kept icons and continued to venerate them. The Church had already affirmed the centrality of the holy icons in the Orthodox Christian life during the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787). When Theodora took control of the empire after her husband’s death, the icons were restored to the churches in a solemn procession on the First Sunday of Great Lent. (When her son Michael came of age and assumed the throne, Theodora retired to a women’s monastery until her death.) After the restoration of the icons, the Church once again condemned iconoclasm and reaffirmed the Orthodox teaching concerning the veneration of icons.

Since the year 843 the Church has celebrated the Triumph of Orthodoxy on the First Sunday of Lent. The event affirms the spiritual nature of painted icons, their importance in prayer and worship, and their significance for communicating the Truth. The Triumph of Orthodoxy celebrates the bold conquest of spiritual Wisdom and Truth and the shameful defeat of ignorance and confusion. In a culture that at best ignores Truth and at worst denies its existence, the Triumph of Orthodoxy is an event worth remembering and celebrating. It also reminds us of the great mystery that Christ, “the image (icon) of the invisible God,” became human like us. Those who saw Christ walking on the Earth saw the living God in human flesh. Unlike the Israelites, who were forbidden before the birth of Christ from making images of God, we now see with our eyes, kiss with our lips, and venerate with our hearts the holy icons depicting Jesus Christ Himself. As we honor the icons of Christ, we also respectfully honor the icons of His Mother with all His Saints.

The meaning of icons was described during Vespers (evening prayer) on Saturday night:

The grace of truth has shone forth upon us; the mysteries darkly prefigured in the times of old have now been openly fulfilled. For behold, the Church is clothed in beauty that surpasses all things shadowed by the ark of testimony. This is the safeguard of the Orthodox faith; for if we hold fast to the ikon of the Saviour whom we worship, we shall not go astray. Let all who do not share this faith be covered with shame; but we shall glory in the ikon of the Word made flesh, which we venerate but worship not as an idol. So, let us kiss it, and with all the faithful cry aloud: O God, save Thy people and bless Thy inheritance.
During our worship at Matins (morning prayer) before the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning, the chanters said these words:

Keeping the laws of the Church that we have received from the Fathers, we paint ikons of Christ and His saints, and with our lips and hearts we will venerate them as we cry aloud: O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord.

The honour and veneration that we show to the ikon we ascribe to the prototype it represents, following the teaching of the saints inspired by God, and with faith we cry aloud to Christ: O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord.

Her mind enlightened by the illumination of the Holy Spirit and filled with the wisdom of God, the honoured Empress has loved the beauty and splendour of Christ’s Church, and with all the faithful she blesses Jesus, the God-Man.

The celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy concluded with Vespers on Sunday evening. During a procession with the icons around the church, we sang a hymn to Christ:

Before Thy spotless icon, we adore thee gracious Lord, and ask forgiveness of our stumblings, O Christ our God, for of thine own will it pleased Thee to ascend the Cross in the flesh to deliver us, Thy creatures, from enslavement to our foes. Wherefore, greatfully we cry to Thee, “Thou hast filled all things with gladness, O our Saviour, for Thou hast come to save the world.”

Then, we loudly reproclaimed the Synodikon, the official statement concerning icons declared by the Christian Church at the Seventh Ecumenical Council:

As the prophets beheld, as the Apostles have taught, as the Church has received, as the teachers have dogmatized, as the Universe has agreed, as Grace has shown forth, as Truth has revealed, as falsehood has been dissolved, as Wisdom has presented, as Christ awarded, thus we declare, thus we assert, thus we preach Christ our true God, and honor His Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy Icons; on the one hand worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord; and on the other hand honoring as true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them veneration.

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 which has established the Universe.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (Text from Saturday night Vespers and Sunday Matins & Vespers from The Lenten Triodion, trans. by Mother Mary and Bishop Kallistos Ware. St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2001. Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy from the IconoGraphics ColorWorks Library, Theologic Systems, Theologic.com. Used by permission.)