On the first Sunday of Great Lent, we remember the restoration of the holy and venerable Icons, which took place under the reign of Empress Theodora, during the patriarchate of Saint Methodios the Confessor, after 120 years of persecution, known as the Iconoclasm (the war of those who opposed the use of sacred images) between 726AD and 842AD. During these years and under the rule of Empress Irene, the Seventh Ecumenical Council was held in 787 A.D. in Nicaea. This Holy Synod acknowledged the honouring of the holy icons by linking them to the mystery of the Incarnation.
The restoration was accomplished in the year 842 A.D. when Empress Theodora, on the First Sunday of the Fast, venerated an icon of the Theotokos in front of Patriarch Methodios and she led the way in hanging up the icons to adorn the churches considering them to be representations of their original elements, not idols.
On this Sunday, in all churches, an official document called “The Synodikon” was read. In it states that all heretics who distorted the genuine and origin teaching of the Orthodox Church were forbidden with the ‘anathema’, while those who defended the straight faith (or dogma) were honoured. This day is a day of victory, that is, the Church’s faith triumphs over the deadly heretic and false teachings.
“Today has appeared a day full of joy, because the splendour of true doctrine shineth forth brilliantly, and the Church of Christ now sparkles, adorned by the elevation of the Holy Icons which now have been restored; and God has granted to the faithful unity of mind.” (From the Ainos of matins).
In the Gospel’s reading from (John 1: 43- 51), we see the Apostle Phillips leading to Jesus Nathanael, who will also become a disciple, telling him: “We have found him, whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph of Nazareth.” Nathanael was astonished, and said unto him, “Can any good thing come from Nazareth?”, Phillips said to him, “Come and See”.
The Gospel of this day has no direct relationship to icons or Orthodoxy, although some links can be found. The readings that are sung in the Vespers and Matins on this Sunday emphasise the reality of the Incarnation. The incarnate Christ is the essential and original type of all icons. Some of the phrases within the Triodion express the deep meaning of honouring these icons.
“Thy Church, O Lover of mankind, rejoices in Thee, O Thou her Bridegroom and her Creator, Who by Thy will, as becoming God, didst rescue her from the worship of idols, and joined her to Thee by Thy precious blood, enjoying the elevation of the noble Icons. Wherefore, she praises Thee in faith, glorifying Thee in joy”.
It was forbidden in the Old Testament to have images: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth, or that is in the water under the earth Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord God am a jealous God… don’t make you a sculpture or an image, of what’s in the sky from above” (Exodus 20:4-5). The same commandment is mentioned in The Book of Deuteronomy (5:7-9). This prohibition was put in place to deter the Hebrews from falling into the sin of idol-worship.
This was before the Incarnation, where “No man hath seen God at any time;” (John 1:18). But in the New Testament, with the Incarnation of the Word of God, where “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). God, who has not been seen by anyone, became seen through the only-begotten Son.
Therefore, after the Incarnation, it became possible to paint an icon of the Son, the incarnated Word of God. This is what the Orthodox Church affirms through its Holy Ecumenical Synods, particularly the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and the Holy Fathers, such as St John the Damascene and St Theodore the Studite.
St. John the Damascene says: “In former times, God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake”.
We read in the Vespers of the Feast:
“With due honour let us venerate the holy icons of Christ, of the all-pure virgin and the Saints, whether depicted on walls, on wooden panels or on holy vessels, rejecting the impious teaching of the heretics. For as Basil says: the honour shown to the icon passes to the prototype it represents.” (Doxastikon aposticha of great Vespers).
In the teaching of the Orthodox Church, there is a clear doctrinal distinction between the veneration paid to icons and the worship due to God. The former is not only relative; it is in fact paid to the person represented by the icon. This distinction safeguards the veneration of icons from any claim of idolatry.
According to the teaching of St. Basil and St. Theodore the Studite, the veneration and the honour that is shown to an icon, an image, is given to its archetype. So if a Christian should venerate an icon of Christ or a saint, the veneration and the honour that would be shown to who is represented, would be transferred to the person themselves, and in the case of Christ, this would be to the Lord himself. “The honour given to the image rightly passes over to the prototype”.
The icon remains as a medium and tool of worship, linking us to God. The icon puts us in the presence of God. We place them in our houses, bedrooms and cars, and in this way, God becomes the centre of our life.
So Sunday of Orthodoxy emphasises the teachings of the Orthodox Church and the doctrine of Divine Incarnation, which the Holy Church chose to place at the beginning of Great Lent to remind us that the integrity of the good works requires the integrity of the straight faith, and the integrity of the faith is expressed through the good deeds i.e. fasting, prayer and charity. The integrity of the straight Faith (Orthodoxy) and the straight works (Orthopraxy) are inseparable from each other.
The link we can see between today’s Gospel and the Sunday of Orthodoxy (the lifting up of sacred icons) that what originally forbidden and impossible for human beings in the Old Testament, is that it became possible and blessed in the New Testament through the Incarnation of the Word of God, the second “Person” of the Holy Trinity. If Jesus had not taken form in a human body, Phillip would not have been able to call Nathanael, saying to him, “Come and see.” John the Baptist preceded and declared to his disciples: “I have seen and witnessed that this is the Son of God” (John 1:34).
The Lord Jesus returns and says to Nathanael: “In truth is right to tell you from now on you see the sky open and the angels of God rise and descend upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). The Lord Jesus became the bridge between heaven and earth, “For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity” (Ephesians 2:14-15).
“For your pure image we will be forged, oh good man, drawing the forgiveness of sins, Our God, because by your will you have been pleased to rise the body on the cross, to save those who were created from the bondage of the enemy, so we wish you thanks: you have filled all with joy, Our Saviour, when you have come to save the world.”