Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Sunday of Orthodoxy

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today is the first Sunday of Great Lent, the day on which the Orthodox Church celebrates the decision of the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 which defined, defended and upheld the proper use and veneration of the holy icons. We call this day the Sunday of Orthodoxy, because icons are held to be of such tremendous importance to the faith that their preservation is made equal to the preservation of Christian Orthodoxy itself!

To underscore that statement, we should know that a great many saints died in their attempts to protect the icons against those who came to destroy them. For a period of about 13 years leading up to the Seventh Council, icon veneration was actually outlawed and so many hundreds of Christians were put to death for possessing them that the time later became known as the “Decade of Blood”. How important do you think the holy icons were to those saints and holy martyrs? Many of these people were monastics who had joyfully given up all their earthly possessions to follow Christ, but who would not surrender the icons even at the point of the sword. Could icons possibly be so important that such God-enlightened and holy people would willingly die for them?

That’s exactly how the holy fathers of the Seventh Council saw the matter. To those men, losing the icons would be equal to losing touch with the apostolic faith itself.

Last night at Great Vespers the choir sang the following ancient hymns:

“Inspired by your Spirit, Lord, the prophets foretold your birth as a child incarnate of the Virgin. Nothing can contain or hold you; before the morning star you shone forth eternally from the spiritual womb of the Father. Yet you were to become like us and be seen by those on earth. At the prayers of your prophets in your mercy reckon us fit to see your light.
“We praise your resurrection, holy and beyond speech. Though infinite Lord, as divine, in the last times you willed to become incarnate and finite; for when you took on flesh you made all its properties your own. So we depict the form of your outward appearance and pay it equal respect, and are thus moved to love you; and through it we receive the grace of healing, following the divine traditions of the apostles.
"The grace of truth has shone out, the things once foreshadowed now are revealed in perfection. See, the Church is decked with the incarnate image of Christ, as with beauty not of this world, fulfilling the tent of witness, holding fast the Orthodox faith. For if we cling to the icon of him whom we worship, we shall not go astray [Emphasis added]. May those who do not so believe be covered with shame. For the image of him who became human is our glory: we venerate it, but do not worship it as God. Kissing it, we who believe cry out: O God, save thy people, and bless thine inheritance.
"We have moved forward from unbelief to true faith, and have been enlightened by the light of knowledge. Let us then clap our hands like the psalmist, and offer praise and thanksgiving to God. And let us honor and venerate the holy icons of Christ, of his most pure Mother, and of all the saints, depicted on walls, panels and sacred vessels, setting aside the unbelievers' ungodly teaching. For the veneration given to the icon passes over, as Basil says, to its prototype.
“At the intercession of your spotless Mother, O Christ, and of all the saints, we pray you to grant us your great mercy. We venerate your icon, good Lord, asking forgiveness of our sins, O Christ our God. For you freely willed in the flesh to ascend the cross, to rescue from slavery to the enemy those whom you had formed. So we cry to you with thanksgiving: You have filled all things with joy, our Savior, by coming to save the world.”

I realize that was a rather long quotation, but it shows that in the mind of the Church, the use of icons is tied directly to the incarnation of the Son of God as Jesus Christ our Lord. In His pre-incarnate state, the Son existed as the uncontainable and invisible God, eternally begotten of the Father. As Jewish Law rightly proclaimed, it would have been wrong, even idolatrous, to attempt to portray the incorporeal God in material images based solely on the imaginations of men. But when the Son of God assumed our flesh and dwelt among us, He was no longer invisible. As St. John wrote, “we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). For the very first time, men could look upon flesh and blood and see God. “Have I been with you so long,” the Master said to Philip, “and yet you have not known Me? He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Further describing this truth, in Colossians 1:15 St. Paul called Jesus the icon (image) of the invisible God. In His flesh Jesus shows forth God and reveals Him to the world.

The holy icons show forth this same Jesus, and thus continue the revelation of God incarnate. According to the Seventh Ecumenical Council, because the Son of God truly took flesh and joined Himself to matter, matter itself can now be used to reveal this. But there is more. Just as the images of Jesus depict the God who has become man, the images of the Theotokos and the saints depict human beings who are united to God. In union with Christ and sharing in His divine energies, the saints are depicted as people filled with God and transformed by holiness. Is this not our calling as well? We are all called to be saints, to become living icons of Christ. According to the holy fathers of the Seventh Council, take away the icons and you stand in danger of losing faith, not only in the incarnation of Christ, but also in our calling to become partakers of the divine nature; holy people sharing in God’s glory.

In contemporary Christendom, the proof that our fathers knew what they were speaking of is sadly evident in those denominations which no longer use icons. Some of these have gone so far as to reject the virgin birth and the true incarnation of the Son of God and can no longer rightly be called Christian. Most other denominations no longer understand theosis, and thus offer the Christian no means to attain holiness, many believing that such a thing is not even possible in this life. The heart of the Christian gospel—that God became man so that man might become like God—has been cut from these churches, in part at least because they did not listen to the wisdom of our Christian Forefathers.

The holy icons are essential elements of Orthodox faith and devotion. We must be diligent to place icons in our church, in our “prayer-corners” and throughout our homes, in our cars, and even if possible in the places where we work. Icons are Orthodoxy, and help bring us to God in a way that books and words alone simply cannot do.

This is what we remember on this Sunday of Orthodoxy. May God preserve His Church and the true Faith of the Orthodox.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 4/08/2008 3:40 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice Ere..Fr Reagen, it is good sometimes to read and listen to the other side of the story.

Are icons of angels included in Orthodoxy's theosis?


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