Sunday of Orthodoxy
First Sunday of Lent
On the first Sunday of the Fast, the Church celebrates the restoration of the holy icons. As you know, despite the fact that the 7th Ecumenical Council in 787 had defended and supported the liturgical use of icons as something fitting and theologically necessary, the iconoclasts continued to disturb the life of the Church until the next century, until the year 843. When the heretical emperor Theophilos died, his pious wife Theodora, together with Patriarch Methodios of Constantinople Methodios, held another synod in Constantinople, where the use of icons was reestablished for the final time. This synod took place on the first Sunday of the Fast, and since then this Sunday has been dedicated to that event.
However, this Sunday is not referred to as Sunday of the Icons, but as the Sunday of Orthodoxy — in other words, the Sunday of Correct Belief — because the theology of the icon summarises everything that the Church teaches about the person of Jesus Christ.
All of the issues discussed at the previous Ecumenical Councils boiled down to one basic truth: that the Son and Word of God, who is co-beginningless, equal to, and of one essence with the Father, took flesh from the Holy Virgin Mary and became a true human being, without in any way changing what he already was as God. Two natures, fully God and fully man, united without mixture in a single undivided hypostasis, in the one person of Jesus Christ. If Christ had not been fully God — but some kind of secondary divinity — if he had not been fully man — with a human nature, soul, energy and will — and if these two natures were not united in a single person, but existed in two parallel persons (the Son the God and Jesus the Man), then the union of God and man would be impossible, which means our salvation would also be impossible. Therefore, as you can see, Orthodoxy (the dogma of the Church) is not abstract philosophy: Orthodoxy is life.
And iconography emphasises, expresses and preserves this dogmatic truth as follows: First of all, the depiction of the invisible God is impossible (and this is why it is forbidden in the 10 Commandments); therefore, quite simply, to depict the Word of God as a man is a witness to the fact that the invisible God became visible in the incarnation, that he assumed a visible and true human nature. Secondly, despite the fact that only the visible human form is seen on the icon, the Church made the point that, we do not depict abstract natures, we depict persons. Therefore, an icon of Christ does not only depict the human body of Christ, but depicts the entire person of Christ, who is both God and man. Third, the veneration of the icons and the use of matter in worship shows how God, when he united with the material nature of man, united himself with the whole material world, and filled it with his grace. As St John of Damascus famously said,
“I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honouring the matter which wrought my salvation! I honour it, but not as God”.
Finally, the icons of the saints in our places of worship attest to the fruits of the Incarnation; namely, that after God became man, man could become holy and could be saved, and could take his place among the bodiless powers of heaven, which had been depicted on the walls of the Old Testament Temple.
Therefore, iconography is connected with what Phillip and Nathanael say in today’s Gospel: “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph … You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.” Only the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the Orthodox constitutes the Body of Christ, and the only task of the Church here on earth is to bring people close to Jesus Christ, so that they can be united to him. This is what salvation means: union with God.
Therefore, the moment the Church ceases to confess the true Christ, the divine-human Messiah that the Apostles had found, then the Church also ceases to be the Church, and it is no longer in a position to offer salvation to the world, since it cannot unite man with something or someone it no longer has a connection to.
So on this blessed day, let us venerate the holy icons with gratitude for God’s great love for us, and let us see them not only as beautiful works of art, but let us lift them up as testaments to the possibility of our salvation. Amen.
Fr Kristian Akselberg