First Sunday of Great Lent – Defense of Holy Icons

“Since the invisible One became visible by taking on flesh, you can fashion the image of Him whom you saw. Since He who has neither body, nor form, nor quantity, nor quality, who goes beyond all grandeur by the excellence of His nature, He, being of divine nature, took on the condition of a slave and reduced Himself to quantity and to quality by clothing Himself in human features. Therefore, paint on wood and present for contemplation Him who desired to become visible.”

St. John of Damascus
On the Divine Images

This Sunday is called the “Sunday of Orthodoxy” because it commemorates the restoration of the Church’s teaching on making images (icons) of our Lord and the saints in the year 843. Before that, it was the Sunday of the Commemoration of the Holy Prophets. This explains the Gospel, Phillip witnesses to Nathanael: “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets, wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” This is our goal in the Great Fast – to find our faith in Jesus. The Great Fast was the training period for those about to be baptized, and it was a time for the whole community to rediscover its faith.

Along the journey to Holy Week, we read especially from the book of Genesis and from Isaiah to guide us to Christ, who will perfect his covenant with us by his death and resurrection. This is why, in the Apostolic reading, we remember Moses, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and all the prophets. It was all for Jesus, “Yet all these, though approved because of their faith, did not receive what had been promised. God had foreseen something better for us, so that without us they should not be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:39)” How, then, should we keep the Fast? Hebrews tells us: “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

The Sunday of Orthodoxy helps us to fulfill this plan, for “keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus,” gazing upon his image, we are led to God, to faith, to life.

Meditation by Archpriest David Petras

On the 7th Ecumenical Council

[be sure to watch the video linked below]

Why is the Seventh Ecumenical Council important to Christians? Is the consideration of the Council relevant to us today? This council was held in Nicaea, Asia Minor in AD 787 under the presidency of Empress Irene and history tells us that 367 bishops were present. It is also called Second Council of Nicaea.

The Iconoclast Controversy: The very heated debated centered around the use of icons in the Church and the controversy between the iconoclasts and iconophiles. The Iconoclasts (“icon-smashers”), started by the Emperor Leo III, were suspicious of religious art especially sacred art that depicted Trinity, saints, biblical acts, and humans; they demanded that the Church rid itself of such art and that it be destroyed or broken (as the term “iconoclast” implies). Philosophically, the Iconoclasts were very likely influenced by the Jewish and Muslim thinking that prohibits the creation and use of sacred images. For them, the fear was idolatry —the worship of things over the worship of God. And we ought to avoid wrong and false worship.

The controversy over images spilled over into matters concerning what it means to say (1) that Jesus is the “image of the Father,” the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity,” and that we are redeemed. we are “persons”; and (2) that man and woman are persons (not mere individuals). Curiously, we are still fighting many of these issues in 2017.

The Church’s response: The people who love icons (“iconophilles”) believed that icons served to preserve the doctrinal teachings of the Church; they considered icons to be man’s dynamic way of expressing the divine through art and beauty. Iconophilles remind us that idolatry is wrong, and false. The veneration of icons is not false worship but images are not the problem. There is a difference between worship and veneration. We worship God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) the creator of all things. We venerate (give honor to) the Cross, the saints, the Bible because these things and people are connected to Jesus Christ.

The Iconoclast controversy was a form of Monophysitism: distrust and downgrading of the human side of the Son of God.

Saint John of Damascus taught in his First Treatise on the Divine Images: “I do not worship matter, I worship the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation, and I will not cease from reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked.”

7th Ecumenical Council

7th-ecumenical-councilMeditation by Very Rev. Dr. David Petras

On this Sunday, we also remember the Nicea II Council in 787, which defined that we can make images (icons) of our Lord and the saints, and venerate them. This council was held in the midst of the iconoclastic (the “image breaking”) controversy, the first phase from 726-787, and the second phase from 814-842. It draws attention to how important images are for us. I know of few homes that do not have a picture, today usually a photograph but sometimes a portrait or drawing, of those we love. If we love Christ first with our whole heart and mind and soul, the image helps us to focus that love. We know these images are only paper or wood and ink or paint, but through the eyes of our body they make the person present in spirit. Yet some people hate images. There is a danger of idolatry, and the council did dialogue with those people who had that fear of idol-worship, and so defined clearly how images are to be venerated: “For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent adoration, not, however, the veritable worship which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone — for the honor accorded to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever adores the image adores in it the reality of what is there represented.” This is the Christian faith. We cannot make images of the divine nature, but the mystery of the incarnation, in which the Word of God became truly a human being, the two natures united in one person, allows us to make images of Jesus, who was like us in every way except sin. This leads us to a deeper mystery, that we are created in the image of God, and that “all of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)” And the glory and the wisdom of the Lord is his emptying, his love, his cross and his resurrection.

More on the subject can be found here.