On the first Sunday of Great Lent we commemorate the restoration of icons to the Church at the Seventh Ecumenical Council. This feast is called the Triumph of Orthodoxy.
Icons are certainly a prominent feature in Orthodox prayer and piety — but is their use a “triumph” of Right Teaching and Right Glory?
Every heresy (and the Church’s definitions issued in response to heresies) is ultimately about the natures and incarnation of God the Word. Arianism was rejected because anything less than a Person of the Trinity could not unite human and divine natures in himself. Nestorianism called Mary the mother of Christ, but not the mother of God – as if Christ were two persons. And what was the heresy of the Iconoclasts (those who rejected images)?
The Iconoclasts contended that because the divine nature cannot be seen, God cannot be depicted. To them, an icon of Christ could only represent his physical body, and not His divinity, because they considered the two natures incompatible and utterly separate. At the core of this assertion is the ancient Greek error: that spirit is good but matter is evil. So to the Iconoclasts, God could not be associated with the gross material world.
The Orthodox Fathers responded by joyfully confessing what the Ecumenical Councils teach us about the union of God and Man in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. The union of these two disparate natures, without mingling and without confusion, is not only a dogma in a textbook: it is the salvation of mankind. When Christ called Himself the Vine and us the branches (Jn 15) he showed us that the same divine Life that is in Him is the Life that makes us alive. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Ga 2:20).
Saint Peter wrote that through what God has provided, we may “become participants in the nature of God” (2 Pt 1:4) and St Paul confirms that we are to partake of the life and abundance that is in Christ, like branches grafted into a living tree, for “if the root is holy, so are the branches” (Rm 11).
But the Iconoclasts divided Christ the man from God the Word, and denied that matter could ever depict the very God who became matter: In this they denied the incarnation of God the Word.
The visible consequence of their heresy was that Orthodox churches were stripped of the images that the faithful had venerated for centuries. And, visibly, the triumph of Orthodoxy over the heresy of Iconoclasm was the restoration of images. To outsiders, this may appear to be only a disagreement over decorations.
But to the Orthodox, today’s feast is the crown and completion of the seven Ecumenical Councils that banished pagan superstition. In confessing that God has become material and can be represented in matter, we confess the eternity and divinity of God the Word who became incarnate of the ever-Virgin Mary, who united our nature to His own, without change or mingling, and who, in Himself, has seated the nature of man on the throne of the universe at the Father’s right hand.
Hymns of the feast
asking forgiveness of our transgressions, O Christ our God;
for of Thine own will Thou wast pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh,
to free from bondage to the enemy those whom Thou hadst made.
Therefore, in thanksgiving we cry to Thee:
Thou hast filled all things with joy, O our Savior,
when Thou camest to save the world.
nangayo alang sa kapasayloan sa among mga kalapasan,
O Kristo nga among Dios;
kay pinaagi sa Imong kaugalingon kabubut-on,
nahimuot Ka nga mosaka sa krus sa Imong lawas
aron sa pagluwas gikan sa pagkaulipon sa kaaway ug ang Imong kaugalingon nga gilalang.
Busa, mapasalamaton nga nagsinggit kami Kanimo:
Ikaw nga napuno sa tanang mga butang sa kalipay, O among Manluluwas,
sa diha nga mianhi Ka aron sa pagluwas sa kalibutan.
but it became possible to depict Him
when He took flesh from thee, O Theotokos;
and when He had restored [mankind], the defiled image, to its ancient state,
He suffused it with divine beauty.
As for us, confessing our salvation in deed and word,
we depict it in the icons.
apan maghulagway Kaniya nahimong posible
sa diha nga mikuha Siya sa unod gikan kanimo, Oh Theotokos.
Milalang ang Dios sa katawhan sa Iyang ikon
apan midugmak ang sala kining ikon;
karon mipauli Siya, napuno Siya kini sa balaang katahum.
Busa karon, nagsugid sa atong kaluwasan sa buhat ug sa pulong,
naghulagway kita sa atong kaluwasan diha sa mga ikon.
Teaching of Saint John of Damascus on God and matter
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, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation!
I honor it, but not as God. How could God be born out of things which have no existence in themselves? God’s body is God because it is joined to His person by a union which shall never pass away. The divine nature remains the same; the flesh created in time is made alive by a reason-endowed soul.
Because of this I salute all remaining matter with reverence, because God has filled it with His grace and power. Through it my salvation has come to me.
Was not the thrice-happy and thrice-blessed wood of the Cross matter? Was not the holy and exalted mountain of Calvary matter? What of the life bearing rock, the holy and life-giving tomb, the fountain of our resurrection, was it not matter? Is not the ink in the most holy Gospel-book matter? Is not the life-giving altar made of matter? From it we receive the bread of life! Are not gold and silver matter? From them we make crosses, patens, chalices!
And over and above all these things, is not the Body and Blood of our Lord matter?
Either do away with the honor and veneration these things deserve, or accept the tradition of the Church and the veneration of images. Reverence God and His friends: follow the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. God has made nothing despicable. To think such things is Manichaeism.
Only that which does not have its source in God is despicable – that which is our own invention, our willful choice to disregard the law of God – namely, sin.