"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Tuesday, 22 March 2016


I am afraid I cannot find the publication from which I have borrowed this excellent article and, hence, cannot attribute it to its author.  If anyone knows where the article is to be found, please tell me, and I will correct my mistake.  I apologise for having been so careless. (Fr David)
On the first Sunday of Great Lent the church commemorates the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” which is also known as the Week of Orthodoxy. This feast originated in the 9th century in light of the final victory of the faithful over the heresy of iconoclasm. Nowadays, this feast signifies the victory of the orthodox over all heresies, false teaching and schisms. It is a feast day of the Truth and the victory of Christ over all the weaknesses and mistakes that go against the teachings of the church.

The iconoclasm heresy originated in the 8th century in present day Greece and very quickly spread throughout the Christian world. Christians were persecuted for painting, venerating and simply having the holy icons. In fact, many were martyred, imprisoned and killed.
The seventh Ecumenical Council (787) reaffirmed the need and importance of venerating icons. However, persecutions continued until 843 when the pious empress Irina supported the final triumph of Orthodoxy over the iconoclasm heresy. Since then, a special service was created in honor of this victory in orthodox cathedrals when a bishop is present on the first Sunday after the start of the Great Lent.

Many people were ready to give up their lives while defending the holy icons. So what is an icon? What is its meaning? All of these questions are answered in a talk with Father Sergious, who is in charge of the icon-painting studio and icon painting school at St. Elisabeth Convent.

What is an icon and how can one describe an icon using only three words?

The first word is “picture”. Since an icon is indeed a picture of a person, a human. Nevertheless, not every picture is an icon.   Initially it can be very difficult to establish the necessary requirements for a picture to be referred to as an icon and to determine what is and what is not an icon. For example, if we take The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt, the painting is essentially not an icon. 

However, the painting expresses a
theological and very profound love of God towards man in comparison to some of the more contemporary images of the same biblical event. Of course, according to the church canons we cannot place this painting into the iconostasis of the church or serve and venerate it. Still, from the point of view of a “picture” there is a definite and concrete theological perspective that the painting does indeed contain.    

Of course, according to the church canons we cannot place this painting into the iconostasis of the church or serve and venerate it. Still, from the point of view of a “picture” there is a definite and concrete theological perspective that the painting does indeed contain.

Very often in the fragments of icons, mosaics, or frescoes one could see emperors, empresses, as well as rich donors praying in from of the Lord or the Mother of God. What is more interesting is that the image is created in accordance with the church canons.

This is because even the most “correct” and canonical icons can include images of regular, earthly and secular people. Such people are not the center of the icon because Christ is and must be the center but these people are still be depicted as they are turned to Christ. So even the most plain and regular person has the right to be pictured. Even if he or she is still alive. From this, you can see that an icon is much more complex than originally perceived.

An icon is a picture, along with the presence of the Image of God, but this Image cannot be captured, it cannot be grasped by any human logic and it cannot be contained in any amount of words or paragraphs which say which icon has this “image” and which does not.

If an icon is present then God is present as well.

“The idea of a New Testament icon, as interpreted by the Holy Fathers, is to properly express, clearly explain as much as possible through artistic expression, the truth of God’s incarnation. The image of Jesus is the image of God. (L. Ouspensky “Theology of the Icon”)

If we take this quote and look at the icon of Christ from the Zvenigrod Deesis - an image that is undoubtedly an icon, then we can conclude that here the icon expresses the dogmatic truth of incarnation with extreme precision and fullness that is not easily accomplished. There can be no argument here and I think that while looking at the image one can start to assert that if such an icon exists, then there is a God (Father George Florensky said something very similar: “If there is an icon of the holy Trinity then there is a God.)

The height of such artistic expression, that is presented to us, also prompts us to think that masterpieces cannot reach such levels alone, without  God and the acknowledgement of his existence. Here, while looking at this icon (Christ from the Zvenigrod Deesis) the incarnation of God is expressed with such emphasis that you do not always see in contemporary icons. Icons may have all the canonical aspects, gold leaf plating and other features but you do not always see the most important aspect, the truth of our Lord’s incarnation  -  is not there

An Uncontainable Combination

Everyone knows that artistic forms of expression existed long before the time of Christ. Ancient art forms are still unattainable…but these masterpieces generally depicted secular, human beauty which was often very generic, distant and cold. For example, take the image of Aphrodite. The image is one of beauty and harmony but at the same time, she is not alive, not real and therefore very distant to the everyday person. These art forms either depicted false idols or gods and the beauty was rather fictional and unattainable rather than being real and personal.

Christ comes into the world that appears to be beautiful but also deceitful at because the world that our Savior comes into is filled with sin. Christ is able to show us true beauty. Beauty that is very human in one sense and one that each one of us can feel. That same beauty is also filled with the Devine. An icon is also a phenomenon and a true wonder of the world because it processes the Devine and at the same time is made up of earthly materials such as wood and paint. Even the person who paints the icon is typically an ordinary human being and not always a saint.

You see, in a way an icon repeats this unique paradox - where the uncontainable and combinable is combined, the same way as it is in Christ. It is difficult to imagine God and Man in one. It is hard to comprehend because everything human is always limited in understanding and miniscule but everything related to God is grand and uncontainable. The icon also connects the Devine and the human aspects and we in turn can see its beauty, its phenomena and its complexity. Once again, since we can not explain God in a few paragraphs we cannot in the same way explain an icon and its mystery. This is why we need to look further and more in depth. The ability to understand and interpret an icon comes with the experience of every individual meeting with God and their individual connection to their Maker. This is because our entire life is a path towards meeting the Lord and so our closeness to God is proportional to our ability to feel the beautiful mystery of the icon.

We need each other

 It is almost as if all the iconographers are in essence doomed: when we sit with our paintbrushes and we feel a colossal pressure of sin, our personal and that of the rest of the world. It is difficult for us because we need to depict the Truth of our Lord’s incarnation. Maybe people no longer need this Truth. It is very important to have people in this world who are in need of this truth and the Image of God. If we have people like that then we will still be able to do something. Even if we are “overeducated” and we have the most ideal sketches in front of us:  We will not be able to do anything.

Why did Andrei Rublev paint icons the way he did?

It is because in his time people needed God. People could not live without God. This was his real inspiration that enabled him to depict Christ. Only this. It was not his personal talent, which without a doubt he did possess as an artist. Moreover, he was quite talented, may I add.  Nevertheless, along with the talent there was a desire to be with God. In addition, if we can talk to people about God, show them the true beauty of the icon, maybe this might help people get back to the one main beauty - which we see in Christ.

This is why we have a very serious duty and responsibility in front of others.

Source: http://www.helleniccomserve.com/victory_of_icons.html

Lecture on the Occasion of the Feast of the Sunday of Orthodoxy
Pan-Orthodox Vespers, St. Elias Eastern Orthodox Church, Battle Creek , Michigan Sunday, March 4, 2001
my source: pravmir.com
Source:  http://www.helleniccomserve.com/victory_of_icons.html
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. With thankfulness to Almighty God for this glorious day that has dawned upon us and for the approaching night, I wish to express my gratitude toward the worshiping community of St. Elias and your pastor, Fr. Michael St. Andrew, for the opportunity afforded to me this afternoon to worship with you, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, and to share with you a few thoughts about the great feast worldwide Orthodoxy celebrates today. My homily this evening is entitled: “The Triumph of the Icons: History, Theology, and Implications for Orthodox Worship Today.”     

        It is true that the non-Orthodox world tends to identify Orthodox Christianity primarily with our use of icons in worship. It sees the icon as that one distinct element that distinguishes Eastern Christianity from the other expressions of Christianity. To a degree, this is not necessarily an incorrect view, given the fact that the icons in our Church tell so much more than just a story of the sainted person’s life. The holy icons are theological statements, which in their form and manner of depiction, explicate the teachings and doctrine that are central to the one true Faith, upon which the universe is founded. The triumph of the holy icons then on this First Sunday of the Great and Holy Lent is not simply a historical victory over the Iconoclasts, or opponents of the icons, but a celebration of the very essence of the Church’s Faith, which is best expressed in our liturgical worship.

            In order to understand the significance of this victory for the Orthodox Church and the ramifications of iconic use in the churches, proper procedure requires us to step back into history and examine, albeit in brief, those important events that lead us to celebrate this 1,158th Sunday of Orthodoxy. By exploring the historical background, we will encounter the theological positions on both sides of the Iconoclastic controversy, as well as the Church’s faithful persistence in formulating its Spirit-inspired dogma regarding the holy icons.

The Historical Overview

            The debate surrounding the importance of the holy icons and their liturgical usage spanned over a century, covering the historic period from 726-843 AD. The debate, known historically as the Iconoclastic controversy, mainly preoccupied the Eastern regions of the Byzantine Empire, with only a few repercussions in the West. It was a time of great political unrest, highlighted by various degrees of Byzantine intrigue, heresy, persecution, and even death. The Church, during this time, produced several martyrs and confessors for the Faith, men and women who refused to surrender the God-inspired teachings and Tradition of their Fathers. The end result was the final triumph of Orthodoxy over heresy, and once again, as during the first few centuries of Christianity, the Church was preserved upon and edified by the very blood shed by the holy martyrs for Christ our God.

            The conflict began during the reign of Emperor Leo III the Isaurian (726-741) who, ten years into his reign, publicly began speaking out against the icons and sought to eliminate “those who worship them” (Iconodules). To affirm his authority, he sent a representative to remove the icon over the Chalke (Bronze) Gate of the imperial palace in Constantinople and replace it with a cross. The representative was apprehended, needless to say, by a mob of citizens who favored the icons, mostly women, and was killed. Leo then retaliated fiercely against the Iconophiles (“those who love the icons”) and began his widespread campaign throughout the Empire.

            In the West, Pope Gregory II rejected Leo’s theological claims [we shall look at the Iconoclastic position in a few minutes] but sought to boost Leo’s popularity in Italy because of the need for Byzantine troops in the West to defeat the approaching Lombard hoards from the North. In 730, Leo passed an edict ordering the destruction of all icons in the Empire. Patriarch Gelasios refused to sign this document and was aptly deposed. A new Iconoclastic patriarch, Anastasios, was chosen and ecclesiastically sanctioned the edict. Even two representatives of Pope Gregory III from Rome were imprisoned for standing against Leo. Consequently, a great rift was created from this time forth between both East and West. In 754, after the Lombards captured Ravenna, the papacy formally aligned itself with the Frankish king Pepin, establishing the foundations for the new Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne in 800 AD.

            Leo’s successor, his son Constantine V (741-775), intensified the persecutions against the Orthodox, the term that by this time was gaining popularity to describe the “correct” teaching of the Church. In Hieria, in the year 754, 338 carefully selected Iconoclastic bishops (minus the sees of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem) convened at a council ordered by the theologically articulate Constantine, to establish their own dogma against the icons. Consequently, great figures such as St. John of Damascus, a champion for the Orthodox cause, were excommunicated. The total destruction of all the icons was ordered. Monasteries, the centers of theological learning and certainly from which the greatest support for the icons came, were forcibly closed. Many monks and clergy were imprisoned, tortured, exiled, or killed for their faith.

            Constantine’s son, Leo IV (775-780) was a moderate defender of his father’s holocaustic campaigns, abandoning his father’s anti-monastic persecutions. Leo’s premature death made his wife Irene co-emperor and regent for their ten-year-old son Constantine VI. Resolute in her commitment to restore the icons, Irene appointed the Iconophile patriarch Tarasios to the throne of Constantinople and convened the 7th Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 787 AD, composed of 350 bishops from all over the Empire and giving the Church its first respite. (As we shall see, there was a second wave of Iconoclastic persecution!) Iconoclastic writings were condemned and ordered to be burned, and the icons, along with St. John the Damascene, were restored to their rightful place in the Empire. In 802, Charlemagne from the West acknowledged that there was no emperor in Byzantium, by virtue of the fact that Irene was a woman and had actually  overthrown her son, making her the sole monarch in the East. Charlemagne’s proposal to Irene to marry him (in order for him to increase the size of his empire) was rejected and Irene was exiled to a monastery, where she later died.

            In 813, the second round of Iconoclastic persecutions resumed with Leo V the Armenian (813-820). He appointed Patriarch John Grammatikos as the theological voice of Iconoclasm and sought to reconvene a council to depose the icons once again. Two rivals, the former patriarch Nikephoros and St. Theodore of the Monastery of Studion, joined forces to fight against Leo. In the spring of 815, a new council was convened, condemning the Ecumenical Synod of Nicea and restoring the decisions of the one in Hieria in 754.

Following this change of events, the Iconoclastic emperor, Michael II the Amorian (820-29), ascended the throne, a moderate who did not continue the persecutions against the Iconophiles and actually recalled Patriarch Nikephoros and St. Theodore from exile. The final Iconoclastic Emperor Theophilos (829-842), influenced under the tutelage of John Grammatikos, fiercely persecuted the Orthodox, targeting especially the monasteries in an attempt to destroy once and for all the preservers of the true Faith. His death on January 20, 842, led to the ascent to the throne of his wife, the famous Empress Theodora, who also served as regent of their son Michael III (842-867).

            Empress Theodora deposed the Iconoclastic patriarch John Grammatikos and reinstated Patriarch Methodios to his rightful see. Convening a council in 843, the Church and State permanently established the holy icons in the churches and on March 11, the first Sunday of Great Lent, the decree was solemnized as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” in the Great Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. To this day, our Church celebrates this victory by blessing God and those saints and martyrs who fervently and unshakably supported the Orthodox Christian Faith.

The Theological Positions in the Debate

            The theological arguments of the Church in support of the holy icons may be attributed to the writings of three important Church Fathers: St. John of Damascus (who shined during the first phase of the controversy), St. Theodore the Studite, and Patriarch Nikephoros of Constantinople (both of whom championed the cause during the second phase). Their theological positions may be viewed in four areas: (1) the argument about the Mosaic prohibition of idols (Ex 20.4-5); (2) the nature of the image itself; (3) the Christological argument; and (4) the issue of worship vs. veneration.

            The opponents of the holy icons and the positions they took were highly influenced by three dominant religious philosophies of the time: Judaism, Islam, and Manichaeanism, a heresy which taught that the material world was evil and not a creation of God. Judaism and Islam both advocate a “spiritual” worship of God and thus reject any graven or material image. The Iconoclasts were clearly following this line of reasoning when they rallied around the biblical prohibition of graven images in Exodus and Deuteronomy. For them, the icons were made by imperfect human hands, and the perfect and infinite God could never be controlled nor mastered nor circumscribed by visible human efforts and profane physical matter. Countering this stance, St. John of Damascus argued that although the worship of God is indeed primary among the Orthodox, God still commanded the tabernacle to be decorated with religious images, such as the cherubim and seraphim. These images were to lead the Israelites to a greater worship of God. Secondly, the Fathers taught that God made images of Himself, first and foremost being Christ Jesus, ‘the likeness of God” and “the image of the invisible God” (cf. 2 Cor 4.4; Col 1.15). Thus, the birth of God in the flesh, the Incarnation, surpassed all Old Testament prohibitions. Thirdly, humanity itself was created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1.26). Hence, since God dwells in each human being, and since man’s image was depicted everywhere else in the world, how could Christ’s holy image not be depicted upon the holy icons?

Regarding the nature of the image, the Iconoclasts claimed that a true image must have the same essence (homoousios) as the original person (prototype) being depicted. The icons were not of the same essence with their prototypes. The Orthodox Fathers never regarded the holy icons as being of the same substance with the prototype. At the Seventh Ecumenical Council it was stated that, “. . . the icon resembles the prototype, not with regard to the essence, but only with regard to the name and to the position of the members which can be characterized . . .” (D. Sahas, Icon and Logos, p. 77). The honor then passed from the visible image to the prototype depicted upon the icon. St. Basil the Great likened the homage paid to the image of the Emperor with the honor given the holy icons (On the Holy Spirit 18.45). The people always respected the bust of the Byzantine Emperor in the squares and marketplaces, considering the material statue itself the “Emperor” but realizing that there were not two Emperors, but one. In addition, Theodosios the Great established a legal precedent, that any person seeking political asylum at the statue of the Emperor in the city could not be apprehended for ten days, out of reverence for the imperial icon and its prototype. 

            As for the Christological arguments, the Iconoclasts claimed that if the icons  depicted only the humanity of Christ and not the divine nature, then their opponents were in violation of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod (451 AD), which taught that Christ is perfect God and perfect Man and were thus either monophysites (they believed that the divine was subsumed in the human) or Nestorians (Christ’s divine nature was denied). Furthermore, if the icons depicted somehow Christ’s divinity, then Christ was not divine since it was impossible to depict divinity by imperfect human means. St. John of Damascus writes this classic apology in defense of depicting the incarnate Word of God:

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 (St. John of Damascus, First Apology 16).

He further adds that “what can be assumed can be saved.” The only way for Christ to save the world and restore it was to be born in it and to sanctify matter, by becoming matter Himself. Indeed, the Incarnation of the Son of God then not only made the veneration of icons possible within Orthodox Christianity but a downright necessity. St. Theodore the Studite wryly states that if only mental worship was sufficient, then God would not have become human and endured the Cross. He could just as easily have communicated with humans mentally (see First Refutation 7). What’s more, only the person of Christ (His hypostasis), and not His two natures could be depicted on an icon. The human and divine natures of Christ, perfectly united but never confused, co-existed in the mystery of the incarnate Son and Word of God.

            A final word on the distinction between worship and veneration. While worship is reserved only for God, veneration, or honor, is extended beyond the image to the prototype in the icon. The respect and honor do not stop at the icon, nor is the icon the recipient of our worship and praise. The icon serves as a reminder of the spiritual life that co-exists alongside our world, a window even, through which we envision the deified world of the Kingdom. Indeed then, as one writer put it very succinctly, “The appropriate encounter with the icon, despite its powerful presence as a visual image, is an encounter that goes beyond the icon itself to the greater transcendent reality of God” (A. Vrame, The Educating Icon, p. 44).

Implications for Orthodox Worship Today

            As material objects depicting the transformed, defied life of the Kingdom, the holy icons are used today primarily because of two very basic Orthodox teachings: (1) that matter is by nature good; and (2) that Christ’s incarnation rendered matter an instrument of salvation. These two very important doctrinal truths suggest to us various implications in our liturgical worship. I wish to share with you three of these.

            First, just as we live in a very material world, we also worship in a very material Church. The basic Orthodox belief in the goodness of all matter is the fundamental reason for our use of physical items in our worship: bread, wine, water, oil, incense, candles, icons, and music. We can take the famous pop singer Madonna’s verses, “We live in a material world, and I am a material girl” and modify them to apply to our Church’s liturgical worship: “We pray in a material Church, and I am a material worshiper.” The major difference here though is that Christ, through His incarnation, not only affirmed the goodness of matter, but also transformed it to serve as a means of divine grace, through which we are saved. The secular, material world seeks not the transformation and redemption of man, but rather his separation from God. In the secular world, matter is not a means to God but an end to itself, an idol, a god. In Orthodox worship, all our senses are engaged to praise and glorify the God of all.

            Second, the icons affirm not only the Incarnation, but also every single event Christ our Lord effected for our salvation. In our liturgical worship, God acts mystically when man acts physically. In other words, the various prayers and actions and gestures, the various material items we use in church, become the media, the instruments, through which the Lord acts in our lives to bless us and help us and save us. Through faith, and only through faith, can we see the hand of God acting mystically through the unworthy hand of the priest. Only through faith can we behold the glory of God in human beings. Put simply, faith allows us through physical worship to relive the salvific acts of Christ and to witness firsthand God’s continued involvement in the lives of His people.

            Finally, as the icons are holy images which point to a greater, transcendent reality, so too are we icons of God, in whom God dwells forever. As St. Paul says, we are living temple of the Holy Spirit and, as such, each of us created in “God’s image and likeness” (Gen 1.26) requires the respect and honor which is our due. This means that both inside and outside of worship, we are to treat others and be treated ourselves with the holiness and respect and piety due the holy icons, because God lives in each of us. Beyond our physical appearance, in our souls, God exists and makes His abode inside of each of us. For this reason does Christ command us to “love one another, as I have loved you”, for the simple reason that in loving another human being, no matter who he or she is, we love God. As St. John the Evangelist writes,  “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar, for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 Jn 4.20). Indeed then, we are all icons for each other’s salvation, through whom we cannot help but see, with the eyes of faith, the presence of Almighty God.

            May this holy feast of our Church, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, instruct us and inspire us all in our Orthodox Christian Faith, and raise us to honor the incarnate Son and Word of God, His saints, and His people, one another, who are living icons of the glory of God. Amen.


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