in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Sunday, 9 March 2014

First Sunday of Lent - The Triumph of Orthodoxy

This year we are blessed that Orthodox and Catholic Lents/Easters are at the same time so we can enjoy each others’ celebrations simultaneously. Today I was at the Syrian Melkite church of St Barnabas in Belgravia. Canon Robin Gibbons presided over a beautiful celebration of the first Sunday of Orthodox Lent... the Triumph of Orthodoxy. In his sermon (part of which I attach), Fr Robin emphasised how this feast, and Lent in general, is a call to return to the ‘original face of ourselves’ – that is to the IKON of Christ. Hence this is the feast day of the return of the Ikon and the veneration of the picture of Christ within us.

Abbot Mark Patrick Hedermann, in my ‘Bloomsbury Guide to Christian Spirituality’, summed up the origins of the feast very succinctly:

Iconoclasm means in Greek 'the smashing of images'. A general council of the church that met in Elvira in 306 stated in its thirty-sixth canon that ‘the hanging of paintings in churches shall be forbidden, since the object of veneration and worship does not belong on a wall.’7 

We first hear of the church’s use of images in the sixth century, the imperial family playing an important role in this development. An image of the Virgin Mary, said to have been painted by St Luke, was moved from Jerusalem to Constantinople. The cult of images could no longer be ignored. Theologians on both sides began to articulate their positions. John of Damascus [680-749] was one of the first champions of images, issuing the important distinction that ‘the image is a likeness that expresses the archetype in such a way that there is always a difference between the two.’8 Jesus Christ was the archetype from whom all ‘types’ [as the icons were referred to] derived their venerability.

Any person who prayed before an icon, which was usually of Christ, His Mother, or certain saints, nearly always looking out at you, was encountering the presence of whomsoever was depicted there. Devotees were not venerating the icon itself. The eyes of the icon were the vortex through which the eyes of the beholder were suctioned to meet the presence of the original, beyond the depiction, in eternity.  The Damascene’s subtlety and enthusiasm were not shared by the opposing movement of iconoclasts, whose reform gathered momentum around 725. In this phase of the battle, icons were destroyed as pagan idols, incompatible with Christian belief as well as being a scandal to both Jews and Muslims.

          The Emperor Leo III embraced the iconoclastic movement in about 726. He had political reasons for doing so, but it seems that his basic motivation was to institute a religious reform which would bring Christianity back to its roots of worship in spirit and in truth. Leo III had a number of remarkable military successes against the hitherto irresistible advance of Islam. These he took as confirmation from the Almighty of the direction he had initiated. So, his son, in turn, the Emperor Constantine V, something of an amateur theologian, decided to copperfasten his father's endeavours by calling a Church Council which would endorse the principles of iconoclasm.

It was this Constantine V who best expressed the difficulty of icon painting: 'We ask you how is it possible to depict our Lord Jesus Christ who is only one person of two natures, immaterial and material, through their union without confusion?'[1] In other words, he was posing the dilemma for the defenders of icons that if they said the icon was depicting Christ as man only, they were guilty of Nestorianism, the great heresy which separated the human element from the divine; if they said the icon represented Christ as both God and man, they were guilty of the monophysite heresy which refused to separate the incomprehensible divinity from the humanity.

There were 338 bishops at the council which met in Constantinople from 2 February to 8 August 754. Afterwards, it was suggested that the emperor put undue pressure on those bishops present, but whether he did or not, the council ratified the iconoclastic charter.

          Later, iconoclasm was defeated, the above Council declared heretical, and icons, images, and representations of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the saints and angels, were not just allowed back into Christian churches and dwelling-places, but were declared to be an essential part of the Christian heritage.

          This war was not won without a great deal of struggle, time, argument and even bloodshed. It took centre stage as the most important battle in Byzantium for nearly a century. Two Councils of the Church were devoted to it entirely until eventually in 787 the movement of iconoclasm was definitively defeated and icons were restored to their rightful place in the Christian scheme of things at the Second Council of Nicea.9 So great a victory was hailed by the Church as a new feastday: the feast of Orthodoxy, which to this day is celebrated in the Orthodox Church on the first Sunday of every season of Lent.

          And most denominations of Christianity are involved in this declaration, including Roman Catholicism, because it was pronounced by what was the Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea from 24 September to 23 October in 787 and gained recognition from the five great patriarchates of the time: Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome:


We retain, without introducing anything new . . . the representation of painted images . . . because of the belief in the true and non-illusory Incarnation of God the Word, for our benefit. For things which presuppose each other are mutually revelatory.

  Since this is the case, following the royal path and teaching divinely inspired by our Holy Fathers and the Tradition of the Catholic Church - for we know that it is inspired by the Holy Spirit who lives in it - we decide in all correctness and after a thorough examination, that, just as the holy and vivifying cross, similarly the holy and precious icons painted with colours . . . should be placed in the holy churches . . . on walls, on boards, in houses and on roads, whether these are icons of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, or our Spotless and Sovereign Lady, the holy Mother of God, or the holy angels and holy and venerable saints.10


This milestone in the evolution of Christianity links the icons to the incarnation. If Jesus Christ actually became man and lived an historical life on earth then it must be possible to depict that life and represent his features in pictorial form.’

So on this first Sunday of Lent we rejoice in the Ikon of God that is Christ and our own individual destinies to become Ikons of the Lord in our Divinity and Humanity....

Happy Lent!





7 Hans Belting, Likeness and Image, A History of the Image before the Era of Art, The University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 145.
8 Patrologiae cursus, series Græca, ed. J.P. Migne, Paris 1857, Vol. 94, col. 1337 [De imaginibus oratio, 3, 16]. St. John Damascene, On Holy Images, (Mary H.Allies, trans.) Thomas Baker, London, 1898, ps 92 & 114.
[1] The emperor drew up a series of questions for the bishops meeting at the Council of Constantinople from 2nd February to 8th August 754. These questions can be found in Textus byzantinos ad Iconomachiam pertinentes in usum academicum, edited by H. Hennephof, Leiden, 1969. This particular question is on page 52. Cf. Christoph Schönborn, ‘Theological Presuppositions of the Image Controversy’ in Icons, Windows on Eternity, Theology and Spirituality in Colour, compiled by Gennadios Limouris, WCC Publications, Geneva, 1990, Pp 86-92.
9 Nicée II, 787-1987: Douze siècles d’images religieuses, ed F. Boespflug & N. Losskey, Paris, Les editions du Cerf, 1987.
10 Vittorio Peri, 'The Church of Rome and the Ecclesiastical Problems Raised by Iconoclasm' Icons, Windows on Eternity, Theology and Spirituality in Colour, compiled by Gennadios Limouris, WCC Publications, Geneva, 1990,  p.28-29.

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