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The Triumph of Orthodoxy

There are many significant dates in history of the Orthodox Church that are commemorated annually as a day of triumph. In several weeks, on Palm Sunday we will be celebrating Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem for the last time. 
 
Of course, the greatest triumph of all will be the following week: the Resurrection of Christ. Today we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy, also known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy. This is indeed a watershed event in the history of the Orthodox Church. 
 
On this day we commemorate the Restoration (Aναστήλωση) of the holy icons and the official end of Iconoclasm. The Iconoclast Controversy plagued the Orthodox Church for over a hundred years in the 8th and 9th Centuries. 
 
The controversy was over the veneration of icons. Those who believed it was a form of idolatry and a violation of the 2nd Commandment (Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image) were known as the Iconoclasts (Εικονομάχοι) which means icon-fighters. Those in favor of the veneration of icons were known as the Iconodules (Εικονόδουλοι), friends of icons. 
 
Although the 7th Ecumenical Council held at Nicaea in 787 AD condemned Iconoclasm as a heresy, the controversy was halted only temporarily. It would continue until 843 AD when the Emperor Theodosius who was an Iconoclast died. His wife Theodora, however, supported the veneration of icons and collaborated with Patriarch Methodius to convene a council. This became known as the Synod of Constantinople which restored all the holy icons and officially ended Iconoclasm. 
 
On March 11, 843 which was the 1st Sunday of Great Lent that year, there was a procession with all the clergy and lay people. At the end of the first session of the Synod, they triumphantly marched from the Church of Blachernae to Άγια Σοφία, restoring the holy icons to the Church. It became a tradition thereafter which is held to this day to commemorate this astonishing event annually on the 1st Sunday of Great Lent. 
 
On this Sunday, each parish has their own procession with icons inside the Church and it is customary to hear a portion of the Synodikon read which contains the articles of the Synod of Constantinople: 
 
 
As the prophets beheld, as the apostles have taught, as the Church has received, as the teachers have declared, as the world has agreed, as grace has shown forth, as truth has been revealed, as falsehood has been dispelled, as wisdom has become manifest, as Christ awarded; Thus we declare; thus we affirm; thus we proclaim Christ our true God, and honor His saints in words, writings, thoughts, sacrifices, churches, and holy icons; On the one hand, worshiping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord, and on the other, honoring the saints as true servants of the same Lord of all, and offering them proper veneration.
 
This is the faith of the apostles. This is the faith of the fathers. This is the faith of the Orthodox. This is the faith on which the world is established. Therefore, with fraternal and filial love we praise the heralds of the faith, those who with glory and honor have struggled for the faith, and we say: to the champions of Orthodoxy, 'faithful emperors, most-holy patriarchs, hierarchs, teachers, martyrs, and confessors: May your memory be eternal. (Eternal be their memory. Eternal be their memory. Eternal be their memory.)
 
Let us beseech God that we may be instructed and strengthened by the trials and struggles of these saints, which they endured for the faith even unto death, and by their teachings, entreating that we may to the end imitate their godly life. May we be deemed worthy of obtaining our requests through the mercy and grace of the Great and First Hierarch, Christ our God, through the intercessions of our glorious Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, the divine angels and all the Saints. Amen.
 
 
There are two other parts to the Synodikon, the first: a long list of heretics up until 843 AD, including the Iconoclasts. To each heretic, anathema is shouted once or three times. The second: Memory Eternal (Αιωνία η μνήμη) is chanted again for certain pious emperors from Constantine the Great to Michael III. 
 
If ever anyone asks us what is Orthodoxy or what we believe, perhaps the two best concise texts we have to offer them are the Constantinopolitan-Nicene Creed and the Synodikon.  Just as we will in the coming weeks raise our palms and pussy willows, chanting Hosanna in the Highest, Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord on Palm Sunday and our candles on Pascha, chanting: Χριστός Ανέστη, let us today proudly raise our icons with faith and hope, knowing that we behold the True Faith. 
 
Icons are very important because they connect us to the person or event they portray. We do not worship icons, worship (λατρεία) is to God alone. Instead, we venerate (προσκυνούμεν) icons, as well as the Theotokos and all the Saints. Icons are two-dimensional images and serve as a window into Heaven. 
 
It was Christ's Incarnation, taking on flesh which makes the veneration of icons possible. Christ, the Divine Logos took on flesh, a material substance in order to dwell among us and for us to see Him face to face. In fact, the first icon was the Icon made without hands (Αχειροποίητος). This was a towel or sheet that had the imprint of Christ's face; it was the very first icon. We celebrate this Icon on August 16. So, by way of a material substance, flesh, Christ communicated with us, likewise through the material substances of the icon, wood and paint, we can communicate with Him. 
 
The Iconoclasts had it wrong that icons were a violation of the Second Commandment. Christ told us: do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. (Mt 5:17) Christ fulfills the Mosaic Law in His Incarnation and it is by His Incarnation that we are given the blessing to venerate icons. He gave us the first icon, the image of His face.
 
You who are uncircumscribed in divine nature, O Master, in the latter days were pleased to become incarnate and therefore circumscribed. For in Your assuming flesh You also adopted all of its distinctive properties. Therefore when we depict the image resembling Your outward form, and relatively reverence it, we are lifted up to a love for You. From Your holy icon we draw the grace of healing; and in this we follow sacred traditions that the Apostles handed down (Sticheron from Festal Vespers of Triodion).
 
The icons represent those who gave their life for the True Faith, from the prophets to contemporary saints. The icons that cover the walls of Orthodox Churches are not for decoration but rather a reminder that we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1).
 
As we complete one full week of Great Lent and begin the second, let this blessed day, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, recharge our spiritual energy to continue in this arduous journey. The Orthodox Faith has always prevailed in tumultuous times and will continue to do so until the ages of ages to come.
 
This is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith (1 John 5:4)
 
A Blessed Lent to all! Καλή Σαρακοστή!
 
-John Athanasatos 
 
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.

 

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