The Sunday of Orthodoxy:
When the Icons Came Home
In 726 AD, Emperor Leo III initiated what became known as the Iconoclast Controversy. He was troubled by military losses to Islamic armies, and their fierce opposition to images. Apparently thinking that the images were giving offense to God, he ordered their destruction. This imperial policy continued, off and on, until the middle of the 9th century, when the Church gathered for the 7th Ecumenical Council and definitively defended the making and veneration of icons.
On the first Sunday of Lent in 843, in a solemn procession, icons were officially restored in the Orthodox Churches. This event continues to be celebrated to this day.
More than an argument about art, the Iconoclast Controversy required a very complete understanding of the faith. God became man, the Word became flesh, and in so doing changed and transformed our understanding of the material world. St. John of Damascus wrote wonderfully of this complete understanding:
I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God....
I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.
On this Sunday, we bring icons to Church with us and join in a procession
of joy that marks the truth of our salvation. The Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us!