On the first Sunday of Lent, we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy, sometimes called the Triumph of Orthodoxy. I don’t like to use the latter expression because in the North American context of Christian denominationalism it is easily misunderstood--by both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians. So let me begin by saying one thing that the Sunday of Orthodoxy is not, and then go on to explain a little bit about what it is.
The Sunday of Orthodoxy is not a celebration of the triumph of our denomination. In the context of denominationalism, since our Christian group is called Orthodox, it is easy to misunderstand what exactly we are celebrating. We are celebrating that orthodoxy (Truth, true teaching) is triumphant, not that a group named Orthodox (our group) is triumphant. Certainly, in as much as Orthodox Christians practice what they preach, they share in the triumph of the Truth. However, calling ourselves Orthodox and even proclaiming true words does not make us participants in the Truth any more than being decendants of Abraham and teaching the Law of Moses made most Pharisees of the first century genuine children of Abraham.
The Sunday of Orthodoxy is a celebration of the true teaching about who Jesus Christ is based on the declarations of the seventh Ecumenical Council.
A Little History
For the first almost 300 years of Christianity, only local councils (groups of bishops) were able to deal with false teachings as they came up. But with the cessation of the persecutions, a series of world-wide (ecumenical) councils were held over approximately the next 350 years. These Councils both confirmed earlier local councils and dealt with new false teachings as they emerged and clarified matters of order, discipline and morality (e.g. Who figures out the date of Easter? or Is it appropriate for a bishop to dance? or What do you do if someone who claims to be a monk has a concubine?). While some of the matters of order, discipline and morality had to do with specific problems in specific contexts, the theological teaching of these councils has become the bedrock of the Christian faith for almost all groups that call themselves Christian--regardless of the name. The basic tenents of Christianity such as knowing God as Trinity, knowing Jesus as both God and Man, and even what books would be in the Bible were determined by these Ecumenical Councils.
The seventh Ecumenical Council (787) dealt with a particular cultural phenomenon which actually had deep theological implications. The cultural phenomenon was iconoclasm; that is, the belief that images of Christ and of the saints—and particularly the veneration of these images—were not appropriate. The iconoclasts wanted to destroy icons. For over a hundred years, the Church struggled with emperors and patriarchs who wanted to destroy icons while predominantly the monastics (and some others) championed their continued veneration. Keep in mind that iconoclasm was the innovation here. Christians had been making and venerating icons from the beginning. But now certain cultural factors made iconoclasm intellectually fashionable (perhaps the influence of Islam, but scholars do not know).
A Little Theology
While iconoclasm was a cultural phenomenon, the impulse to destroy icons is not merely a matter of cultural preference, it is rooted in a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the Incarnation of Christ, the nature of worship, and role of matter in our salvation.
As the Church has tried to articulate its understanding of the Incarnation, the two extremes the Church has tried to avoid have been an overemphasis on either Christ’s humanity or his divinity. Iconoclasm comes from an overemphasis on Christ’s divinity, or rather a denial of His full humanity. True, no one can paint the image of God, for “no one has seen God at any time.” However, in as much as God became Man, the human image of God can be depicted. And in as much as one refuses to accept that images of Christ can be depicted, the Saints who defended icons argued, one refuses to accept that Christ became fully human--for every human being has an image that can be depicted.
The second error of the iconoclasts was that they did not distinguish between the worship that belongs to God alone and the veneration (the relative honoring) of holy people or holy things. Even under the Old Covenant, God was honored and worshiped by the veneration of holy things, particularly the Temple. One was to offer sacrifice only at the Temple, not “under every green tree.” Furthermore, failure to venerate the Ark of the Covenant resulted in the death of Uzzah, and refusal to venerate the priesthood of Aaron resulted in the death of Korah and his followers in the desert. God is worshiped truly when we venerate those whom God has chosen and who are full of His Grace. And God is worshiped truly when we venerate the things that God has established as means for our salvation. When we venerate icons, the Council declared, the honor is not given to the wood and paint, but to the One whose image the wood and paint depicts.
Related to this matter of veneration, the third error of the iconoclasts was that they misunderstood the role of matter in the salvation of the soul. And even the use of the word “soul” is misleading, for today we live in an iconoclast Christian culture that separates soul from body. There are no (or very few) icons on the walls of most contemporary Christian churches. This iconoclasm is connected to the belief that the soul is only the immaterial part of a human being. Today many Christians mistakenly believe that only the immaterial part of the human being is being saved, and that the body doesn’t really matter: they think the body is just an earth-suit, not a real part of me.
This de-materialization of the human being has been, in my opinion, the fiercest heresy at work in the Christian world for the past hundred years or so. It has been at work in the Church off and on throughout history under various guises: gnosticism, iconoclasm, and today as materialism. That is, as materialists, many Christians affirm a spiritual reality which cannot be directly seen or measured, but is accepted by faith; and they affirm a material reality that can be seen and measured by science. And these two realms are separate. The reasoning behind the modern Christian’s rejection of icons, therefore, goes something like this: if the Holy Spirit is saving only the immaterial part of me, then matter must not be very important and any material means by which the Church has worshiped God must therefore be a distraction and a hindrance from “true” immaterial worship.
However, the Fathers of the seventh Ecumenical Council declared that matter is indeed essential to our salvation because God also became matter in the Incarnation (without ceasing to be immaterial—it’s a mystery). A human being is both material and spiritual. Both are necessary to be fully human, which is why the Church teaches the bodily resurrection of all mankind on the Last Day. Real matter brought about our salvation: the real wood of the Cross, the real blood of a Palestinian Jew, the real tomb, and the real bodily Resurrection of the God-Man Jesus Christ vouchsafing the resurrection of all. Consequently, real matter continues to bring about our salvation, real matter can bear the Grace of the Holy Spirit, and how I relate to the material things that Christ in the Church has provided for my salvation influences to a large extent my experience of salvation.
On the Sunday of Orthodoxy, this is the teaching that we celebrate, that we hold up as true, that we declare is orthodox: matter matters, God is honoured when we venerate holy people and holy things, and the depiction of the image of Christ is not only possible, but it is necessary because of the Incarnation. This is the teaching of the seventh Ecumenical Council. This is the teaching of the Orthodox Church. May God grant that we Orthodox Christians find Grace, even in this, always to practice what we preach.