Today, the first Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy. If we were at our cathedral in San Francisco, after the Divine Liturgy we could see the “Anathema” service. Here, amid prayers for the protection of the Church, the restoration of those who have departed from the Truth she declares into heresy, and the conversion of the unbelievers, are recalled the many false teachings, and teachers, that the Church has encountered in her existence. After each false belief has been mentioned, the people cry, “Anathema!” as the bishop who is presiding makes a dramatic gesture with the dikhiri and trikhiri – the two- and three-stemmed candles he holds, with which he usually gives a blessing to the faithful. On this day, however, he turns them down and away as the “anathema” is proclaimed – signifying that the Church rejects the false teaching described, and excommunicates those who support that lie in place of the Truth.
The remembrance of this day as the “Sunday of Orthodoxy” began with the end of the 7th Ecumenical Council. It was at this Council that the Iconoclastic heresy was anathematized. It was the decision of this Council that the veneration of icons was not a violation of the Second Commandment that God had given to us on Mount Sinai through the holy prophet Moses.
In all probability, many (if not all) of us who have come to the Orthodox Church and Faith from a Protestant background had to wrestle with the question of icons. This was certainly true in my own journey to the Faith. God has said, “Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image or likeness.” We hear from the prophets and the apostles and the fathers of those who “worship the created, rather than the Creator.” We know that there have been, and are today, those who ascribe mystical powers to clan totems and animals, such as the Bear, the Lion, and so on. We know that the Egyptians worshipped beings – “gods,” as far as they were concerned – who had human bodies with animal heads: a hawk, a jackal, and so on. Even the Israelites, while Moses was on the mountain of God receiving the Ten Commandments, made for themselves an idol of a golden calf to worship. We live in a material existence; and the temptation is always there for us to confuse the material for the spiritual – and so, ultimately, to worship the creation. Indeed, when we sin – which is to say, when we choose to do our own will, rather than what God has willed for us – we can truly be said to be worshipping ourselves – a form of self-idolatry.
How is it, then, that the Church could say that it is not only possible, but even, in a way, necessary, to venerate the icons? Doesn’t this, in effect, violate the Second Commandment?
In her wisdom – which we trust is guided by the Holy Spirit of God – the Church at the 7th Ecumenical Council noted that, by becoming incarnate, God had made Himself known to us. No longer was it impossible to truly and faithfully portray an image of God, as envisioned in the Commandment – for now God was with us; and He had been seen by us, had moved about in our midst as one of us, a bearer of human being. The icons bear witness to the reality of the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity in the flesh; the icons tell us that Christ was truly God and truly human – and to believe otherwise is anathema. When we grasp this teaching, we are better equipped to grasp the teaching of St. Athanasios the Great, who said, “He became as we are, in order that we may become as He is.” And there is more.
The simple application of pigment to wood that we call an icon is not the most important part of the gift we have received from the Fathers of the 7th Council. We need to recall that humanity is created in the image and after the likeness of God. So not only are we meant to venerate the icons we see in the Church, and in our homes – we are meant to venerate the saints who are depicted there, for they, also, by the quality of their lives, bear witness to Christ, Who is God in the flesh, come to us to bring us to Him. Not only are we meant to venerate the saints who are celebrated – we are meant to venerate each other, for we, also, are made in the image of God; and we who have been baptized and chrismated bear the likeness of Christ. We are all icons; we all are able to show Christ to the world, for He dwells in us, and desires that we live in Him.
Would you spit on an icon? How, then, can you have contempt for another human being, who is an icon of Christ? Would you defile an icon? How, then, can you defile yourself by your sins, you who are an icon of Christ? As we bow down before the icons of the saints, out of respect for the testimony of their lives, and out of love for them whose love for our Lord is so great that it took them from earth into the deeper reality of the heavenly life, so, too, we should humble ourselves to all around us, thinking the best of them, and the least of ourselves. We should care for them and for their needs, for when we reach out in love to help another, we have the opportunity to do so for our Lord as well.
Brothers and sisters, let us ask God for His grace, that we may faithfully bear, and show to the world, Christ in us, our hope of glory. Let us humble ourselves in veneration of the image of God in all; and let us love one another, as Christ loved us, and give o ourselves as He gave Himself, an offering and sacrifice to God. If we will do so, we will receive the unending love and blessing of God; not only for ourselves, but for others, as well. If we will do so, Orthodoxy will triumph in our lives; and to the glory of God.