Image by Wonderlane via FlickrToday is the “Sunday of Orthodoxy”; sometimes known as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” The celebration of this day, which takes place every year on the first Sunday of Great Lent, celebrates the decision made at the Seventh Ecumenical Council that icons do not violate the provisions of the second of the Ten Commandments, in that, by becoming incarnate, the invisible God Whose form could not be depicted properly in any way could now be seen, and so could be depicted in icons. The same was held to be true for icons depicting the Mother of God, and the saints, for all of them, though imperfect, show us the image of Christ – indeed, every person is made in the image, and after the likeness of God, and so each one of us is an icon of Christ.
We come to church, and we find icons. We cross ourselves and bow, or make prostrations, before them. We offer prayers before them, asking for the prayerful assistance of the saint whose image we see, or of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, being aware of His presence with us in a special way through our seeing Him in the icon. We are not confused. Our Lord is not in the icon – at least, not in some magical way. For we know that our Lord Jesus Christ, being God, is everywhere present and fills all things through God the Holy Spirit. He is present in the icon only in the same way that He is, as we have said, “everywhere present.” But for those who understand – and the Orthodox Church has never required any of her members to revere the icons, only to avoid saying that the use of icons is idolatry – we are connected by faith with the person we see in the icon, and that the love and respect we show to the icon is not offered to wood and paint, but actually passes to the person who is the object of our devotion.
But our bowing and prostrations and prayers are meaningless if we do not realize that these images are less important than the living icons standing here all around us. Our devotion and respect and prayers are meaningless if we forget that every living person is an icon, and do not treat them with the same devotion and respect we offer to the images of pigment on wood. The truth of our Orthodox faith, and the triumph of our faith, celebrated today, is worthless if it does not cause us to understand the connection between the icons in the Church and the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned about whom we heard on the Sunday of the Last Judgment. Remember what our Lord said: for inasmuch as you have done these things unto one of these, you have done it unto Me; and to the extent you have not helped them, you have not helped Me – and each group receiving its reward. We will not be judged on the basis of how much we reverenced the icons we find in the church and in the prayer corners of our homes; we will be judged on the love and respect we have offered to the living icons all around us. That recognition and the action that flows from it, as we reach out in love to help another person – that is the real triumph of Orthodoxy. May God grant us the grace we need to be truly Orthodox, loving God, and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.