In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Brothers and sisters, I greet you on this feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy which is celebrated with such verve, such enthusiasm, by all our Orthodox brothers and sisters around the world, celebrating the victory of our faith, the victory of the Church and the Christian and apostolic teaching regarding the sacred icons over the icon-smashers, those that we know as the iconoclast heretics who were inspired by evil spirits and sought to rob the Church of her iconographic tradition under the guise of piety and respect for God’s commandments. They destroyed the icons and attempted to eradicate the veneration of icons in the Church, and did so for over 150 years.
Icons are central to our faith, to the Christian faith. The first and ultimate iconographer is, in fact, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ himself, who fashioned with his own fingers man and woman as the image of God. He also pressed that beautiful cloth up against his sacred face during his earthly ministry and imprinted an image miraculously of his face upon the cloth that he sent to Prince Abgar of Edessa. This beautiful story, and the story about the creation of this sacred image is recorded in the Church History of Eusebius in the fourth century, at the time of Emperor Constantine, and that sacred image was a precious relic for centuries, cared for by the Church.
The Lord is not just the ultimate iconographer. He’s also the ultimate icon restorer. Icons, in this fallen world, they get old, and they get covered with soot, and sometimes we have to hire the iconographers to come back and, through a process, bring the icon back to its original condition, restore it. This is in fact an image, a picture, of what our Savior does with us and with all human persons who seek him. He fashioned us originally as his image; we’ve covered ourselves with soot and with blackness and with filth that we know too much about, and, by his grace, he cleans us. He brings us back to a restored image.
He also blessed St. Luke, the apostle and evangelist, who was our first iconographer, who painted images of our Savior and especially of the most-pure Theotokos, some of which remain in the possession of the Church to this day. Since the early Church, iconography has flowered, erupting from its beginnings into full bloom to fill the world with beauty, to bring heaven to the earth, and to communicate the saving truth that our Lord Jesus Christ as co-eternal Son of God has become a man.
There is no Christianity without iconography. Icons are not an addendum. It’s not as though we have the Orthodox faith, and, oh, we also like pretty pictures, and we can put our love of iconography as though some sort of aesthetic appreciation, like a type of incense we might use. Not at all. Icons and the making of icons are central to the faith. There is no faith without it. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t Christians who don’t have icons, but whatever they have of the Christian faith they have from the Orthodox Church, the Church, and that faith was communicated through holy icons. I believe if they don’t have icons in their church, their faith only exists because of icons. They’re integral and necessary expressions of a true belief of God and the Gospel.
Icons are the visible word of God, and this is the teaching, brothers and sisters, of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The Fathers there said that the Gospel courses through the world in two means. It comes through word and through image. We can no more get rid of iconography in the Church than we could get rid of the Bible. The Church can certainly live without the Bible, but not well. In the same way, she can live without icons if we have to hide in the fields for services because of times of persecution and we can’t build splendid churches and commission sacred iconography, but we would never voluntarily do so.
No, iconography is not an addendum to the faith, but central, proclaiming and preserving the fundamental truth of the Gospel, that God has become man. And just wait until this truth is so loudly proclaimed in your new church. Just wait, till person after person comes into that beautiful temple and sees, right in front of their eyes, that magnificent dome with the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ there. And then they look behind the high place and they see in the eastern apse that same glorified Christ as a Child in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and they’ll learn, just by looking, that he who is in the heavens actually came down to earth to unite heaven and earth in the womb of the Virgin. They’ll learn the most sacred truth of the Incarnation, visually.
It’s no wonder that the Jews and the Muslims who do not believe in the Incarnation, who do not believe that God has a co-eternal Son, let alone that he has a Son who has become a man, it’s no wonder that they have always resisted our iconography and have attempted to criticize us over the centuries and to eradicate iconography in places where holy Orthodox lands were taken over by Muslim domination. Almost universally they would come into our churches, they would grate the icons, and they would cover them with plaster. They couldn’t bear to look at them.
For us to live without icons would be to move back to the Old Testament, to live like Jews, to live under the shadows of the Law as though God had not permanently and irrevocably yoked himself to creation and made himself visible. Can you imagine if the miracle of the Incarnation took place in the 21st century? I’ve often thought of this and how unusual it would be. Everyone would have YouTube videos of our Savior in the Holy Land, doing his miracles. People would have their cell phones out when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Can you imagine how many people would have been sitting there with their cell phones on, watching? The myrrh-bearing women at the tomb at that first Pascha night probably would have had their iPhones, recording just in case something happened, really. And then what would we have done?
The iconoclasts would have wanted us to believe after Jesus, let’s say he was incarnate in the 21st century after he was raised and ascended into heaven, they would want us to destroy all those pictures and all those videos and pretend that it never happened, because they would want us to think that somehow to depict the Son of God is wrong and against the commandments. How absolutely ludicrous. We would love those videos. They’d be the most popular, ultimately viral in every land.
No, God has permanently and irrevocably yoked himself to creation. We depict him because he depicted himself. We paint icons because he’s made himself permanently visible. He became a man, brothers and sisters, and the Son of God remains a man today, at the right hand of his Father, and you’ll see him again, as you’re yearning to do, when he comes in glory to gather us and to bring the kingdom of God and to bring all the misery and sorrow that we’ve lived through to a beautiful end. Going to happen.
Today we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy, our victory over the evil one, who despises icons. He despises iconography because icons are the means by which his overthrow is proclaimed. The evil one despises icons because icons lead men to the knowledge of the true God, and they proclaim and allow a material voice, the Gospel that God has become a man and reconciled the world to him.
Can you imagine how much, in the tenth century, the evil one and all his demons lamented the day that the envoys from Prince Vladimir of Kiev came to Constantinople to Agia Sophia and were absolutely overwhelmed by the sacred iconography depicting the true faith? So much so that when they wrote back to their prince they said, “When we were standing in the church of God, and looking at the sacred images, we did not know if we were in heaven or on earth. All we know is that God dwells there.” This led to the conversion of the Rus’ and to the whole Russian kingdom. How much Satan laments the power of iconography.
St. John of Damascus says in his book, On the Divine Images, that great defender of the faith, “If any pagan comes to you and wants to know about your faith, simply walk him inside the church and let him look at the sacred images. That’s all that’s necessary, and he’ll understand the faith.”
The evil one despises icons because they instruct us. They especially instruct the simple and the illiterate and those who can’t read. They make the mysteries of holy Orthodoxy clear to the faithful. They assist the faithful in our quest for salvation. They serve as a point of contact with the heavenly world, and don’t you know it.
Sacred icons, brothers and sisters, are two-way streets. We approach them, and they approach us. We offer our veneration to the images of the Lord and his most-pure Mother, to St. George and the saints, but we have to remember that when we approach them, they’re windows, windows to the kingdom of God, which is why they’re painted the way they are, why they’re not naturalistic depictions that have shade and images where the light is coming from the outside and hitting them and casting a shadow. Not at all. They’re depictions of transfigured life, of heavenly life, which is why the light comes from the inside and out of the face of the person, and why they have a halo around their head.
You have two icons in this church who have communicated to you as much as you have communicated to them. They’ve brought heaven to you; they’ve touched you by their miracles, beckoning and calling us to strive for the next life, for the divine life, for the heavenly kingdom, giving birth in us to all sorts of devout emotions and inspiration, keeping the nearness of God and the saints, the communion of saints, alive. Can you imagine how sorrowful we’d be if all the pictures of our beloved parents and grandparents were lost, those who have gone before us, those who have already gone on to the next life and have made the transition? How would we feel if all we had were mental images? The iconoclasts would want us to have not even mental images.
For these reasons and more, the evil one stirred up a great tumult in the Church for some 150 years in the eighth and the ninth centuries. He encouraged phony bishops, heretical priests and monks and even emperors, from where the real efforts came, to attack our sacred icons and to charge the venerators of icons with idolatry. Can you imagine? Our faithful Orthodox bishops, priests, and faithful being charged with idolatry? The thought is simply ludicrous: the Church that eradicated idolatry from the world, that turned idol-worshipers of the one, true God, being accused itself of idolatry. We got rid of the idols, and then we were accused of idolatry.
This pernicious and soul-destroying heresy which was finally and definitively overthrown, this overthrow is commemorated on the first Sunday of Lent every year, when, in 843 it began. The Empress Theodora and her pious son, Michael, reestablished the icons for the last time in Agia Sophia, and we have been celebrating this victory ever since. On this day—we’ll do it a little bit at the end of this service, and if we didn’t have a storm and had a Sunday of Orthodoxy together, we would do it, no doubt, in a more full and complete way—we read the statement that comes from the Second Ecumenical Council, defending holy icons and anathematizing the iconoclasts and their iconoclast heresy. It’s a proclamation called the Synodikon, which has both a positive declaration of our faith and also this anathematizing of the heretics.
In fact, heresy, the words “heresy” and “heretic,” occur more than ten times in this morning’s matins hymnody, as well as additional times in last night’s great vespers. These words, “heretic” and “heresy,” are not popular words today. They are not politically correct jargon, definitely out. In fact, ironically, the only thing that secularizing culture considers to be “heretical” and worth the castigation of the word “heretic” is the idea that anyone could actually be a heretic. That is “heretical.” The only thing that isn’t accepted by secularizing society so much so that they would get upset and roiled is the idea that anyone actually had the Truth. This is the only heretical concept.
The anathema, however, as used by the Church, has always been our vigilant and loving response to heresy. Our Lord himself taught us this in his vociferous condemnation of the Pharisees and the false teachers of his own day. You can read his most virulent attack on them in the 23rd chapter of St. Matthew. It’s often called the “Woe” discourse. It’s called the “Woe” discourse because Jesus pronounces woes on the Pharisees and the false teachers so many times: “Woe to you, Pharisees, hypocrites…” and then he’ll explain why. “Woe to you for teaching this; woe to you for teaching that!”
He established the standard of his followers’ response to heresy. We don’t play with it. It’s not “cute”; it’s deserving of woes. And St. Paul, the great apostle, followed this up by proclaiming anathema to all those who preach, in his words, “a false Jesus,” or, again in his words, “a different gospel, which is really no gospel at all.” (This is Galatians 1 and 2 Corinthians 1.) Indeed, he even pronounces an anathema on all those Christians who do not love our Lord Jesus Christ and are fakers, at the end of his first letter to the Corinthians.
These censures of our Lord and the Apostle are not lapses in character. It’s not as though the great Prince of peace, the great Lover of man, our Savior, who thirsts to help and save every person, all of a sudden just fell into a moment of hatred and spite. God forbid that thought! It’s not as though St. Paul, who did everything and expended his whole life, becoming all things to all men that he might save some, when he issued these anathemas against those preaching a false Jesus and a false gospel which was no gospel; it’s not as though he, all of a sudden, lost his love. Brothers and sisters, the anathema is charitable. It is a charitable anathema. It’s the thing to do to show love in the face of heresy.
They weren’t lapses of character; they were acts of love for God and men. In a relativistic and a permissive culture, anathema is difficult to understand and to accept. In order to believe in the propriety of an anathema, we have to believe in the Truth. And that Truth exists. We know, by looking around, at what permissiveness in our society has done. Our culture is awash in violence, civil and domestic violence, because of a thoroughgoing permissiveness in home and state. As a result, our society is rising up and calling on our representatives to be tough on crime and for families to show tough love, yet at the same time, we have not only tolerated the worst form of violence, but have actually turned this worst form of violence into a virtue. The worst form of violence is not domestic abuse, as awful as that is. It’s not even abortion, which is probably second. The worst form of violence, according to the Church Fathers, the worst form of violence is heresy.
We pray in matins for this Sunday, we say, “Deliver thy people from the violence of impiety. Enkindle them with zeal for orthodoxy.” Heresy is the greatest form of violence because it attacks and ruins the whole person, whereas other forms of physical violence simply attack the body. [The] violence [of heresy] attacks the soul, the heart, the mind, and that leads to the perpetual destruction of the body and perdition. Heresy also always lead to civil violence, as it did in the iconoclast controversies. So many of our bishops, murdered. So many monks, so many priests, so many faithful—imprisoned and tortured and maimed, because of their faithfulness to the Church, as heresy inspired violence among civil authorities.
Besides the iconoclast controversy, you can think, too, of the heretically inspired violence of the Latin Crusades, especially the Fourth Crusade, or the Protestant Insurrection, as so many Catholics embraced Protestant heresies in the 16th century. Almost universally it led to grotesque acts of violence, not just against the Latins but against themselves: Protestant on Protestant.
The Church is not like so many contemporary politicians, who so often change their tunes that the populace has actually no idea what they actually believe. The Church is quite clear and plain, and she says, “Anathema to heresy. Anathema to the heretics.” The Church also sings on this day, “Many years to all those who have held their faith. Many years to the right-believing rulers, and to our right-believing bishops and faithful.”
Brothers and sisters, we who are Orthodox Christians need to have the Church’s view on heresy because love demands it. We can’t love unless we speak the truth. St. Paul says that is what we’re called to do: to speak the truth in love. This is the path of salvation. When someone is embracing awful thoughts and [soul-destroying] teachings, it’s not loving to be silent.
We celebrate this wonderful feast also on this first Sunday in Lent after we’ve had a very aggressive week of fasting. At least, we’ve tried to have a very aggressive week of fasting. If you haven’t tried to have a very aggressive week of fasting, get with the picture, and start trying this week! But the Church plants this commemoration of the true faith on the first week, on the very first Sunday, after we’ve exercised ourselves this week in prayer and fasting and good deeds. She puts it there to remind us that the road, the narrow road which leads to the kingdom of God, is that road which combines the true faith and the life of love, a life of striving for goodness.
These two things together, and necessarily together, bring to us, brothers and sisters, eternal salvation, and this is what I wish for you on this celebration of holy Orthodoxy and the triumph of our faith and the holy icons. I wish you to hold the true faith and to live a life of love. That would bring you to eternal glory in the kingdom of God. May it be. Amen.