21 February 2010

'Hold Fast to the Ikon of the Saviour'—The Sunday of Orthodoxy


Although I said I intended to focus largely on the Feasts of the Menology here on Logismoi, I could not resist the urge today to post a little something on the commemoration prescribed for us by the Church in the Triodion: the Sunday of Orthodoxy, when ‘we celebrate the restoration [in 843] of the holy and venerable icons by the ever-memorable rulers of Constantinople, the Emperor Michael and his mother, the Empress Theodora, during the patriarchate of St Methodius the Confessor.’ [1] Charles Williams calls the resistance to iconoclasm the ‘common sense of Christendom’ [2] and refers to the restoration by the Augusta, St Theodora:

A great procession through Byzantium, in which the Empress walked, re-established them on a Festival still kept by the Greek Church as the Feast of Orthodoxy. It was for centuries accepted in Christendom . . . that the Affirmation of those actual images was good and just. Men must use their piety and intelligence to avoid idolatry; they could not and must not be saved by the Rejection of Images . . . ; images—one may add, living images also—were to receive ‘proskunesis’, particular honor. [3]

But while it is easy for Orthodox—and apparently some Anglicans!—to call the veneration of icons ‘common sense’ now, the onslaught of iconoclasm in the 8th century was no less for that. As Jaroslav Pelikan notes, the iconoclast controversy produced ‘the most vigorous polemics in the doctrinal history of Eastern Christendom’, [4] and the man who emerged as the ‘most distinguished’ defender of icons and their veneration was a former servant of the Caliph at Damascus and monk of St Savas’s Monastery in the Holy Land, St John of Damascus. [5] As an Orthodox Christian, I have read many summaries and explanations of St John’s defense of icons—contained in three treatises recently translated by Fr Andrew Louth—but while I accepted these explanations and the practices they protect, I have found that nothing can substitute for reading St John’s words for oneself. Grounded in Holy Scripture, they are brilliant, obviously inspired, and, I believe, utterly convincing. In a key passage in the first treatise, St John writes:

16. Of old, God the incorporeal and formless was never depicted, but now that God has been seen in the flesh and has associated with human kind, I depict what I have seen of God. I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation, and I will not cease from reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked. I do not reverence it as God—far from it; how can that which has come to be from nothing be God? . . . Therefore I reverence the rest of matter and hold in respect that through which my salvation came, because it is filled with divine energy and grace. [6]

Indeed, the acknowledgement of the uncircumscribability of God’s incorporeal and formless divinity, the negation of idolatry, can be seen to be contained within the icon itself. As the renowned Scottish Reformed theologian, T.F. Torrance, writes:

This means that the concept of space which we use in the Nicene Creed is one that is relatively closed, so to speak, on our side where it has to do with physical existence, but is one which is infinitely open on God’s side. This is why frequently when Byzantine art sought to express this ikonically it deliberately reversed the natural perspective of the dais upon which Christ was represented. The Son of God become man could not be presented as one who had become so confined in the limits of the body that the universe was left empty of His government. He could not be represented, therefore, as captured by lines which when produced upwards met at some point in finite space, but only between lines which even when produced to infinity could never meet, for they reached out on either side into the absolute openness and eternity of the transcendent God. [7]

But of course it is not simply that the Orthodox say it is ‘permitted’ to paint and venerate icons. The Fathers of the Eighth Œcumenical Council proclaimed the veneration of icons to be an integral part of the faith—indeed, they maintained that it is ‘the faith of the Apostles’, ‘the faith which has established the universe’. The former Dean of the Anglican Cathedral of St George in Jerusalem and Vicar of St Mary Magdelen’s Church at Oxford, Hugh Wybrew, explains the significance of the observance of the Sunday of Orthodoxy thusly:

The name of this Sunday reflects the great significance which icons possess for the Orthodox Church. They are not optional devotional extras, but an integral part of Orthodox faith and devotion. They are held to be a necessary consequence of Christian faith in the incarnation of the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, in Jesus Christ. They have a sacramental character, making present to the believer the person or event depicted on them. [8]

Thus, as we sing in the doxasticon of ‘Lord, I have cried’ at Vespers for the Sunday of Orthodoxy:

The grace of truth has shone forth upon us; the mysteries darkly prefigured in the times of old have now been openly fulfilled. For behold, the Church is clothed in a beauty that surpasses all things earthly, through the ikon of the incarnate Christ that was foreshadowed by the ark of testimony. This is the safeguard of the Orthodox faith; for if we hold fast to the ikon of the Saviour whom we worship, we shall not go astray. Let all who do not share this faith be covered with shame; but we shall glory in the ikon of the Word made flesh, which we venerate but worship not as an idol. So let us kiss it, and with all the faithful cry aloud: O God, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance. [9]

In conclusion, I shall once again quote Pelikan, already a friend of Orthodoxy, but still at the time writing as a Lutheran:

Not the will of the majority, nor the ukase of the emperor, nor the subtlety of the learned could determine what was orthodox. The church was orthodox when it prayed and taught aright, in accordance with apostolic Scripture and apostolic tradition. It prayed aright when it asked God ‘to remember the entire episcopacy of those who are orthodox, those who rightly handle the word of truth.’ The icons were ‘symbols of orthodoxy’, for in them correct teaching and correct worship were united. It was a recognition of this role of the icons when the anniversary of the restoration of the icons, on the first Sunday in Lent, 11 March 843, came to be designated as the Feast of Orthodoxy. On this occasion, a document entitle Synodicon was promulgated; with various editorial additions, it has been read as part of the liturgy for the feast ever since. In it the orthodox church celebrated its restoration to ‘the reaffirmation of true devotion, the security of the worship of icons, and the festival which brings us everything that saves.’ Summing up the victory of the icons, the Synodicon declared: ‘As the prophets have seen, as the apostles have taught, as the church has received, as the theologians have taught, as the ecumene has agreed with one mind . . . so we believe, so we say, so we proclaim, honoring Christ, our true God, and his saints, in our words, writings, ideas, sacrifices, temples, and images.’ ‘This,’ it concluded, ‘is the faith of the apostles, this is the faith of the fathers, this is the faith of the orthodox, this is the faith that has sustained the ecumene.’ [10]


[1] Fr David (Kidd) and Mother Gabriella (Ursache), eds., Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion, tr. Fr Seraphim (Dedes), et al. (Rives Junction, MI: HDM, 1999), p. 60.

[2] Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (Vancouver: Regent College, 2002), p. 94.

[3] Ibid., p. 95.

[4] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700), Vol. 2 in The Christian Tradition—A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1974), p. 91.

[5] Fr Andrew Louth, ‘Introduction’, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, by St John of Damascus, tr. Fr Andrew Louth (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2003), p. 9.

[6] St John, p. 29.

[7] Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time & Incarnation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), p. 18.

[8] Hugh Wybrew, Orthodox Lent, Holy Week & Easter: Liturgical Texts with Commentary (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1997), p. 51.

[9] The Lenten Triodion, tr. Mother Mary & Archim. [now Metropolitan] Kallistos (Ware) (South Canaan, PA: STS, 1994), p. 300.

[10] Pelikan, pp. 144-5.

4 comments:

Taylor said...

Aaron, thank you for this post. I am glad to see a quote from TF Torrance, who in my brief experience of him seems to be a very incisive student of the fathers, particularly St. Athanasius the Great. Fr. George Dragas studied under him at Edinburgh, and Torrance dedicated his book Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics to Fr. George and his wife. I know that Fr. George thinks very highly of his work.

aaronandbrighid said...

I didn't realise that about Torrance's dedication of a book to Fr George! Have you, by any chance, read Fr Louth's Discerning the Mystery yet? He talks about Torrance at some length there. The passage I've quoted here, however, was actually first brought to my attention by a fascinating book called The Optina Pustyn Monastery in the Russian Literary Imagination.

You'll notice in general in this post that I almost went out of my way to refer to non-Orthodox writers on this subject. I wanted to show non-Orthodox readers that we weren't the only ones that thought the 7th Oecumenical Council was a good idea!

Taylor said...

I have not read Discerning the Mystery, but it's on my list. Torrance was well known and loved by the Greeks in his time, which is perhaps unusual for western academics without any direct religious or ethnic connection. I recently came across an article on him in our library from the Greek magazine 'Faith and Religion' (I'm pretty sure that was the title.

Sometimes one wonders if, when non-Orthodox groups affirm the authority of the 7 Ecumenical Councils, they really know all that they are agreeing to!

aaronandbrighid said...

Quite right!

You really should read Fr Louth (not just on Torrance, either!). For a thorough foretaste, see my review.