The Sunday of Orthodoxy

February 17, 2015

"We pay homage to Your undefiled image, good Lord, and beg pardon for our faults, Christ our God." (Troparion)

The first Sunday of the Great Fast is called the Sunday of Orthodoxy. What do we mean by "orthodoxy"? The word "orthodoxy" stems from the Greek word "orthodoxia" (orthos - right; doksa – faith, opinion) which signifies the true faith and the true worship of God. We are not speaking here of or­thodoxy as we understand it today as being opposed to the Catholic Church, but orthodoxy, as applied to the whole Church of Christ until the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches which occurred in the eleventh century under the patriarch Cerularius (1054). The orthodoxy that we celebrate this Sunday is universal-catholic orthodoxy, pro­fessed by the entire Church of Christ of the first centuries in the battle against the heresy of Iconoclasm (Greek eikon - image; klastes - a breaker; - an image breaking heresy). The Sunday of Orthodoxy is a festival for the whole Church, both Eastern and Western. It is the festive celebration of the decisive victory over Iconoclasm and other heresies.

The Council of Constantinople in the year 842 instituted the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy and decreed that it be celebrated yearly. The purpose of this feast is to pay solemn public homage and veneration to the holy icons of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Mother of God, and all the Saints. The first celebration of Orthodoxy, that is, the first public veneration of holy icons after the condemnation of the heresy of Iconoclasm, occurred on the first Sunday of Lent in 842 A.D. This Sunday, even today, is called the Sunday of the Veneration of Holy Icons, although this feast bears no relation to the Great Fast. Let us examine closely the history of Iconoclasm and the reason for instituting the Sunday of Or­thodoxy.

The origin of Iconoclasm

One of the striking features of the Eastern Church is the ancient and special veneration of sacred icons of Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, the Angels, and the Saints. The Church of Christ deeply respects and honors the holy icons as it also does holy relics. She places them in church for public veneration and recommends that we venerate them privately in our homes, and wear small icons around our necks in the form of little crosses or medals.

Holy icons were accorded public and private homage in the Eastern Church until the reign of Leo III the Isaurian (717-741). Under the influence of two bishops from Asia Minor hostile to the worship of images, he condemned the venera­tion of holy icons as idolatry. He began his campaign against holy icons by ordering the icon of Jesus Christ to be removed from above the gate of his imperial palace. Later, he issued an imperial decree in 730 prohibiting the veneration of holy icons throughout the empire. This decree marked the beginning of a long, relentless, bitter and bloody campaign against sacred images in the Eastern Church. This struggle with short inter­vals of peace, lasted over a hundred years and ended in a brilliant victory in favor of the veneration of holy icons.

The emperor's decree ordered all holy icons to be destroyed or burned and their defenders to be cast into prison, sent away into exile and even tortured. The Patriarch Ger-manus I (713-730) refused to endorse the Emperor's decree against icons; consequently, the emperor had him removed from office, and appointed in his place the obsequious Patriarch Anastasius (730-754). The Roman popes, first Gregory II (715-731), then later Gregory III (731-741), wrote letters of protest to the emperor and at their Roman synods condemned the war against holy icons.

Emperor Constantine V Copronymus (741-775), son of Leo the Third, obstinately prolonged the iconoclastic war of his father and urged the Church to officially condemn the venera­tion of holy icons. With this aim in view he summoned the bishops in 754 to Constantinople for a synod, which under his influence prohibited the veneration of holy images.

The Condemnation of the Iconoclasm

Permission to venerate holy icons was granted under the rule of Empress Irene who in 784 removed the iconoclast Patriarch Paul from office, and appointed Patriarch Tarasius (794-806) in his place. With the approval of the Empress Irene and the Apostolic See, he called a Council which met at Nicea in 787. This Council is known in the Church as the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The Church honors the memory of the Fathers who participated in this Council in the month of October.

Regarding the veneration of holy icons, the Council of Nicea adopted the doctrine of St. John Damascene (675-749), the distinguished theologian of the Eastern Church.

The Council clearly stressed the distinction between wor­ship or "latria", denoting the highest worship paid to God alone and "dulia", which denotes the honor and veneration paid the most Pure Virgin Mary, the Angels and Saints. The Council teaches that holy icons are merely visible symbols of invisible persons, to whom we give veneration. When venerating holy icons, we do not worship the paper, canvas or wood on or from which holy icons are produced; we give veneration only to the persons whom they represent. The Council places the veneration of holy icons on the same level as the veneration given the Book of the Holy Gospel, the Cross, and the sacred relics of Saints.

The Triumph of Faith

With the beginning of the ninth century, during the reign of Leo V the Armenian (813-820), a new persecution against holy icons was launched; it lasted until 842. In that year Empress Theodora restored the use and veneration of holy icons and deposed the iconoclast Patriarch John VII, and in his place installed Methodius I (842-846). Patriarch Methodius I, who was also persecuted and tortured for the cause of holy icons, immediately convoked a synod at Constantinople that finally restored the veneration of holy .images. This decisive victory is known as the "Triumph of Orthodoxy" and is celebrated by the Eastern Church each year on the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

Among the staunch defenders of holy icons are the Patriarch Germanus I, St. John Damascene, St. Andrew of Crete, Martyr (767), St. Theodore Studite (759-826) and Patriarch Methodius I.

Patriarch Methodius I was believed to have composed the "Ceremony of Orthodoxy", a public profession of faith that was read at the Divine Liturgy on the Sunday of Orthodoxy. In the course of time, this "Rite of Orthodoxy" underwent various alterations. This rite also found its way into our native land and was observed in the cathedral churches. This ceremony consists of a profession of faith, a public veneration of the icons of Jesus Christ and the most Holy Mother of God, a prayer of thanksgiving to God for victory over the heresies, prayers for the living and the dead and finally, a proclamation of an anathema upon the heretics.

The spirit that pervades the liturgy of the Sunday of Or­thodoxy is one of joy, victory, triumph, honor and veneration for the holy icons. "Today, O faithful, let us clap our hands with joy," says the canon in the first Ode of the Matins ser­vice, "and cry: 'How wonderful are Your works, О Christ, and how great Your power, for You bring to fulfillment our unity and harmony.' Come, all you enlightened by God, and let us celebrate this joyous day. Today heaven and earth rejoice and the angelic choirs and assemblies of peoples especially celebrate."

"Today the light of devotion has shone forth to all," we sing in the sticheras of Great Vespers, ' 'banishing the deceit of impiety like a cloud, and illumining the hearts of the faithful.

Come, all you orthodox Christians, let us devoutly fall down before the venerable icons of Christ."

In the Matins service we sing at the sticheras of Praises: "Today is a day filled with joy and gladness, for the true dogma shines with splendor, and the Church of Christ is adorned once more with glorious images, and the unity of the faithful is pleasing to God."

In the eighth Ode of the canon of Matins we read: "Pre­serving the ancestral laws of the Church, we depict images of Christ and the Saints, and as we kiss them with our lips, in heart and desire, we cry out, all the works of the Lord bless the Lord."

The Saturday of St. Theodore Tiro

Here it may be appropriate to recall briefly the great martyr, St. Theodore Tiro (f306) whose memory the Church honors on the Saturday before the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

Tradition has it that Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363), when persecuting the Christians, wished to desecrate the Christian fast by ordering all the food in the markets of Constantinople to be sprinkled every day of the first week of the fast with the blood of the pagan sacrifices. The great martyr, St. Theodore Tiro, however, appeared in a vision to the bishop of Constantinople, Eudokius, and warned him of the evil intent of the emperor and told him to notify all the faithful not to buy food at the markets, but instead to eat cooked wheat with honey, which in Greek is called koliva. Evidently, the Lord wished to show us in this way how He cherished the value of the Christian fast.

A Byzantine Rite Liturgical Year 1992, Toronto, Julian J. Katrij, OSBM,
translated by Fr. Demetrius E. Wysochansky,OSBM

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