The first Sunday of Lent is the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. On this Sunday we commemorate the restoration of the use of icons in the Church after the iconoclasm of the Byzantine Empire. This restoration was confirmed at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787.
The veneration of icons has been the practice of the church for almost its entire existence. Church tradition holds that St. Luke painted the first icon, a depiction of the Theotokos and the infant Jesus. Icons are not an innovation. Icons are not a break in church tradition. They are the tradition.
The first time I visited an Orthodox Church, the icons made an immediate impression on me. Their beauty was obvious. I also felt a sense of reverence. This despite having no understanding of why the Orthodox Church venerates icons.
I was initially uncomfortable with reverencing icons. I’m sure the same goes for most people who come to Orthodoxy from another tradition. To my mind, it seemed like idolatry to bow and kiss these paintings.
As I learned the history and theology behind icons, I came to love their inclusion into our worship. In the Divine Liturgy I am surrounded by the images of those saints that have led the church through its history. When I pray, I stand before icons and ask those saints for help in becoming more like Christ.
The Triumph of Orthodoxy
Icons point to the Incarnation of Christ in His material nature. By using paint and wood to depict what is holy, the Church reverences Christ’s humanity. Using the beauty of art, we worship Christ as God.
What we do not do is worship these objects or do we give them undue devotion. Icons are not idols. The use of icons in worship is sanctioned by the Church and tested through persecution.
On the Sunday of Orthodoxy we bring icons to the temple to have them blessed. During the service we go outside and process around the church grounds and carry our icons aloft. We commemorate the restoration of icons to a rightful place in our lives. And we provide a witness to the world of our ancient faith.
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