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The Triumph of the Icons:  

History, Theology, and Implications for Orthodox Worship Today

from a 4 March 2001 lecture given by Father Stylianos Muksuris 

and posted by Hellenic Communication Service

The debate surrounding the importance of the holy icons and their liturgical usage spanned over a century, covering the period from 726-843 AD.  The debate, known historically as the Iconoclastic controversy, mainly preoccupied the Eastern regions of the Byzantine Empire, with only a few repercussions in the West. It was a time of great political unrest, highlighted by various degrees of Byzantine intrigue, heresy, persecution, and even death.  The Church, during this time, produced several martyrs and confessors for the Faith, men and women who refused to surrender the God-inspired teachings and Tradition of their Fathers.   The end result was the final triumph of Orthodoxy over heresy, and once again, as during the first few centuries of Christianity, the Church was preserved by and edified by the very blood shed by the holy martyrs for Christ our God.  

The conflict began during the reign of Emperor Leo II the Isaurian who, ten years into his reign, publicly began speaking out against the icons and sought to eliminate “those who worship them” (Iconodules).   To affirm his authority, he sent a representative to remove the icon over the bronze gate of the imperial palace in Constantinople and replace it with a cross.  The representative was apprehended, needless to say, by a mob of citizens who favored the icons, mostly women, and was killed.   Leo then retaliated fiercely against the Iconophiles (“those who love the icons”) and began his widespread campaign throughout the Empire.

In the West, Pope Gregory II rejected Leo’s theological claims but sought to boost Leo’s popularity in Italy because of the need for Byzantine troops in the West to defeat the approaching Lombard hoards from the North.  In 730, Leo passed an edict ordering the destruction of all icons in the Empire.   Patriarch Gelasios refused to sign this document and was aptly deposed.  A new Iconoclastic patriarch, Anastasios, was chosen and ecclesiastically sanctioned the edict.   Even two representatives of Pope Gregory III from Rome were imprisoned for standing against Leo.  Consequently, a great rift was created from this time forth between the East and West. In 754, after the Lombards captured Ravenna, the papacy formally aligned itself with the Frankish king, Pepin, establishing the foundations for the new Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne in 800 AD.

Leo’s successor, his son Constantine V, intensified the persecutions against the Orthodox, the term that by this time was gaining popularity to describe the “correct” teaching of the Church. In Hieria, in the year 754, 338 carefully selected Iconoclastic bishops (minus the Bishops of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem) convened at a council ordered by the theologically articulate Constantine, to establish their own dogma against the icons.  Consequently, great figures such a Saint John of Damascus, a champion for the Orthodox cause, were excommunicated.  The total destruction of all the icons was ordered.  Monasteries, the centers of theological learning and certainly from which the greatest support of the icons came, were forcibly closed.  Many monks and clergy were imprisoned, tortured, exiled, or killed for their faith.

Constantine’s son, Leo IV, was a moderate defender of this father’s holocaustic campaigns, abandoning his father’s anti-monastic persecutions.  Leo’s premature death made his wife Irene Co-Emperor and Regent for their ten-year-old son, Constantine VI.  Resolute in her commitment to restore the icons, Irene appointed the Iconophile Patriarch Tarasios to the throne of Constantinople and convened the 7th Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 787, composed  of 350 bishops from all over the Empire and giving the Church its first respite, but there was a second wave of Iconoclastic persecution to come!  Iconoclastic writings were condemned and ordered to be burned, and the icons, along with Saint John of Damascus, were restored to their rightful place in the Empire.   In 802, Charlemagne from the West acknowledged that there was no emperor in Byzantium, by virtue of the fact that Irene was a woman and had actually overthrown her son, making here the sole monarch in the East.  Charlemagne’s proposal to Irene to marry him – in order for him to increase the size of his empire – was rejected and Irene was exiled to a monastery, where she later died.

In 813, the second round of Iconoclastic persecutions resumed with Leo V the Armenian. He appointed Patriarch John Grammatikos as the theological voice of Iconoclasm and sought to reconvene a council to depose the icons once again.   Two rivals, the former Patriarch Nikephoros and Saint Theodore of the Monastery of Studion, joined forces to fight against Leo.   In the spring of 815, a new council was convened, condemning the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea and restoring the decisions of the one in Hieria in 754.

Following this change in events, the Iconoclastic emperor Michael II the Amorian ascended the throne, a moderate who did not continue the persecutions against the Iconophiles and actually recalled Patriarch Nikephoros and Saint Theodore from exile.  The final Iconoclastic Emperor Theophilos, influenced under the tutelage of John Grammatikos, fiercely persecuted the Orthodox, targeting especially the monasteries in an attempt to destroy once and for all the preservers of the true Faith.   His death on January 20, 842, led to the ascent to the throne of his wife, the famous Empress Theodora, who also served as Regent for their son, Michael III.

Empress Theodora deposed the Iconoclastic Patriarch John Grammatikos and reinstated Patriarch Methodios to his rightful see.  Convening a council in 843, the Church and State permanently established the holy icons in the churches and on March 11, the first Sunday of Great Lent, the decree was solemnized as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” in the Great Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.   To this day, our church celebrates this victory by blessing God and those saints and martyrs who fervently and unshakably supported the Orthodox Christian Faith…..

‘….. As material objects depicting the transformed, deified life of the Kingdom, the holy icons are used today primarily because of two very basic Orthodox teachings:  1) that matter is by nature good; and 2) that Christ’s Incarnation rendered matter an instrument of salvation.   These two very important doctrinal truths suggest to us various implications in our liturgical worship.  I wish to share with you three of these.

First, just as we live in a very material world, we also worship in a very material Church.  The basic Orthodox belief in the goodness of all matter is the fundamental reason for our use of physical items in our worship:  bread, wine, water, oil, incense, candles, icons, and music.  We can take the famous pop singer Madonna’s verses, “We live in a material world, and I am a material girl” and modify them to apply to our Church’s liturgical worship:  “We pray in a material Church, and I am a material worshipper.”   The major difference here though is that Christ through his Incarnation, not only affirmed the goodness of matter, but also transformed it to serve as a means of divine grace, through which we are saved.   The secular, material world seeks not the transformation and redemption of man, but rather his separation from God.  In the secular world, matter is not a means to God but an end to itself, an idol, a god.  In Orthodox worship, all our senses are engaged to praise and glorify the God of all.

Second, the icons affirm not only the Incarnation, but also every single event Christ our Lord effected for our salvation.  In our liturgical worship, God acts mystically when man acts physically.   In other words, the various prayers and actions and gestures, the various material items we use in church, become the media, the instruments, through which the Lord acts in our lives to bless us and help us and save us.  Through faith, and only through faith, can we see the hand of God acting mystically through the unworthy hand of the priest.   Only through faith can we behold the glory of God in human beings.  Put simply, faith allows us through physical worship to relive the salvic acts of Christ and to witness firsthand God’s continued involvement in the lives of his people.

Finally, as the icons are holy images which point to a greater, transcended reality, so too are we icons of God, in whom God dwells forever.  As Saint Paul says, we are living temples of the Holy Spirit and, as such, each of us created in “God’s image and likeness” [Genesis 1.26] requires the respect and honor which is our due.   This means that both inside and outside of worship, we are to treat others and be treated ourselves with the holiness and respect and piety due to the holy icons, because God lives in each of us.  Beyond our physical appearance, in our souls, God exists and makes his abode inside each of us.  For this reason Christ commands us to “love one another, as I have loved you”: in loving another human being, no matter who he or she is, we love God…..…. May this holy feast of our Church, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, instruct us and inspire us all in our Faith, and raise us to honor the Incarnate Son and Word of God, his saints, and his people, one another, who are living icons of the glory of God.  Amen.