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Winter is a time when the earth seems dying and barren. The trees are shorn of their leaves by the howling winds, the ground is shorn of its color by frost or sucking mud. Nothing is growing, nothing seemingly is even changing. From the time the Christmas decorations are dunned away, the world takes on a dreary day to day sameness of cold and damp, relieved on in the forced fits of the crimson blushing of Valentine’s Day, or the unnatural kelly-green of St. Patrick’s Day. When Spring arrives, really arrives despite the occasional frost or last burst of snow, suddenly it is everywhere at once in a thousand flower beds both tended by human hands and otherwise. And then Summer works its way in, when the days are long, golden, and warm with activity. We can appreciate the Summer all the more by remembering how dreary the Winter before it was.
And yet not merely our years have season, but one can say our societies do too, and sometimes, when the winters of our societies’ discontents run long and deep, when all seems stripped away, the flowering Spring and energetic Summers that follow can be glorious, even so stunning that they seem to be spiting and damning the Winter out of which they arose. And even though these high Summers produce a harvest of culture that we remember for generations beyond, they also contain the hints of the Winters that will follow. Three such high Summers spring (as it were) to my own mind, one of which we will commemorate today, the first Sunday of Lent. In 1981, Ronald Reagan took office after the anxious 1970s; In 1558, Queen Elizabeth ascended to the English throne; In 843, Empress Theodora of Byzantium ended the second, and final iconoclasm in what is today called Triumph of Orthodoxy.
I was still a young child in 1981 and was no more aware that the presidency had changed hands than I would have been of the existence of Lake Baikal, it was all just background noise to me. What I do remember, though, is how the entirety of the 1980s felt like an endless summer to me. The squabbles of national politics had not yet reached my consciousness, and Ronald Reagan’s face and voice on TV were always welcome and comforting, and the United States was ascendant in the world. The movies, the TV shows, and the music all seemed to bear within them an underlying optimism, something my own kids have noticed as I have shown them 80s sitcoms and movies. It was a grand time to be alive, and even sweeter for my parents after the perpetual anxieties and crises of the 70s, when so much seemed to be in retreat. It was a time of high Summer after a rough winter, and our culture flowered. After a period where expressions of patriotism in the US and confidence in its values and strengths had been muted, one could again openly proclaim oneself proud to be an American, and do so without either shame or dispute over the meaning of the gesture. The culture, for that time, flowered in a confident summer after a stormy winter.
The disruptions to English cultural and religious life by Henry VIII are difficult to understate. His assertion of sole power over the Church in England set in motion what eventually became an outright iconoclasm, where churches, monasteries, and convents were stripped of their ancient shrines, and clergy were forced to change their allegiances, beliefs, and practices that had been in place for centuries. His multiple marriages and resultant children left a dynastic mess that only exacerbated the unstable religious and cultural state of England. Edward VI and then Mary wildly shifted between religious policies and persecutions, and only the ascent of Elizabeth finally gave the nation some stability. We can speak of the Elizabethan age now because of the great cultural flowering that grew up under her long reign, and we can appreciate it all the more by remembering how unstable the years were before Good Queen Bess took the throne.
And it is today, the first Sunday of Lent on the Orthodox calendar, that we mark and celebrate another cultural flowering that followed a long and uncertain winter. In the wake of the century of losses to the armies of Islam, in 730 Byzantine Emperor Leo III decreed that Christian icons were no longer to be allowed, and must be removed, covered, or destroyed (sources dispute the extent of this first Iconoclasm, and much recent scholarship suggests that the movement began in the provinces, not at the decree of the emperor). The debate over icons would run for over a century, during which time much early Christian art was destroyed. Not until 787, and then only by decree of an ecumenical council at Nicaea (summoned by Empress Irene), were images restored to churches. This restoration was brief and followed by a second iconoclastic period from 814 until 843, when another Empress, Theodora, restored the icons and ended the controversy. With religious imagery again allowed in churches, the centuries that followed witnessed an exuberant rebirth of Byzantine art that lasted for several centuries to come, in what could be considered the cultural high Summer of that ancient and bygone empire. And it was a golden time for the empire in other ways too. After centuries of retreat to invaders from all sides, by the 840s the empire was slowing regaining ground and would continue to do so for 200 more years.
And today we mark that return of Summer after the long cultural winter, for icons and iconography are today a vital element in Orthodoxy. They are never worshiped, being merely wood, paint, glass, or metal, but they are used in teaching, and in connecting with the cloud of saints, reminding us always of the great Christians who went before us, and those people are venerated. They remind us too of the great promise of the unending Summer yet to come.