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Great Lent is the most profound time of the Orthodox year. The rigors of fasting (to the extent that you can do it – not everyone can, and if you can’t it’s nobody else’s business), the added services throughout the weeks, the very special nature of those services, the change in the tones of chanting from major keys to more muted and plaintive minor keys, and the change in the vestments and various draperies, covers, and hangings to darker colors, all together carry the change of the season. There is also a cycle of Sunday services as Lent approaches, with each Sunday being set aside for something significant to the history of the Church, to remind the Orthodox annually of the commitment they have made to carry on with the living tradition and faith of nearly two thousand years.
Eastern Orthodoxy is sometimes called the Church of the Seven Councils, after the first (and only) truly Ecumenical Councils (“ecumenical” here meaning those councils which could be said to truly represent all of Christendom, and whose decrees were universally accepted by all of Christendom – though the Catholic Church numbers many more, the Eastern prelates were either not represented, or the decrees of these councils were never accepted by them). The first Sunday of Lent is called, variously, The Sunday of Orthodoxy, or the Triumph of Orthodoxy, and commemorates the Seventh and final such council and its aftermath. This final council settled the final major theological question of the ancient Church: the proper role and place of religious art. In so doing, it closed arguments that had ebbed and flowed for nearly 500 years, and had been the cause of riots, banishments, and wholesale destruction of art throughout all of the eastern provinces of Christendom (many early relics and works of art from the East were sent West during this time).
The use of images in Christianity has long been controversial, with early church theologians such as Origen and Eusebius of Caesarea writing against them, and other church fathers writing in support of them, but it was under the emperor Leo III, in 726, that the first official edicts banning them outright were issued.
The Eastern Roman Empire had been by this time fighting a losing war against the Islamic Caliphate for nearly a century, and Islam is, of course, well known for banning nearly all images in mosques. The Christians in the eastern provinces under direct assault, or already behind Islamic lines, in particular therefore concluded that their string of defeats and retreats was a divine judgement against images, an opinion shared by the emperor. With his proclamation, frescos were to be painted or plastered over, mosaics stripped or covered, and a great many other icons were burned. Those who tried to preserve the images were very often imprisoned, tortured, or executed, and an untold number of works, many dating from Christianity’s earliest days, and others dating from the last golden age of Justinian, were lost forever.
But this was only the opening action in a conflict that would rage for nearly two centuries. The remaining western provinces in Italy refused to comply, with a series of Popes outrightly defying the decrees and issuing anathemas against any clerics who sided with the iconoclasts. Leo would reign until 741. His successor, Constantine V, continued the policy for decades to come, even convening a council to provide theological justification to the ban, and furthering the destruction of images by targeting monasteries (who had hitherto been somewhat immune to threat). Constantine overreached in some matters, however, when he attempted to remove any veneration of saints or of Mary, but as he, like Leo III before him, was militarily successful against both the Caliphate and the rising Bulgar threats,. It should be noted, however, that under his reign he lost Byzantine control over Ravenna and Rome, beginning the slow retreat from Italy (which would take centuries) and especially laying the seeds of the estrangement which would ultimately separate the Eastern and Western churches from one another over the coming centuries.
Yet under his successor, Constantine VI, Constantine V’s widow Irene, acting as imperial regent for their son (then a minor), the issue shifted. Irene called a council in 787 – the Second Council of Nicea (the history of what tricks Irene had to pull off to call the council are worth the study), and at this council the question of holy images was re-examined. The proclamations of the council of Constantine V were rejected as heresy, and at Nicea the prelates crafted a lengthy defense of holy images, which stands today within the Orthodox Church as the final word on the matter. But this was not to be the end of the controversy just yet.
Leo V, who took the throne in 813, again banned the use of images, though it appears his fervency for the matter was less severe than prior iconoclast emperors, and the policy continued under his successor, Theophilos. Only with the unexpected death of Theophilos in 842, leading to another minority succession, did this iconoclasm finally end. Theophilos’s widow, Theodora, acting regent like Irene before her, did something very brave: acting on her authority as regent, she convened a council to restore the icons, and in 843 lead a procession with a large icon of Mary the Theotokos. Though many clerics and theologians would resist for years to come, officially the 7th Council’s declarations were affirmed, and the holy images were restored permanently.
Why the controversy, and why the commemoration? As I touched on here some months ago, the issue stems from the tension between the meanings and interpretations of the second of the Ten Commandments, which prohibits the making of graven images, and the understanding of the Incarnation (Jesus, as God, taking on a human body and living with us). The issue is a considerable one.
On the one hand is the Commandment in Exodus, chapter 20, verses 4 through 6.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments” (ESV)
Yet in the commands from the Lord for the making of the Tabernacle and the Ark, in chapters 25 and 26, there are clear instructions for cherubim to be fashioned of gold for the lid of the Ark, and for the cloths of the tent to have embroidered cherubim on them as well. These are certainly the likenesses of things that are in Heaven above. And Solomon’s temple would later be adorned with cherubim, palm trees, and flowers carved from olive wood (I Kings, chapter 6). What then to make of chapter 20?
Throughout Genesis there are references to family gods – small stone statues of personal household deities, and of course in Exodus there is the matter of the golden calf – these are all false deities and objects of actual worship. And the histories are replete with references to various Baal statues and other shrines to the various cult gods of the Canaanites, Philistines, and other peoples of the area. These are again false deities, and their worship is prohibited. Moreover, the belief of these peoples was that by making these statues and images, people could not only gain an audience with these deities, but actual power over them. Thus the prohibition in Exodus 20 – the one and only Lord of Hosts is the only real deity, beyond description or capture or earthly power. The rest are all false.
Yet Jesus was real and walked among us, so any depiction of him would be a depiction of someone real. To forbid a depiction of Jesus would be to deny his reality, to deny the incarnation. And so icons of Jesus himself, and of his miracles, and of the saints of the Church are all depictions of real people, and affirmations of that incarnation. Moreover, no actual worship is made of these depictions, but the faithful may show veneration (high honor) to the people therein on account of their faithful worship of God The icons remain themselves nothing but paint and glass or wood or plaster – not to be worshiped in themselves, but only shown respect for whom they depict. In addition, they inform and instruct the faithful in their own history and religious upbringing. Thus the iconodules (those who supported the icons) concluded, decreeing that icons have their place in the churches, in homes (which are considered the “little churches”), on public buildings, on vestments, and on the Eucharistic vessels of the churches.
Lent is a journey towards the death of Jesus on the cross, and his resurrection. It is a time of spiritual and physical preparation, and the first Sunday’s step on that journey is, by reaffirming this last major declaration of the early Church, thus a reaffirmation of the Incarnation itself, and a celebration of the Church’s final triumph over the heresy of the iconoclasts.
The service is, where possible, celebrated jointly by multiple churches’s congregations coming together for a single service, and concludes with the clergy and people processing together through or around the church, carrying their icons for all to see. It is the Triumph of Orthodoxy.
As the Protestant Reformation swept across northern Europe, many nations, regions, and principalities went through renewed periods of iconoclasm, so in way the issue has been reopened. Many of the Protestant reformers came to reject the 7th Council, either angered at abuses of religious art and concluding that even if it were correct in theology, in practice people really did worship depictions or relics of saints, or else simply concluding that the Council was incorrect. Certainly in the East, from before the periods of iconoclasm there are surviving accounts of some priests and bishops misusing them, treating them as talismans, scraping the paint from them for use in the Eucharistic chalices, and other forms of what can only be described as outright idolatry, though such abuses drew the scorn and condemnation of the patriarchs. In the Western churches there were similar issues.
The most famous (or infamous) iconoclasm of the time was that of Henry VIII, of England. As monasteries were forcibly closed, artwork and vessels were looted and destroyed. The graves of saints were opened, and their remains burned or cast into rivers, frescoes were covered over, in over the course of just a few years the medieval aspects and artwork of many churches were stripped away in favor of a clean and much simplified appearance. What survived this time was often stripped still further during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. In time, art did again appear in Anglican churches, but much of the ancient art is now lost.
And most Protestant churches today still eschew any religious art at all, favoring a simple cross with little or no adornment save perhaps in stained glass windows. That the Catholic and Orthodox churches still retain the old forms is very often a barrier to dialog, and old arguments remain. In that sense, the triumph of the 7th Council is still incomplete and controversial.
Nota Bene: I’m still way behind on this series. Orthodoxy Sunday this year was last week, on March 17th (St. Patrick’s Day in both Eastern and Western traditions). Hoping to get caught up shortly, and maybe, just maybe, have the 2nd Sunday, Gregory Palamas Sunday (Gregory who?) up before the 3rd Sunday.