March 21, 2021

First Sunday of the Great Fast - Sunday of Orthodoxy (Elder Epiphanios Theodoropoulos)

 By Archimandrite Epiphanios Theodoropoulos

The first Sunday of Great Lent is called the "First Sunday of the Fast" or the "Sunday of Orthodoxy". It is called the First Sunday of the Fast because it is the first Sunday of the Great Fast, namely Great Lent. It is called the Sunday of Orthodoxy because on this day we celebrate the restoration of Holy Icons and the Triumph of the Orthodox Faith against the terrible heresy of the Iconoclasts, who were heretics that did not accept ascribing honor to Holy Icons, instead calling this honor "idolatry".

In the Horologion of our Church the following is written:

"For over one hundred years, the Church of Christ was agitated by the persecution of the cacodox Iconoclasts, the first of which was Emperor Leo the Isaurian, and the last being Theophilos, the husband of Saint Theodora, after whose death Orthodoxy was established again by Patriarch Methodios. This ever-memorable empress boldly proclaimed these holy words: 'If anyone does not venerate and kiss these Holy Icons with longing, without worshiping them as gods, but as images of their archetypes, let them be anathema.' She then sought from God forgiveness for her husband through common fasting and prayer during the entire first week of Lent; and afterwards, on the present Sunday, she with her son Michael the emperor with all the clergy and laity processed with and restored the Holy Icons and decorated the Church of Christ with them. The commemoration of this holy work all Orthodox celebrate today, and this is why this bright and revered day we call the Sunday of Orthodoxy."

We Orthodox do not worship Icons, nor the Saints, nor Angels, nor the All-Holy Mother of the Lord herself. We only worship the Triune God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We honor and glorify the Saints, the Angels, and above all she who is "more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim", the Ever-Virgin and All-Holy Mother of our Savior, but worship is not ascribed to their person nor their Icons. Honor and reverence is one thing while worship is another.

Do Wonderworking Icons Exist?

Our people, as well as other Orthodox people, consider some Icons to be wonderworking. Is this true? Do wonderworking Icons exist? In other words: Is it possible for wonderworking Icons to exist, Icons that work miracles?

Many Orthodox theologians ascribe the miracles of some Icons not to the Icons in and of themselves, but to the Faith of people who pray before them. That it is Faith which does the wonderworking, the fervent prayer that does the wonderworking, whether it is before an Icon or not, this is beyond all doubt. This is not a reason, however, to deny that some Icons themselves have been given wonderworking grace. This may appear to be strange, but it is not strange at all. It is very natural (for those who are believers, of course, whereas for those who are unbelievers all these things are not only strange but also non-existent). The Lord gave to His Apostles the gift of wonderworking. We see however that this gift was not limited to the Apostles themselves, but belonged to their shadows as well! Not only does the Gospel tell us with words that "through the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders took place among the people," but that the Jews themselves brought their sick on their backs, waiting for Peter to pass by, so that his shadow will fall on them in order to heal them! (Acts 5:12-14). Moreover, the handkerchief of the Apostle Paul, when thrown over the sick or the demon-possessed, healed them! (Acts 19:12). Not only did the Apostles themselves have the gift of wonderworking, but even the objects that they personally used! This of course does not show God's favor for handkerchiefs, but for His Apostles. The miraculous power of their grace reached even their handkerchiefs. Therefore is it not possible for Icons to also have the grace to work miracles? Not rarely were the ones who made the Icons, and especially the ones of old, to be people who were saints, people of deep humility, people of fasting and prayer, people burning from divine eros. What is so strange for God to bless not only them but also the works of their hands? What is so unnatural about it, if with the blessings came also the gift of wonderworking?

Only Byzantine Icons

Having arrived at this point, it is necessary to entrust to the readers one important issue: Use only Icons of the Byzantine type! Only these Icons harmonize with the nature of our Orthodox Church. These, with the disembodied and radiant faces of the saints, help us spiritually and teach us and exalt us. The Byzantine Icon is a preacher without a voice! In the Byzantine Icon the entire mystical grandeur of the asceticism and denial of the world in our Orthodoxy is reflected. It is not the goal of the Byzantine Icon to bring delight or to bring aesthetic emotion or to move one towards admiration through the perfection of its proportions. Its purpose is reductive, it wants to bring us towards compunction, and to raise us up to the heights. Those who have pure eyes can see that the "earth" and the "world" is absent from the Byzantine Icon, while Heaven with its divine brilliance is mirrored most-luminously within it. Byzantine iconography is a liturgical art. It has the same goals and the same purpose and the same results that our worship has. Religious paintings are one thing and Byzantine iconography is another. The panels of religious paintings are truly masterpieces as works of art and move one to wonder, but they are neither suitable for our churches or for the iconostasis. They are suitable as paintings for the "galleries" but not for places of prayer and worship. These paintings speak to our artistic sensibilities, while Byzantine Icons speak to the secret depths of our hearts and lead us towards "divine ascent". We repeat: Only Icons of the Byzantine type for our iconostasis!

Fortunately, over the last few years, various publishing houses have printed thousands of copies of very beautiful Icons of the Byzantine style. Seek only these! Avoid the "carnal" Icons of the West. They do not adapt to the whole spiritual climate of Orthodoxy. They comprise of - at the very least - discord and incorrectness. (Byzantine style Icons are sold in all Orthodox bookstores.)

On the Sunday of Orthodoxy we chant:

"We venerate Thine immaculate Icon, O Good One, asking the forgiveness of our failings, O Christ our God; for of Thine own will Thou wast well-pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh, that Thou mightest deliver from slavery to the enemy those whom Thou hadst fashioned. Wherefore, we cry to Thee thankfully: Thou didst fill all things with joy, O our Saviour, when Thou camest to save the world."

Source: From the book Περίοδος Τριωδίου. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.