CEDARBURG–St. Nicholas Church in Cedarburg will serve as host to area Orthodox churches with the annual Pan-Orthodox Vesperal Celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, Sunday, March 20, at 6:00 p.m. The Triumph of Orthodoxy commemorates the end of a period of deep controversy in early church history.
Imagine coming home one day to find someone had broken into your house and smashed or defaced all of your family photographs. How would you feel? Furthermore, what if you found out it was the authorities who did it, calling for the destruction of all such pictures, everywhere?
For over a century in the first millennium, beloved hand-painted pictures of spiritual fathers and mothers–holy icons–were destroyed by iconoclasts, or “icon smashers,” who believed their veneration to be a form of idol worship. This was very disturbing to the faithful.
“Icons are just like pictures of your family,” said Fr. Bill Olnhausen. “The love is the same.”
Many early icons, some written by the hands of the Apostles themselves, were destroyed in those years. People hid their precious icons away to protect them from the iconoclasts. The controversy led to the Seventh Ecumenical Council in Nicea in 797. Attended by 367 leaders from all five original equal patriarchates–Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome–the Seventh
was the last of the Ecumenical Councils held by the original unbroken church, and it restored the use of icons in services and the private devotional life of Christians. This was a great relief and remains a source of joy, commemorated by millions of faithful worldwide every year on the first Sunday of Lent.
In 797, “the Church was courageous enough to respond to the challenges of her times,” said the late Metropolitan Phillip in his historic 1984 sermon
. The Council of 797 settled deep issues which drove the icon controversy, and which are important to remember, including: the true character of Christ’s human nature, the Christian attitude toward matter, the true meaning of Christian redemption, and the salvation of the entire material universe. The Council upheld the view of the iconodules–icon venerators–who proclaimed:
Icons… are to be kept in churches and honored with the same relative veneration as is shown to other material symbols, such as the ‘precious and life-giving Cross‘ and the Book of the Gospels.
Declared to be “open books to remind us of God,” icons are to be kept and used in churches and in homes, providing for a visual study of theology of the Christian religion. This ‘doctrine of icons’ is intrinsic to the Orthodox teaching that all of God’s creation is to be redeemed and glorified, both spiritual and material. Icons are necessary and essential because they protect the full and proper doctrine of the incarnation.
While God’s eternal nature cannot be depicted (“…no man has seen God,” John 1:18) the Council agreed He can be depicted in material images, precisely because He “became human and took flesh.” By His Incarnation, God deified matter, making it spirit-bearing. God proved that matter can be redeemed. If flesh can be a medium for the Spirit, the iconodules argued and the Council agreed, so, too, can wood or paint, although in a different fashion.
- Concerning the charge of idolatry: Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honor is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone.
- We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross… When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them.
- I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation.
- —St. John of Damascus (c. 676-749)
The restoration of Icons.
Services on the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, celebrated on the first Sunday of Great Lent, include the faithful triumphantly processing around the church, holding icons of their patron or parish saints. The Pan-Orthodox Vespers will be held at St. Nicholas at 6 pm. All are invited to stay for light refreshments afterwards in the fellowship hall.
The Historic 1984 Sermon on Sunday of Orthodoxy by Metropolitan Phillip.
Canons of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, 787