First Week of Great Lent. The Victory of Orthodoxy. 2012
On the first Sunday of Great Lent the Holy Church remembers the historical events known as The Victory of Orthodoxy.
Over the course of several centuries the Holy Church was beset by many heresies. The final heresy was iconoclasm. For a hundred years it wracked the Church until it was finally overcome. In 843 the emperor Michael and his mother, the holy and blessed Theodora, and Saint Methodius, Patriarch of Constantinople, convened a Council at which the veneration of icons was reestablished.
The incarnation of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, provides the basis for icon veneration. Since the Lord took on human flesh and was visible as a person, then he can, therefore, be depicted. If photography had existed at the time, then undoubtedly photographs of Him would have been preserved, just as His teaching was preserved in writing.
Icon painting reflects and glorifies the idea of the incarnation of the Son of God: it is writing in artistic images; it is another method of conveying the teachings of the Church to the faithful. When the walls of a church are covered with scenes from the Holy Scriptures, images of the Savior, the Mother of God, angels and saints, this shows us graphically the unity of the Church, heavenly and earthly, that is realized especially during the mystery of the Eucharist and the mystery of godliness.1
Zealots of the Christian faith are not only something historical, belonging to the distant past, but are right here, before our eyes: martyrs remind us that we have to suffer for the faith—even to the point of shedding blood; the monastic saints demonstrate for us how by mortifying the passions in the flesh through fasting and prayer we can become like the angels; the prelates (bishops) teach us the habit of faith, an image of meekness and abstinence. Icon painting is a special kind of theology expressed in colors. This is why the Holy Fathers fought for icons.
While at the Council remembered on this day the veneration of icons was reestablished, nevertheless the event is not called the Triumph of Icon Veneration, but the Triumph of Orthodoxy. This supports the idea that by then the dogmatic aspect of the Church's teaching had achieved its full expression. This does not mean there would be no more heresy, but that future heresies would only repeat or modify old ones.
This event was originally celebrated in the first week of Great Lent and therefore has primarily an historical basis. However, this Triumph was not attached to any date. Because the Holy Church continued to celebrate it during the first week of Great Lent, this shows that the celebration of this event during Great Lent has spiritual meaning. The meaning is that for salvation the true faith is the most important, and true faith is supported by spiritual undertakings (podvig), as the Lord preached: If anyone will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me (Matthew 16:24). All of a Christian's life must be a podvig, i.e., one must not only not do anything sinful, but not wish to it, nor think of doing it. The struggle with sin must be not just on the conscious level, but on the subconscious level, because all sorts of passions nest in the subconscious.
Those who truly dedicate themselves to Christ and diligently perform spiritual undertakings better understand true faith, for only the pure in heart shall see God. Therefore the truth of Orthodoxy was proven by those who endured spiritual undertakings; monastics proved especially zealous defenders of icons.
In the Apostle reading for today the holy apostle Paul lists the many Old Testament righteous ones who by their spiritual undertakings achieved the heights of faith and performed great miracles. The holy apostle Paul lived at the dawn of the Christian era, when there were still few New Testament Christians. Today, after so many centuries of Christianity, we have a great number of saints worthy of emulation and together with the apostle can say: Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2).
1“The mystery of our religion,” REB, NRSV.