Sunday, 21 February 2010

The First Sunday of Lent

The Restoration of the Icons ... the First Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox tradition remembers the final defeat of iconoclasm and the restoration of the icons to the churches

Patrick Comerford

This is the First Sunday of Lent, and is celebrated in the Orthodox Church as the Sunday of Orthodoxy (ἡ Κυριακὴ τῆς Ὀρθοδοξίας), also known as the Feast of Orthodoxy or the Triumph of Orthodoxy, remembering the final defeat of iconoclasm and the restoration of the icons to the churches.

This Sunday marks both the return of the icons to the Churches following the end of the Iconoclast Controversy, but also as celebrates all the teachings of the faith that have triumphed over heresy.

The iconoclast controversy had divided the Church since the year 787. Despite the teaching about icons defined at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Iconoclasts continued to play a prominent and disruptive role in the life of the Church. When the last Iconoclast emperor, Theophilos, died in January 842, his son three-year-old son succeeded him as the Emperor Michael III. The widowed Empress Theodora and Patriarch Methodios called the Synod of Constantinople in the hope of bringing peace to the Church.

At the end of the first session, on the First Sunday of Lent, 19 February 842, the participants went in triumphal procession to Aghia Sophia to restore the icons to the church. The Synod then decreed that a perpetual feast on the anniversary of that day should be observed each year, with the First Sunday of Great Lent being known as “the Sunday of Orthodoxy.”

Originally, this day commemorated only the defeat of Iconoclasm. However, in time it has come to be understood more generally in terms of the triumph of Orthodoxy over all heresy, and this has become a day to honour of the true faith in general.

On this morning, after Matins (ὄρθρος, Orthros) and before the Divine Liturgy, there are processions with icons around churches, while a canon or hymn attributed to Saint Theodore of Studium is sung.

The decree of the Synod of Constantinople is then proclaimed aloud by the deacon. As the names of various, saints, confessors and heroes of the faith are called out, the people acclaim three times: “Eternal Memory!” As the names of heretics – including the Arians, the Nestorians, the Monophysites, the Monothelites (among them Pope Honorius), the Iconoclasts and the opponents of Hesychasm – are called out, the response is: “Anathema!”

The debate with the iconoclasts involved important theological issues, including:

● the character of Christ’s human nature;

● the Christian attitude towards matter;

● the true meaning of redemption.

In the Orthodox Church, icons have a great significance and are not optional devotional extra. They are an integral part of Orthodox faith and worship. For the Orthodox, icons reflect faith in the Incarnation, the Word made flesh. They make present to the believer the person or event they depict.

But there is a clear doctrinal distinction between the veneration (προσκύνησις, proskynesis) icons receive and the worship (λατρεία, latreía) that is due to God alone. This distinction safeguards the veneration of icons from any charge of idolatry. Vespers sung on this Sunday include these words:

Infinite, Lord, as divine,
in the last times
you willed to become incarnate
and so finite;
for when you took on flesh
you made all its properties your own.
So we depict the firm
of your outward appearance
and pay it relative respect,
and so are moved to love you …
For if we cling to the icon
of him whom we worship,
we shall not go astray.


Iconoclasm was the last of the great Christological controversies to divide the Church. Its defeat is seen as the final triumph of the Church over heresy, and all subsequent heresies are often seen within Orthodoxy as merely new expressions of the earlier great heresies.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.