At first sight it looks strange that, just as we begin to keep Lent, we mark its first Sunday with a celebration. The Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy marks the decision of the Synod of Constantinople in 842 that ended once and for all the Iconoclast Controversy that had disturbed the peace and unity of the Eastern Church of the Roman Empire for a hundred years. This controversy was not just a question of whether sacred images were permissible in Church, but of the very nature of how you believe in Christ and what you believe Him to be.
For instance, you will see pictures of old Byzantine churches where, in place of the image you expect in the apse of the Mother of God bearing Our Lord, the Iconoclasts placed instead the plain representation of the Cross; it bears no figure of the Crucified Lord. There are some who say that the banishing of wall-images and icons from churches took the ban on “graven images” in the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus to extreme. Others say that it was a reaction to the rise of Islam, for Muslims misunderstood that the Christian veneration of images is not the worship of them, but worship of the inexpressible Divine Mystery that they depict and draw us into; thus, it is said, Iconoclast Christians were striving for it to be clear that they were not idolatrous pagans to be converted to Islam but the People of the Book who worship the God of Abraham alone. Still others liken this controversy to the Latin Church’s “Reformation”-“Counter-Reformation” struggle, the defining moment for Byzantine Christianity: one side saying that God and the glory of His saints cannot be portrayed in man-made pictures lest it debase Him to the worldly order of human sinfulness – a cutting down of the Kingdom of heaven to man’s size; while the other was saying that if you exclude images of Christ, the Mother of God, the mysteries of salvation and of the glorified saints, you are denying the truth of the incarnation itself and the sheer physicality of God’s constant dealings with humanity in the world. If so, you are effectively saying that God cannot take form in the created world, He cannot be viewed as man, and He cannot be shown in His glory and in His saints. You are saying that the created world - and humanity within it - does not bear what the Scriptures and the Church return to time again: that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that Christ, true God and true Man, is the Image of the unseen God, that the Church which is His Body is the fullness of Him who fills the universe, and that the whole of humanity – together and as individuals – bears the very image of God. For Christianity is not just a matter of what is written in the Book, or believed in the heart and mind, or acted out in discipleship and the rites of worship. It is about the union of God and humanity, God become man, and Man-in-Christ, full of grace and truth, endowed with glory, making humanity one with the very life of God Himself.
In the argument between emperors, bishops, monks, armies and faithful that had lasted for decades, the Seventh Ecumenical Council settled it, the state power intervened, images were banished from churches, orthodox bishops deposed, and clergy exiled and persecuted, until the Constantinople Synod in February 842 confronted the stark choice between all or nothing – is the Church orthodox or heretical? Does it believe in the Incarnation of God in Man or not? Does Christ fill His material creation and is His glory to be seen and shown in it, or not? Do we behold Emmanuel, God among us, or do we fail to contemplate the mystery that seeks to draw us in, here in our midst? Resoundingly the Synod chose orthodox Christian faith. The first session closed with a triumphant procession, in which the images were restored to the Great Church, Hagia Sophia, the true faith was articulated and false belief named and expressly rejected. From that day, the First Sunday of Lent recalls us not to an historical event 1300 years ago, but to the abiding, annual need each Lent to return to God, not just from our sins but also from our wanderings, constantly back to the Truth, the reality of who Christ is, why He came and how He comes to us still.
The reading from the Apostle (Hebrews 11) reminds us that keeping faith with Christ has been costly, from the times of the Scriptures and of St John the Baptist into the present day. We see it especially at the moment in Syria and Nigeria in the martyrdom and persecution of clergy and lay people, and the kidnap of bishops, priests and religious sisters. We see it in the recently attempted suppression of this Greek-Catholic Church by the last government in Ukraine. We see it in the massive scattering of Christian communities dating from the time of Christ, out of the Middle Eastern cradle of the Church as refugees to the four corners of the globe. Thus the Church today follows in the footsteps of the Master and those who have gone before us. The Apostle therefore calls Him our pioneer who perfects our faith the more we follow along the narrow path He trod; and he calls those who have taken it ahead of us our witnesses. “Witness” is what martyr means. And it is why we keep the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy today. When we look at the images, the icons, it is not we who are looking at them, witnessing their existence, or significance, or presence, but they who are looking at us, witnessing us, representing the significance and the presence of Christ.
For the Iconostasis before us is not a shield to restrict our view of the Holy Mysteries, but the frontier of paradise from which the Lord on His Throne and His saints in glory gaze out upon us. What is in their gaze? We can readily imagine they see sin and imperfection. But they also see those whom God loves, redeems and saves. They see our repentance and our adoration and our own love, encouraging it, deepening it with their prayers, because – by the mercy of God working in us – it proceeds from honesty, it is genuine, “coming out of hiding”, realistic about how things are with God, yet also things about us longing to be what they should become. Thus the Lord and His saints who pray for us see the Truth at work within us – the truth about Christ as God made man Whose image is still conforming humanity to Him.
But the truth about us is also that the more this image of God within us looks out to meet the gaze of Christ, the more we would deform, disfigure it; mask it and encrust it; and prefer that it looked away from the glory.
All during the week, we have seen images of human beings who cannot tell the truth – not just leaders corrupted by power and greed, but other men of violence hiding their faces, concealing their true identity, bearing false witness, wearing the uniforms of others to sow discontent and mistrust, and blaming their wrongful deeds on the innocent. These are people who cannot take the stare of God. They are naked in the Garden of Eden and it is shame that makes them clothe themselves over. Thus do they cover up the image of God within them, because it shines too beautiful to show, when dishonesty is required for the deeds of darkness. But in return, as G. K. Chesterton put it, “God abides in a terrible patience, unangered, unworn.” God in Christ looks out with His saints on the sheer Truth and untruth of it all with love. So great is their glory that they are undisturbed in peace. The image of Him, the vision of Him, moves us to repentance, not so much out of our sense of remorse at our sins as out of our picking up on His longing for the same glory as His to be ours. St Philip says to us, “Come and see”. We too are intrigued, and we see the Lord; we open our hearts and mouths to confess Him Son of God and our King. He tells us we will see greater things and heaven opened before us.
So it was for the Fathers of the Synod in February 842. So it is for us this Sunday of Orthodoxy’s Triumph a millennium and centuries later. We have beheld the Truth about God and the truth about ourselves. As the Troparion we have sung today puts it,
“We bow before Your most pure image, O kind Lord and beg pardon for our sins, O Christ our God…. You… free Your handiwork from enslavement to the enemy … By coming to save the world, our Saviour, You filled all things with joy.
So let it be that a world that cannot bear the truth about itself, and the people that hide in untruth and cowardly darkness because they cannot bear Christ’s glory to show them in its light, will likewise come out, come and see, see greater things, behold heaven opened and stand in the gaze of Christ pouring glory into his saints, filling the space where sin is washed away with nothing but joy.