Sunday of Orthodoxy 2015

When we read the Gospels or the Acts of the Apostles we are immediately and truly blessed with images of Christ, His life, His disciples, His earthly family and the events which led to His sacrifice and resurrection for us; the talented and gifted have been so inspired by the Holy Spirit to portray as sacred images on wood, in the form of ikons for the succour of the faithful. On the first Sunday of Lent we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy over those who angrily, and vigourously, full of hatred and cruelty, to rid the church of what they felt were idolatrous images, and accused the faithful of worshipping rather than venerating ikons.

The use of ikons developed in the early church and became widely accepted probably because ikonography was derived from two very early ikons of Christ. The first ikon of our Saviour’s face. King Agbar of Edessa sent an invitation to Christ asking Him to visit the king in order to cure him of leprosy. The reply, in which Christ promised to send the disciple Thaddeus, included a piece of cloth on which our Saviour wiped his Holy Face. On opening the cloth, King Agbar saw the image of Christ – “not made with hands”. The King was healed.

This holy ikon, “the Mandylion” was kept in Constantinople until during the 4th Crusade when it was stolen and placed in the hands of the French Court where it disappeared altogether during their revolution.

The second ikon was painted by the Holy Apostle Luke, a doctor, historian and an artist. The focus of his ikon is of Christ being held by the Mother of God who points to the “way” so that we can all follow Christ’s path and is known as the Hodegetria ikon. I do believe that Luke’s choice was for not simply a pleasing portrait, but like all ikons there is an obvious depth and influence of the Spirit in the process of prayer and master craft. The messages in the ikon are pure enhancements of the Gospel. The Hodegetria – or Ikon of the Way – is not an ikon of the Mother of God – it is important to understand that this is an ikon of Christ being held by the Mother of God. In Orthodoxy we do not isolate the Mother of God or any of the Saints from Christ. The Mother of God is nearly always represented with Christ but occasionally she is portrayed solely as a tender, loving mother and worshipper as on the diesis on the ikonostasis but on her own turned towards her Son and our Lord as are all of the other diesis Saints.

The original ikon of Saint Luke’s portrayed a full length Mother of God holding the Saviour and on the reverse side there was a crucifixion scene. The ikon became lost during the Fall of Constantinople in the 1450’s, may have been cut into four pieces and has now disappeared. Some Russians, however, believe that after the fall of Constantinople, St. Luke’s ikon came to light in Russia, where it was placed in the Uspensky Cathedral in Smolensk. The ikon is often known as the Smolenskaya and was used as a template for many churches and home in Russia. It was brought frequently, with great ceremony to Moscow, where the Novodevichy Convent was built in its honour.

This Russian Luke Smolenskaya ikon is believed to have been destroyed by fire during the German occupation of Smolensk in 1941. There are numerous churches throughout Russia dedicated to the Smolenskaya Hodegetria.

So having established, very early in the developing church, that ikons are true treasures, produced with divine intervention and with genuine faith had powers to help the faithful, we find that there came a point in history when the authorities were concerned enough about ikon misuse that they decided to banish and indeed destroy ikons altogether. There were many in authority who perceived that the faithful lacked understanding and were “using” ikons non liturgically; “expecting” miracles, making money from ikons, and were also apparently being duped by the very images which were created on the ikon. It was construed that since Christ had two natures, for example, and only one can be depicted on an ikon, then ikons were deemed heretical – as in Nestorianism. Some expectancy in return for prayers and candles was deemed nothing more than witchcraft. However, it was the mistaken view that ikons were being worshipped and were idolatrous which led to the iconoclast movement.

Although this history is of immense importance to us we should reflect on what the church does today and we too must be aware of our own dialogue with ikons. On the Sunday of Orthodoxy we acknowledge by our proclamations of Eternal Remembrance to those who have fought the fight for “Orthodoxy” or “Right Belief” and we affirm the Anathemas on those who sought to destroy the fabric of the Holy Trinity, however uncomfortable this may make us feel today – in Lent – in a time of forgiving and forgiveness! We need to be very careful that we too are not claiming too much ownership of God’s saints.

So we are today custodians of the ikons and the holders of the key to the dialogue which happens each time we venerate an ikon. And when we do venerate any ikon, we approach with reverence making the sign of the Cross and bowing, and repeat, then kissing the ikon in a place which does not involve gymnastics or ladders – it is usual in Greece to kiss the hands or feet portrayed on ikons – then making the sign of the cross once more and bowing place the candle if there is one in the receptacle and move away. When we kiss the ikon we only touch the ikon with our lips; just like any other kiss in Orthodoxy we do not make a kissing sound and neither should we leave any lipstick on the image itself. We always venerate the ikon of Christ first when we enter the church and when we leave we leave with Christ after our Communion; a process safeguarded by right believers throughout the ages; let us safeguard this treasure for our Orthodox children.

May God Bless us all

Father Christopher