SCOBA Encyclical on Sunday of Orthodoxy
Mar 11, 1999
To all the clergy and laity of the Holy Orthodox Church throughout the Americas
Beloved Children in Christ,
The Sunday of Orthodoxy is a celebration of a spiritual homecoming. In this feast we remember the restoration of the Holy Icons to their rightful places in our Orthodox dogma, in our Orthodox Churches and homes, and in the lives and daily piety of all Orthodox faithful.
The Holy Icons had been banished from the Church by the heretical Emperor Leo in 730 AD, but in 787 the Seventh Ecumenical Council, meeting in Nicea, upheld the Tradition concerning the proper veneration of the sacred images of our Lord and His saints. Bitter struggles followed between iconoclasts and Orthodox believers for the next half-century. In 843, though, Empress Theodora sealed a decisive victory for the Orthodox teaching andon the first Sunday of Great Lentrestored the Holy Icons to the Churches in a majestic procession. Ever since that day, Orthodox faithful have re-enacted this mighty work of God by processions and commemorations of all who strove and suffered and died in that era for the fullness of the True Faith in our Incarnate God.
The Holy Icons are not mere decorative art: rather, they are a necessary component of our belief in the Word made flesh. The icons speak with unmatched eloquence of the way of salvation. They preach the high calling which is ours in Christ Jesus. They proclaim the Apostolic promise of "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27). They inspire us and exhort us to put aside all worldly cares so that we may receive the King of all within our very being, so that we may be transformed, so that we may radiate His glory and grace and mercy.
But according to our Orthodox Tradition, the Holy Icons do more than teach. The Holy Icons truly bless us as well. They bless us with power and healing, they bless us with conviction of sin and repentance, they bless us with assurance and hope and the grace of God. For, as the Apostle Paul declares, "God, Who said, Light shall shine out of darkness, is the One Who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (II Cor. 4:6). Through every Holy Icon, the face of Christ shines forth upon us as well. Through every representation of His imagewhether in depictions of the Lord Himself or of the saints in whom Christ Himself livesthe knowledge and presence of God is granted unto us.
Therefore, as Orthodox Christians we chant aloud this day, "Thy spotless icon, O Good One, do we venerate, beseeching the forgiveness of our sins, O Christ our God" (Dismissal Hymn of the Sunday of Orthodoxy). For in beholding the beauty of the Lord, in receiving the grace of His countenance, and in recognizing the heights of His divine glory, we at the same time come to know the depths of our sinful condition, we realize how far we have fallen short of the glory of God. Like the Prodigal Son, we come to our senses and consider our former dignity, our present misery, and our future hope. We cherish the presence of God our Father. We yearn for the uncreated light of His countenance. We seek again the authentic personhood, the genuine humanity which we once had but now have lost through disobedience and sin.
And so in this sense, the Sunday of Orthodoxy celebrates a still more profound and spiritual homecoming. Humankind was fashioned in the image and likeness of God, but through sin and disobedience we have distorted and effaced the divine image which we were intended to bear. In our unique Orthodox understanding of sin and redemption, the work of salvation is nothing less than the restoration of the image of God within us (cf. Col. 3:10, II Cor. 3:18), through the grace of the Holy Spirit Who abides in us and heals us and renews us.
The Holy Icons depict human nature as it truly is meant to be: a reflection of the very energies of God.
By Gods grace we recover and purify the image of Christ within uswe become partakers of the divine nature (cf. II Peter 1:4)through the Holy Mysteries of the Church, through keeping the commandments of God, and through prayer and fasting.
It is especially appropriate, therefore, that the annual remembrance of the homecoming of the Holy Icons falls in this blessed Lenten season, for the message of the icons and the purpose of the Great Fast are one and the same. We fast and pray and venerate the Holy Icons so that, like the Saints, we ourselves may become true icons of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We labor in faith so that we too may say with the great Apostle Paul, "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and delivered Himself up for me" (Gal. 2:20).
The powers of darkness oppose our efforts for salvation.
Like the iconoclasts of old who attacked the Holy Icons with axes and torches, the forces of the Evil One strive always to deface, destroy, and defile the image of God in humanity. For what portrays evil in our modern society better than the Orwellian image of a boot trampling a human face? All of the great crimes against humanity in this centurylegalized abortion, genocide around the globe, racism, pornography, sexual perversion, child abuseare not all of these a devaluation of the image of God in others? Are these not degradations of the dignity of God in our fellow human beings (cf. James 3:9)?
We the hierarchs of SCOBA exhort you as beloved spiritual children: honor the image of the invisible God which shines forth to bless us from the faces of the Holy Icons. Honor the image of God in yourselves by purifying and brightening it through this holy season of prayer and fasting. Honor the image of God in others by speaking out for the oppressed, by assisting the needy, by working for justice, and by helping the helpless. For those who honor the person of Christ in the least of his brethren (cf. Matt. 25: 40, 45) will be honored in the day of judgment with the eternal reward of beholding for eternity the face of their Immortal King and God (cf. Rev. 22:4).
With paternal love and archpastoral blessings for a blessed Lenten journey,
Archbishop SPYRIDON, Chairman
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
+ Metropolitan PHILIP, Vice-Chairman
Antiochian Orthodox Christian
Archdiocese of North America
+ Metropolitan JOSEPH, Secretary
Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church
+ Metropolitan NICHOLAS of Amissos, Treasurer
American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox
Diocese in the USA
+ Metropolitan THEODOSIUS
Orthodox Church in America
+ Archbishop VICTORIN
Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese
in America and Canada
+ Metropolitan CHRISTOPHER
Serbian Orthodox Church
in the USA and Canada
+ Metropolitan CONSTANTINE
Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA