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Sunday of Orthodoxy


The Sunday of Orthodoxy is the first Sunday of Great Lent. The dominant theme of this Sunday since 843 has been that of the victory of the icons. In that year the iconoclastic controversy, which had raged on and off since 726, was finally laid to rest, and icons and their veneration were restored on the first Sunday in Lent. Ever since, this Sunday has been commemorated as the "Triumph of Orthodoxy."

Historical Background

The Seventh Ecumenical Council dealt predominantly with the controversy regarding icons and their place in Orthodox worship. It was convened in Nicaea in 787 by Empress Irene at the request of Tarasios, Patriarch of Constantinople. The Council was attended by 367 bishops.

Almost a century before this, the iconoclastic controversy had once more shaken the foundations of both Church and State in the Byzantine empire. Excessive religious respect and the ascribed miracles to icons by some members of society, approached the point of worship (due only to God) and idolatry. This instigated excesses at the other extreme by which icons were completely taken out of the liturgical life of the Church by the Iconoclasts. The Iconophiles, on the other-hand, believed that icons served to preserve the doctrinal teachings of the Church; they considered icons to be man's dynamic way of expressing the divine through art and beauty.

The Council decided on a doctrine by which icons should be venerated but not worshipped. In answering the Empress' invitation to the Council, Pope Hadrian replied with a letter in which he also held the position of extending veneration to icons but not worship, the last befitting only God.

The decree of the Council for restoring icons to churches added an important clause which still stands at the foundation of the rationale for using and venerating icons in the Orthodox Church to this very day: "We define that the holy icons, whether in colour, mosaic, or some other material, should be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and liturgical vestments, on the walls, furnishings, and in houses and along the roads, namely the icons of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, that of our Lady the Theotokos, those of the venerable angels and those of all saintly people. Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to commemorate and love their prototype. We define also that they should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honour (timitiki proskynisis), but not of real worship (latreia), which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the divine nature. The veneration accorded to an icon is in effect transmitted to the prototype; he who venerates the icon, venerated in it the reality for which it stands".

An Endemousa (Regional) Synod was called in Constantinople in 843. Under Empress Theodora. The veneration of icons was solemnly proclaimed at the Hagia Sophia Cathedral. The Empress, her son Michael III, Patriarch Methodios, and monks and clergy came in procession and restored the icons in their rightful place. The day was called "Triumph of Orthodoxy." Since that time, this event is commemorated yearly with a special service on the first Sunday of Lent, the "Sunday of Orthodoxy".

Orthodox teaching about icons, as defined at the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787, is embodied in the texts sung on this Sunday.

From Vespers: “Inspired by your Spirit, Lord, the prophets foretold your birth as a child incarnate of the Virgin. Nothing can contain or hold you; before the morning star you shone forth eternally from the spiritual womb of the Father. Yet you were to become like us and be seen by those on earth. At the prayers of those your prophets in your mercy reckon us fit to see your light, "for we praise your resurrection, holy and beyond speech. 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 form of your outward appearance and pay it relative respect, and so are moved to love you; and through it we receive the grace of healing, following the divine traditions of the apostles.”

“The grace of truth has shone out, the things once foreshadowed now are revealed in perfection. See, the Church is decked with the embodied image of Christ, as with beauty not of this world, fulfilling the tent of witness, holding fast the Orthodox faith. For if we cling to the icon of him whom we worship, we shall not go astray. May those who do not so believe be covered with shame. For the image of him who became human is our glory: we venerate it, but do not worship it as God. Kissing it, we who believe cry out: O God, save your people, and bless your heritage.”

“We have moved forward from unbelief to true faith, and have been enlightened by the light of knowledge. Let us then clap our hands like the psalmist, and offer praise and thanksgiving to God. And let us honor and venerate the holy icons of Christ, of his most pure Mother, and of all the saints, depicted on walls, panels and sacred vessels, setting aside the unbelievers' ungodly teaching. For the veneration given to the icon passes over, as Basil says, to its prototype. At the intercession of your spotless Mother, O Christ, and of all the saints, we pray you to grant us your great mercy. We venerate your icon, good Lord, asking forgiveness of our sins, O Christ our God. For you freely willed in the flesh to ascend the cross, to rescue from slavery to the enemy those whom you had formed. So we cry to you with thanksgiving: You have filled all things with joy, our Savior, by coming to save the world.”

The name of this Sunday reflects the great significance which icons possess for the Orthodox Church. They are not optional devotional extras, but an integral part of Orthodox faith and devotion. They are held to be a necessary consequence of Christian faith in the incarnation of the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, in Jesus Christ. They have a sacramental character, making present to the believer the person or event depicted on them. So the interior of Orthodox churches is often covered with icons painted on walls and domed roofs, and there is always an icon screen, or iconostasis, separating the sanctuary from the nave, often with several rows of icons. No Orthodox home is complete without an icon corner (iconostasion), where the family prays.

Icons are venerated by burning lamps and candles in front of them, by the use of incense and by kissing. But there is a clear doctrinal distinction between the veneration paid to icons and the worship due to God. The former is not only relative, it is in fact paid to the person represented by the icon. This distinction safeguards the veneration of icons from any charge of idolatry.

The theme of the victory of the icons, by its emphasis on the incarnation, points us to the basic Christian truth that the one whose death and resurrection we celebrate at Easter was none other than the Word of God who became human in Jesus Christ.

Before the Triumph of Orthodoxy came to be celebrated on the first Sunday of Lent, there was on this day a commemoration of Moses, Aaron, Samuel and the prophets. Traces of this more ancient observance can still be seen in the choice of the Epistle reading at the Liturgy and in the Alleluia verse appointed before the Gospel: “Moses and Aaron among His priests, and Samuel among them that call upon His Name.”

Icon of the Feast

The icon of the Sunday of Orthodoxy commemorates the “restoration” of icons in the churches and to their use in Orthodox worship. The focal point of the icon is an icon itself, the Virgin Hodegetria, a popular depiction of the Theotokos as “Directress,” or literally “She who shows the way to God.” The icon is carried by two angels.

To the left of the icon is the Empress Theodora and her son Michael III. To the right of the icon are the Patriarchs Methodios and Tarasios. The icon is surrounded by numerous saints who struggled against the Iconoclastic heresy.

The icon also represents the triumphant procession that was made on Sunday, March 11, 843, from the Church of the Theotokos in Blachernai to Hagia Sophia, where a Liturgy was celebrated to mark the restoration of icons.

Orthodox Christian Commemoration of the Sunday of Orthodoxy

The Sunday of Orthodoxy is commemorated with the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, which is preceded by the Matins service. A Great Vespers is conducted on Saturday evening. The hymns of the Triodion for this day are added to the usual prayers and hymns of the weekly commemoration of the Resurrection of Christ.

Scripture readings for the Sunday of Orthodoxy are: At the Orthros (Matins): The prescribed weekly Gospel reading. At the Divine Liturgy: Hebrews 11:24-26,32-40; John 1:43-51.

At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, a service is conducted in commemoration of the affirmations of the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 and the restoration of the use of icons in 843. Orthodox faithful carry icons in a procession, while the clergy offer petitions for the people, civil authorities, and those who have reposed in the faith. Following is a reading of excerpts from the Affirmation of Faith of the Seventh Ecumenical Council and the singing of the Great Prokeimenon.

It is becoming a common practice that the Procession of the Icons is conducted as part of a Pan-Orthodox Vespers service on the evening of the Sunday of Orthodoxy. This is a service when Orthodox Christians of the various jurisdictions in America come together for worship and in a united affirmation of the Truth of the Orthodox Faith.

On the Saturday before this Sunday, the third of three Saturdays of the Souls are held. This is a special commemoration when the Church offers a Divine Liturgy and Memorial Service for the departed faithful. This is considered a universal commemoration of the dead. Through the memorial services, the Church is commending to God all who have departed and who are now awaiting the Last Judgment.

This specific Saturday is a special commemoration of the Great Martyr Theodore of Tyre and the miracle of the kolyva. In 361, Julian the Apostate was doing his utmost to restore pagan customs. Knowing that the Christians were accustomed to sanctify the first week of Lent by fasting and prayer, the wily tyrant told the Prefect of Constantinople to have all of the food set out for sale in the markets sprinkled with the blood of animals sacrificed to the gods, so that no one in the city would escape the contagion of idolatry. However, the Lord did not abandon His chosen people, but sent His servant Theodore to outwit the tyrant. Appearing in a vision to Patriarch Eudoxius (360-364), the holy Martyr informed him of what was happening and told him to instruct the Christians not to buy food from the markets but instead to eat kolyva made from grains of boiled wheat. Thus, thanks to the intervention of the holy Martyr Theodore, the Christian people were preserved from the stain of idolatry. The Church has commemorated this miracle ever since on the first Saturday of Great Lent, in order to remind the faithful that fasting and temperance have the power to cleanse all the stains of sin.

Hymns of the Feast

Apolytikion (Tone Two)

O Christ our God, begging forgiveness of our sins, we venerate your pure image O Good One. Of Your own will You condescended to ascend upon the Cross in the flesh and delivered those you created from the bondage of the enemy. Wherefore, thankfully we cry out: When You came to save the world You filled all things with joy, O our Savior.

Kontakion (Plagal Fourth Tone)

The undepictable Word of the Father became depictable when He took flesh of you, O Theotokos; and when He had restored the defiled image to its ancient state, He suffused it with divine beauty. As for us, confessing our salvation, we record it in deed and word.


The Lenten Triodion. translated by Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1994), pp. 51-52, 299-313.
Schmemann, Alexander. Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1969), pp. 73-75.
Barrois, Georges. Scripture Readings in Orthodox Worship (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977), pp. 61-62.
Farley, Donna. Seasons of Grace: Reflections on the Orthodox Church Year (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2002), pp. 100-102
Icon of the Triumph of Holy Icons provided by Theologic and used with permission. 
Photographs from the Procession of Holy Icons provided by Hellenic College Holy Cross. 

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Scripture Readings

Epistle Reading: Hebrews 11:24-26,32-40 »

Gospel Reading: John 1:43-51 »


On Iconography On Iconography


Byzantine Icons: A Legacy of Humanism

The Grace Rainy Rogers Auditorium
Most Reverend and Beloved Brother in Christ, Archbishop Demetrios of America and other beloved Hierarchs,
Honorable members of the Board of Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Esteemed Director of this Museum,
Dear Benefactors and Supporters of the Fine Arts,
Dear Friends,

Throughout the world, Byzantine icons have served as eloquent ambassadors of a religious tradition that unfortunately has not always been properly understood. “Both well known and yet unknown”: this is how I would characterize the situation of the Byzantine icon today. “Well known,” because unlike written texts or devotional practices, icons do not require special linguistic skills or formal religious commitments in order to be viewed and appreciated. Icons are “well known,” in other words, because, as works of great visual power and beauty, they address themselves directly to all who encounter them. At the same time, however, icons are not simply works of art, and cannot be reduced to their aesthetic features or to the historical and cultural circumstances of their production. Indeed, to objectify the icon in this manner is to see only its secondary, superficial qualities, which have little meaning or purpose when viewed in isolation from the icon’s mysterious and unfathomable depths and its beautiful message for human existence.

And this is confirmed by the experience of even the most casual observers, who have suddenly found themselves overtaken by the light of the icon, captivated by its luminous presence, at once so strange and so familiar. And what is this presence, if not the presence of humanity transformed by its union with the divine? What is this beauty, if not the beauty of the human person fully transparent to the indwelling glory of the divine archetype? Every icon is thus a manifestation of the human person, and, like the bodies of the saints, every icon is the physical locus of their spiritual energy. From this it follows that icons are not simply art objects, but rather subjects, who invite us to enter into the transfiguring light of a day that knows no evening.

The icon is intrinsically intertwined and ultimately identified with the Orthodox tradition in its entirety, handsomely expressing its message of love and hope. This is clear already from the end of the ninth century, when the restoration of the holy icons was understood as the restoration of the Orthodox Church to its authentic faith and form. It is worth remembering, moreover, that the Orthodox Church went through an intense struggle, during that period of Byzantine history, known as “iconoclasm” (eijkonomaciva). In that struggle, those who sought to repress the images of Christ and His saints revealed their deeper hostility against mankind, for they destroyed not only wooden panels and wall paintings, but tortured and even put to death those who defended the icons. The discomfort of the iconoclasts with the icons was in essence a discomfort with the human body, and ended in acts of violence against human beings, who are Gods’ living icons. The iconoclastic controversy lasted for more than a century and redefined Byzantine Christianity in light of the new emphasis on the icon, which was thereafter granted a central role in the expression of the Church’s theology, worship and ultimately, understanding of what the human person really is. This last point has particular importance because the Church’s association of the icon with basic anthropological concepts has been decisively influenced by the inspired words of the Book of Genesis, which states that man was fashioned “according to the image (eikon) and likeness (omoiosis)” of God (Gen. 1.26). Before we say anything more about this fundamental biblical passage, let us reflect for a moment on the meaning of the word “image” or “icon.” In Greek, these words are the same; icon – eikona is simply the Greek word for “image.” But what exactly is an “image”? How are we to understand the basic meaning of the word “icon”? According to St. John of Damascus, “an image is a likeness, or a model, or a figure of something, showing in itself what it depicts,” to which he adds, “every icon is both like and unlike its prototype.”

With the words “like” and “unlike,” we seem to be presented with two different ideas moving in opposite directions, but they are in fact two sides of the same experience, two aspects of the same reality. As the “likeness” of something else, on the one hand, the image is not independent of what it portrays; it is not distinct from the reality to which it points, but rather is intimately connected to it, and looks toward that reality as the source of its existence and identity. On the other hand, the reality to which the icon directs us is outside of itself, beyond itself, like the source of an image reflected in a mirror, which is similar to, but not identical with, its reflection, and this is why St. John says that the image is also “unlike its prototype.” Thus every image is both continuous and discontinuous with its source, both similar and dissimilar to that which it reflects. This is the paradoxical reality of every icon, the truth of which can be grasped only in the proper relation to the prototype.

Let us now return to the Biblical concept of man, who is said to be made “according to the image and likeness” of God (Gen. 1.26). Keeping in mind the words of St. John of Damascus that we just cited, we can say that man is brought into the world, as a living icon of God, standing in relation to God as an image does to its prototype. Man’s very existence speaks of a relationship to God, of a “likeness” to God, and human beings can find meaning and truth only when they live “iconically,” that is to say, in dynamic and continuous relation with their divine source. As the divine icon, every human being is the manifestation of his or her luminous prototype.

This is the high calling to which human beings are summoned. This is the visual message of the Byzantine icons. Man was created and brought into the world in order to be the radiance of God. This is what man can achieve when he struggles to diminish the dissimilarity and to be “like” his divine prototype, and to realize his inner potential as an icon of God. To the extent that he realizes this high calling, he will “show within himself” the image of the absolute divine prototype, the pure reflection of the “glorious day star that has risen in his heart” (2 Pet. 1.19).

Here we come to the first important point of the legacy of the Byzantine icon for humanism, especially for today’s movements, ideas, and concepts related to humanism, and this point is that the icons of the Orthodox Church in their immense variety and in their amazing depictions of the human person give us the message that human beings have been created in the “image and likeness of God,” and that they are mirrors reflecting the luminous nature of the Divine Being. A luminous reflection, following the idea of similarity and dissimilarity between prototype and image or icon, can vary in degree and quality from its prototype. The element of increased radiance projected by the Byzantine icon challenges the beholder to an effort of increasing the intensity and enhancing the quality and purity of his own reflection of the luminous prototype. The Byzantine icon makes a definitive statement that human beings, regardless of anything else, are in essence images and icons and reflections of the luminous nature of God. But this is not a static, passive and unchangeable condition. It is open to transformation, to an increase in intensity and brilliance: from the light of a candle, to the shining of a star, to the brilliance of sunshine.

Let us proceed now to a second important point concerning the legacy of the Byzantine icons for humanism.

The second point is strongly projected by the fact that Byzantine icons depict an enormous variety of saints - men and women of all ages, races, and ethnicities, and from the entire spectrum of social conditions - with a single characteristic in common: the status of being holy. As one contemplates an icon of a saint, one is compelled to ask the question: what is the essence of holiness? What is the distinctive mark for a holy person? How does the Church recognize that a particular person is saintly? One might simply answer that a saint or a holy person is someone who is pure in heart, struggles heroically against his or her own evil passions and sinful desires, opposes evil in the world, and fervently pursues virtues. However, the Byzantine icon of a saint bears witness to something more: it testifies that the saint is in essence a person who has chosen God above and beyond anyone or anything else. This means that the saint has made God his or her absolute priority.

As we see the icon of a saint we can hear his or her voice saying: “God is my priority.” This constitutes an inspiring legacy for humanism in our days. Contemporary people are suffering today because their priorities are misplaced; their value systems are confusing, contradictory and simply misleading. Today there are anthropological theories that build on wrong priorities. The icon reminds us that a solid and viable anthropology cannot be truly functional if it is not based upon the priority of God in human life. The centrality of the depiction of saints in the Byzantine iconographic tradition, extending diachronically over many centuries, implies specifically this fundamental idea of the priority of God as the leading vital principle for each and every human being regardless of time and place.

Now we may proceed to a third point. The Byzantine icons in many instances depict scenes and situations in human life in which love and charity is a dominant theme. In such instances we come face to face with a very powerful legacy for humanism. A healthy, genuine and functional humanism always has at its center love and charity. Care for our fellow human beings, especially care for those in need, difficulty and pain, has been always a recurring issue, preserved in innumerable icons. Characteristically, such icons have a special format. We see the saint in the center of the icon and around him or her, running along the top, bottom and sides of the icon, we see various scenes that present instances of the saint’s benevolent, charitable actions. We see the saint healing the sick, distributing food and clothes, pleading on behalf of the oppressed and disadvantaged, protecting children, instructing the faithful, and in similar expressions of love and concern for his or her fellow human beings. In these instance, the icons offer a visual commentary on central passages of the Gospel declaring that God is love or presenting the ultimate criterion of judgment articulated by Christ Himself: “I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:25-36).

We cannot overemphasize the significance of the legacy of the Byzantine icons for a genuine humanism. Humanism without intense love, deep care and honest concern for suffering human beings is simply not humanism at all. The love so abundantly projected by the Byzantine icons constitutes a crucial and indispensable component for any humanism worthy of its name.

Now we come to the fourth and very important point of the extraordinary offering by the Byzantine icons, a point drawn from the enormous number of images focusing on Jesus Christ and on the Theotokos, the Mother of God.

The Byzantine depiction of Christ either in mosaics or in frescoes or in portable icons constitutes a truly unique and unsurpassed legacy for humanism. The reason is obvious. Jesus Christ as He is presented in His human nature is undoubtedly the perfect human being, the unique and absolute prototype of anthropos, man. Standing in front of a Byzantine icon of the Lord we are truly overwhelmed by the mystery of a God who became a perfect human being, like one of us in every way except sin. There does not exist a more definitive and more sublime legacy for humanism then the legacy granted to us by the Byzantine icons of Christ, through which the value and dignity of our fallen human person is restored and elevated to unheard-of heights. Here we understand the comment by St. Athanasios the Great writing in the 4th century AD who says that God became a human being so that the fallen Adam could become God. This is a legacy for a humanism which can anticipate theosis, which means the deification of any man and woman living on earth. Theosis is the condition in which the reflection of the Divine nature in the human nature reaches the highest possible similarity, and the dissimilarity between prototype and image is radically diminished. This astonishing possibility is brought powerfully and vividly to our consciousness when we contemplate the images of the Mother of God. These icons testify to the potential for a human being to become a person full of grace, replete with Divine power, a genuine manifestation of God’s love and power.

I would like to close with a fifth and final point concerning the Byzantine icon as a legacy of humanism. It deals with the legacy for humanism offered in the icons of the crucifixion of Christ. The crucifixion of Christ confronts the beholder about the immensity of the love of God for humanity. We encounter in the image of the Crucified Lord, as well as images of other incidents associated with His passion, a God who identifies with humanity to the point of experiencing with us bodily pain and spiritual suffering, and, finally, death. Thus, the icon of the crucifixion provides humanism with the reality of the presence of a God who is with us in full participation during our own ordeals and tragedies. Such an image gives to humanism resources for courage, hope and strengthening under any circumstances and in confrontations not only with unpredictable opposition but even with the unimaginable in terms of evil and pain.

Here, we would like to draw your attention to a beautiful icon dating back to the fourteen century that you immediately encounter as you enter the new exhibition, “Byzantium: Faith and Power.” This is an astonishing icon painted on its two sides. On the one side is depicted the Mother of God with the appellation, Pafsolipi, that is to say, “the one who removes sorrow.” And there is a reason for this, because on the other side is an image of the Crucified Christ who is the absolute means for eliminating any sorrow and pain.

* * *

The Byzantine Icon: A Legacy of Humanism.

As a beautiful revelation of the reality of the human being as an image and witness of God. As a carrier of the light of God. As a manifestation of the luminous nature of God as reflected in every human existence.

The Byzantine Icon: A Legacy of Humanism.

By establishing and emphasizing the priority of God as a life attitude exemplified in the lives of the saints and martyrs.

The Byzantine Icon: A Legacy of Humanism.

In its emphasis on the centrality of love and care as an integral and indispensable component for any true humanism.
The Byzantine Icon: A Legacy of Humanism.

By focussing on God becoming a human being in the person of Christ thus, opening the avenue for human beings to become partakers of the Divine nature. Here humanism as a theory about human beings reaches unheard of and undreamt of heights, a condition already suggested by the icons of the Mother of God. And finally, The Byzantine Icon: A Legacy of Humanism.

By offering the icon of Christ who shares our ordeals, pain and death. Thus, giving to anthropology the means for sustaining human existence under any circumstances.

As you are going to visit, I am sure, this extraordinary and magnificent exhibition, “Byzantium: Faith and Power,” in this splendid museum, please take your time to contemplate one of the greatest human achievements: the Byzantine Icon, an achievement of an incomparable art, which manages to combine what is beautiful and artistically exquisite with truly divine messages. These messages offer to us today, as they have throughout many centuries in the past, the most refreshing, most powerful and most creative insights into a genuine and truly human humanism, a humanism which begins with God, grows with God and culminates with God transforming the human being into a partaker of the Divine nature.