On the first Sunday of Great Lent (Mar. 1st), we commemorate the triumph of the Orthodox Faith, over those who sought to eliminate from it the veneration of Icons and images of Christ, His mother, and the saints.
In this day and age (especially in North America), it is not strange to see a church devoid of any images or Icons, making temples look more like a sports stadiums, or lecture halls or conference rooms. In this context, to some the temptation is to see the whole Iconoclastic (the movement against any use of images or Icons in Christianity) controversy as a debate in style choices. However, the controversy was more complex, and it lasted over a hundred years, spanning two separate periods. The common understanding then (as it is now) is that as long as you believe in Jesus, what does it matter if you have images of Him.
But for those who struggled and died (and yes, many died) for the continued veneration of Icons and images, the struggle was not about how to decorate a temple. The struggle was but about whether the God who created the whole universe, who revealed Himself in the Old Testament in shadows and types, and has promised to come and judge the world in glory at the end of the age, is the same God who “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant” (Ph. 2:7), to redeem and save humanity, the same God whom we have seen (see Lk. 10:23) and held (see 1 Jn. 1:1).
The Lord of Glory took upon Himself our brokenness and limitations, bringing nobility and life to our struggles, our losses, our poverty, and abuse. He was healing and consoling our mortal nature by filling it with his divine grace through the waters of our baptism, “that we might be truly partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), “offering by grace all that He is by Nature” (St. Athanasius).
The remembrance of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, and the restoration of Icons, animates our Lenten journey, with the stark and beautiful images that testify that Christ and His saints were not imaginary or symbolic. Rather, they are as real as our families and friends, as demonstrated in the photos we share, carry around, or display at home.
Anything less than this understanding, this assertion of our Orthodox Faith, makes the Lord’s passion, a mockery; His death, a tragedy; and his resurrection, a fairy tale.
Our Icons bear witness to a Lord who journeyed to His passion, having been forsaken like the least of humanity. He was struggling with the failures of humanity, our defeats, poverty and abuse, and He died on Golgotha, fully sharing in our mortal nature. Then in a profound way, He rose from the dead on the third day, freeing our broken nature from sin and death eternally by His love for us, promising His life-saving peace (Jn. 20:19)
As is proclaimed at the Service of the Sunday of Orthdoxy: “This is the faith of the apostles! This is the faith of the fathers! This is the Orthodox Faith! This Faith has established the universe!” All we have to do is look around us with the eyes of faith in order to be able to see it.