Triumph of Orthodoxy: First Sunday of Holy and Great Lent

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


The Resurrection Dismissal (Apolytikion) Hymn. Second Tone

We worship Thine immaculate icon, O Good One, asking the forgiveness of our failings, O Christ our God; for of Thine own will Thou was well-pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh, that Thou mightiest deliver from slavery to the enemy those whom Thou hadst fashioned. Wherefore, we cry to Thee thankfully: Thou didst fill all things with joy, O  our Savior, when Thou camest to save the world.

Kontakion. Plagal of Fourth Tone

The undepictable Word of the Father became depictable when H took flesh of thee, 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 sense of joy and thanksgiving already evident on the Saturday of Saint Theodore, is still more apparent on the first Sunday in Lent, when we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy. On this day the Church commemorates the final ending of the Iconoclast controversy and the definitive restoration of the holy icons to the churches by the Empress Theodora, acting as Regent for her young son Michael III. This took place on the first Sunday in Holy Lent, March 11, 843 A.D. There is, however, not only a historical link between the first Sunday and the restoration of the holy icons but also, as in the case of Saint Theodore, a spiritual affinity. If Orthodoxy triumphed in the epoch of the Iconoclast controversy, this was because so many of the faithful were prepared to undergo exile, torture, and even death, for the sake of the Truth. The Feast of Orthodoxy is above all a celebration in honor of the martyrs and confessors who struggled and suffered for the faith: hence its appropriateness for the season of Lent, when we are striving to imitate the Holy Martyrs by means of our ascetic self-denial. The fixing of the Triumph of Orthodoxy on the First Sunday is therefore much more than the result of some chance historical conjunction.

The Triodion gives the text of a special 'Office of Orthodoxy', which is held at the end of Orthros (Matins) or, more commonly, at the end of the Divine Liturgy on this Sunday. The Office celebrates not only the restoration of the holy icons but, more generally, the victory of the true faith over all heresies and errors. A procession is made with the holy icons, and after this extracts are read from the Synodical decree of the 7th Ecumenical Synod (787 A.D.). The sixty anathemas are pronounced against various heretics dating from the 3rd to the 14th century; 'Eternal Memory' is sung in honor of the Emperors, Patriarchs, and Fathers who defended the Orthodox faith; and "Many Years' is proclaimed in honor of our present rulers and bishops.

Before the Triumph of Orthodoxy came to be celebrated on the First Sunday, there was on this day a commemoration of Moses, Aaron, Samuel and the Prophets of the Old Testament." (From Lenten Triodion).

Further Historical Account

For more than 100 years the Church of Christ was troubled by the persecutions of the Iconoclasts of evil belief, beginning in the reign of Leo the Isaurian (717-741 A.D.) and ending in the reign of Theophilus (829-842 A.D.). After Theophilus' death, his widow the Empress Theodora (celebrated Feb. 11), together with the Patriarch Methodius (June 14) established Orthodoxy anew. This ever-memorable Queen venerated the holy icon of the Mother of God in the presence of the Patriarch Methodius and the other confessors and righteous men, and openly cried out these holy words: "If anyone does not offer relative worship to the holy icons, not adoring them as though they were gods, but venerating them out of love as images of the archetype, let him be anathema." Then with common prayer and fasting during the whole first week of the forty-day Fast, she asked God's forgiveness for her husband. After this, on the first Sunday of the Fast, she and her son, Michael the Emperor, made a procession with all the clergy and people and restored the holy icons, and again adorned the Church of Christ with this radiant and venerable day the Sunday of Orthodoxy, that is, the triumph of true doctrine over heresy. (Great Horologion)

Iconoclasm in the Holy Scripture

Proponents of iconoclasm often refer to specific stories in the Old Testament to support their cause. They cite stories of the Israelites creating idols of false or foreign gods and God's punishment for these sins. Moses and other Israelite leaders often ordered the destruction of these images or idols. One of the Ten Commandments even directs God's followers, "You shall not make for yourself a graven image." Iconoclasts considered any icon a graven image.

For Orthodox Christians, holy icons are sacred images that represent Jesus Christ, the Ever-Virgin Mary, Saints, or events in the life of Christ. In the Byzantine era, Christians created icons in many media such as gemstones, ceramic, precious metals, mosaic and fresco. Byzantine icons varied greatly in size and shape, with some even worn around the neck. Byzantine Christians believed that focusing on an icon helped them communicate with the figure represented by the icon, aiding the Christian's prayer in its journey.

We can owe the victory of the holy icons to the theology of three Holy Fathers, Saint John of Damascus, Saint Theodore the Studite, and Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople. Saint John of Damascus writes: "I represent God, the Invisible One, not as invisible, but insofar as he has become visible for us by participation in flesh and blood. If we made an image of the invisible God, we would certainly be in error, but we do nothing of the sort; for we are not in error if we make the image of the Incarnate God, Who appeared on earth in the flesh, and Who, in His ineffable Goodness, lived with human beings and assumed the nature, the thickness, the shape and the color of the flesh." Thus the icons of Christ, the Theotokos, and the Saints are permitted by the Church, while icons of God the Father are condemned, since He never took on a visible characteristic or shape. The Iconoclasts reverted to the severe condemnations of idolatry in the Old Testament as the basis for their argument. Saint John of Damascus, who was followed by all later Orthodox Holy Fathers, opposes to it the totally new situation of the relationship between Creator and creatures, God and men, Spirit and matter, which follows the reality of the Incarnation. Thus Christ could be represented in a material image because he had become real man.

The image of Christ, venerated by the Orthodox Christians, bears witness to the reality of the Holy Eucharist. The Image of Christ is the visible and necessary witness to the reality and humanity of Christ. In this sense the Christian artist can be compared to God. "The fact that God made man in His image and likeness shows that iconography is a divine action." The artist, like God in the beginning, in representing Christ makes an "image of God" by painting the deified humanity of Jesus, hypostasized in the Word Himself. "From the moment the divinity united itself to our nature, our nature was glorified like some life-giving and wholesome medicine, and received access to incorruptibility: this is why the death of the Saints is celebrated, temples are built in their honor, and their images are painted and venerated. The essence of the image is not venerated but the form of the prototype represented by the image...for it is not matter which is the object of veneration."

No better conclusion could be drawn than that of the Kontakion for the First Sunday of Great Lent, known as Orthodoxy Sunday, which commemorates the victory of Orthodoxy over the Iconoclast heresy. The Kontakion reads:

"No one could describe the Word of the Father; but when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos, He accepted to be described, and restored the fallen image to its former state by uniting it to divine beauty. We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images." (Antiochian Archdiocese of North America)

"Let us make man in our image, after our likeness...: (Genesis 1:26-27)

According to the Holy Fathers of the Church, the terms "image" and "likeness" do not mean the exact same thing. In general, the term "image" can be thought of as the powers with which each one of us is endowed by God from the moment of our existence. By making proper use of being created in His image, each one of us has the ability to acquire God's "likeness" or to be deified (theosis).

"In the Image of God"

The various Church Fathers focus on slightly different issues when discussing the image of God within man. Saint John Chrysostom focuses on the latter portion of Genesis 1:26. He indicates that "image" refers to the matter of man having control over everything on the earth, for nothing on earth is greater than the human being (Fathers of the Church. Homilies on Genesis 1-17 by St. John Chrysostom). Saint John states that the human being is the creature more important than all other visible beings, and for this creature all other things have been produced (i.e., sky, earth, sun, moon, stars, reptiles, cattle, etc.). Man is the center of God's creation. 

Some Church Fathers associate the image of God with man's intellect (The Orthodox Church by Kallistos Ware). The image, or to use the Greek term icon, of God signifies man's free will, his sense of reason, and his sense of moral responsibility. These are the highest aspects of man, which distinguish him from the animals and make him a person. With his spirit and intellect man attains the knowledge of God and union with Him.

Saint Gregory Palamas argues that it is not sufficient to simply connect the image of God with man's intellect because man's nature is "mixed", material as well as intellectual. Thus, Saint Gregory explains that the image of God embraces the entire person, body and soul. The fact that man has a body makes his nature more complete than the Angelic and endowed with richer possibilities.

Another important point is that man is made, not only in the image of God, but more specifically in the image of the Trinity (The Orthodox Way by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware). Since the image of God in man is a Trinitarian image, it follows that man, like God, realizes his true nature through mutual life. Just as the Three Divine Persons live in and for each other, being made in the Trinitarian image, man becomes a real person by seeing the world through other's eyes, by making others' joys and sorrows his own. As Saint Symeon the New Theologian explained we who are of the faith should be ready to lay down our lives for the sake of our neighbor for there is no other way to be saved, except through our neighbor, and as the Desert Fathers say, each of us should look upon our neighbor's experiences as if they were our own. We should suffer with our neighbor in everything and weep with him, and should behave as if we were inside his body, and if any trouble befalls our neighbor, we should feel as much distress as we would for ourselves. As another one of the Desert Fathers said, "If it were possible for me to find a leper and to give him my body and to take his, I would gladly do it. For this is perfect love." (The Orthodox Way by Kallistos Ware). This is precisely because man is made in the image of the God the Holy Trinity.

In the Likeness of God

"God made Himself man, that man might become God". These words are first attributed to Saint Irenaeus but are also found in the writings of Saint Athanasius, Saint Gregory of Nazianzos, and Saint Gregory of Nyssa (In the Image and Likeness of God by Vladimir Lossky). However, as mankind was endowed with the image of God from the first moment of his existence, man can only acquire the likeness of God by degrees. Saint John Chrysostom indicates that we become like God to the extent of our human power (Fathers of the Church, Homilies on Genesis 1-17 by Saint John Chrysostom). We resemble Him in our gentleness and mildness and in regard to virtue. To expand upon this further, the likeness of Christ consists of truth, meekness, righteousness, humility, and love of mankind (The First-Created Man by Saint Symeon the New Theologian). The truth is beheld in all one's words and meekness in all words spoken by others to oneself because, one who is meek preserves himself passionless and is neither exalted by praises nor embittered by reproaches. Righteousness is beheld in all deeds by keeping in mind those measures which the Lord has given us--the Commandments. Humility is formed in the mind that bears the conviction that only by the power of grace are there any good qualities to be shown in oneself. Love of mankind is a likeness of God, since it does good to all men, both the pious and impious, both good and evil, and both those known and those unknown, just as God also does good to all.

Mankind can only achieve these degrees and the likeness of God through the grace of the Holy Spirit (In the Image and Likeness of God by Vladimir Lossky). By receiving the Holy Spirit, man bears witness in full consciousness to the Divinity of Christ. As the Son has become like us in the Incarnation; likewise man can become like Him by partaking in the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The grace of the Holy Spirit is not only a function and it is more than a relation of God to man. It is God Himself communicating Himself and entering into ineffable union with man. By grace, God totally embraces those who are worthy, and this divine experience is given to each according to his measure and can be more or less profound, depending on the worthiness of those who experience it.

We know that man can attain this likeness to God, this deification (theosis), by looking at the lives of the Saints. Take for example, Saint Mary of Egypt, the life of whom we will celebrate on April 6th, she walked across the River Jordan to receive the Holy Mysteries. Only through attaining the likeness of God was Saint Mary of Egypt able to perform this miracle. (From The Image and Likeness of God by Dr. Darren J. Torbic)


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George