Listers, in the Eastern churches, the First Sunday of the Great Fast celebrates the triumph of holy images. It commemorates the end of two separate periods of iconoclasm, which took place within the space a nearly hundred years. During the iconoclastic period of Byzantine history, images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Angels, and the Saints were consigned to the fire on the charge that they led to idolatry. Known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the Byzantine liturgy boldly proclaims the triumph of the Church against every false doctrine, and a celebration of the proclamation of faith on the veneration of holy images at the Synod of Constantinople in 842.

Eastern Catholicism on SPL

St. John Damascene was a monk from Damascus, and from his monastery of Mar Saba near Jerusalem, he wrote in defense of the veneration of images. Because iconoclasm, or the destruction of icons, had become official imperial policy since the edict of Emperor Leo III in 726, any cleric, monastic, or layman who refused to abide by the edict was punished severely. Imprisonment, exile, and even martyrdom was the fate of those who defended the Church’s longstanding tradition of sacred images. Seeing the travail of the Church in Constantinople and Asia Minor, the humble monk from Damascus wrote three treatises in defense of holy icons and their veneration. Because he was outside the borders of the Empire, he was able to criticize imperial policy, and speak on behalf of those who were unable or unwilling to do so. [1]

Selection from John of Damascus, icon from Damascus (Syria), 19th c., attributed to Iconographer Ne’meh Naser Homsi. – Wikipedia

Although this work is worth reading in its entirety, in celebration of the Triumph of Holy Images, here are eight pearls of wisdom from St. John Damascene in defense of sacred images:

 

1) “It is the custom of the wicked and primordially evil serpent (I mean the devil), to fight in many ways against mankind, formed in the image of God; and, through this opposition, to bring about his death.” [2]

2) “Certain men have arisen, saying that it is not necessary [or forbidden] to make images of the saving miracles and sufferings of Christ, and the brave deeds of the Saints against the devil, setting them up to be gazed upon, so that we might glorify God and be filled with wonder and zeal.” [3]

3) “Does any one who has divine knowledge and spiritual understanding not recognize that [iconoclasm] is a ruse of the devil? For he does not want his defeat and shame to be spread abroad, nor the glory of God and his saints to be recorded.” [4]

4) “If we make an image of God who in His ineffable goodness became incarnate and was seen upon earth in the flesh, and dwelt among men, assuming the nature, density, form, and color of flesh, we do not go astray. For we long to see His form, but as the divine Apostle says, ‘now we through a mirror, dimly.’ … For the intellect, greatly fatigued, is unable to pass beyond physical things.” [5]

5) “I am emboldened to depict the invisible God, not as invisible, but as he became visible for our sake, by participation in flesh and blood. I do not depict the invisible divinity, but I depict God made visible in the flesh.” [6]

6) “When you see the Bodiless become man for your sake, then you may depict the figure of a human form; when the Invisible becomes visible in the flesh, then you may depict the likeness of something seen.” [7]

7) “Of old, Israel neither set up temples in the name of men, nor celebrated their memorial—for human nature was still under the curse, and death was condemnation, therefore they were enjoined that one who even touched the body of a dead man was to be reckoned unclean—but now, since the divinity has been united without confusion to our nature, as a kind of life-giving and saving medicine, our nature has been truly glorified and its very elements changed into incorruption. Therefore, temples are raised for [the Saints] and images engraved.” [8]

8) “Since our being is twofold [that is, composite], fashioned of soul and body…just as [through] words perceived by the senses we hear with bodily ears, and understand what is spiritual, so through bodily vision we arrive at spiritual contemplation. For this reason, Christ assumed body and soul, since mankind consists of body and soul; therefore baptism is likewise twofold, of water and the Spirit; as well as communion and prayer and psalmody, all of them twofold, bodily and spiritual, and offerings of light and incense.” [9]

 

In his arguments against iconoclasm, the Damascene made clear that it the veneration of icons, and the use of sacred images in architecture and worship was not idolatry, but rather a recognition that God uses the physical to make known the intelligible. Just as God the Son took to himself a human form, in order to make the truth of the Father known to man in a way most proper to him, so also does iconography serve to raise the mind to spiritual realities by means of the physical. Far from being a peripheral concern, therefore, sacred images are part and parcel of the authentic Christian worldview; their use and function within the life of the Church is bound up with the mystery of the Incarnation, in which the invisible Word of God became visible, and the incomprehensible Logos of the Father took to Himself a human nature.

The bane of iconoclasm was so tempting to the Imperial court that there were two separate persecutions carried out under official auspices. The first was ended under the patronage of the Empress Irene at the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicæa in 787, and the second under the reign of Empress Theodora at the Synod of Constantinople in 842, which dealt the final blow to iconoclasm in the East. To this day, both Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox churches commemorate this event on the First Sunday of the Great Fast, proclaiming the triumph of the Church against the heresies which had plagued it during the first millennium. Let us therefore celebrate the incarnational nature of our Catholic faith, treasuring her art, and through it lift our minds and hearts upwards to Christ, His Holy Mother, and the Saints and Angels in heaven; for indeed, Christ is in our midst: he is now, and ever shall be!

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[1] John Damascene, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, trans. Andrew Louth (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), Introduction pp. 7-9. All quotes from St. John, some of which have been slightly modified, are taken from this work unless otherwise indicated.

[2] Ibid., III p. 81.

[3] Ibid., p. 82.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 86.

[7] Ibid., pp. 88-89.

[8] Ibid., p. 91.

[9] Ibid., p. 93.