The Triumph of Orthodoxy

The Triumph of Orthodoxy February 28, 2009

sundayoforthodoxyIn an earlier era, Lent was used for catechesis, preparing catechumens for baptism. Sundays would present themes for their benefit. The first Sunday commemorated the Prophets, especially Moses, Aaron and Samuel; on this day, the catechumen would learn how they foreshadowed the coming of Christ. Today, the Divine Liturgy contains elements of this tradition, especially in the readings chosen for the day: both the Epistle and the Gospel suggest that Christians, living in the time when the words of the prophets have been fulfilled, have access to greater things than the prophets could ever have imagined. “And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:39 -40.). The Gospel makes this real clear: here he is, the expectation of the prophets, the Messiah, Jesus: “Philip found Nathanael, and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!’ Nathanael said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’ Nathanael answered him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered him, ‘Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man’ (John 1:45 -51).[1]

But now, when most are now baptized as infants, and Christianity entered the mainstream, the time of Lent means something else. Certainly the educational practice remains – it is, of course, always helpful to remind ourselves of the truths of our faith, because each time we encounter them, the more they penetrate our lives. But the themes have changed, they are now emphasizing different aspects of the Christian faith-as we find, for example, with the First Sunday of the Great Fast. It’s now the Sunday of Orthodoxy, and it celebrates the restoration of the icons in Hagia Sophia on Feb. 19, 842, issued by the Synod of Constantinople in 842 on that date, and declared, by that Synod, to be remembered every First Sunday of Lent.[2]  It was seen as the triumph of the true faith over heresy, because orthopraxis, the veneration of images, was not only allowed, but proclaimed, and those who wanted to explain why the practice is in accord with the Christian faith could do so without without fear of persecution. The veneration of the images became, itself, an image of orthodoxy, for orthopraxis and orthodoxy are intricately linked: when one is rejected, how it is explained  entails a rejection of the other. Unorthoprax iconoclasm was fueled by unorthodox Christology and soteriology. It sponsored a gnostic understanding, not only of the incarnation, but of the Christian life, because, by its dictates, the physical could no longer be seen as united with the spiritual.[3]   

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 beauty. We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images (Kontakion, Sunday of Orthodoxy).

It is fitting that the triumph of orthodoxy is expressed through the triumph of the image, the eidos. For this shows us not only how the truth (orthodoxy) is tied to the good (orthopraxis), but also to the beautiful (orthoidos).[4] It is necessary for us to preserve the truth through beauty. Just as orthodoxy and orthopraxis are one, so we must understand the unity between orthodoxy and orthoidos. For this reason, aesthetics should have an important place in the catechetical education of the Christian. When one of the three transcendentals is found wanting in a society, it is not long until the other two also suffer. Without a proper understanding and appreciation of the beautiful, the attractive qualities of the good and the truth will no longer resonate in the soul. The elimination of the beautiful, which occurs with the elimination of holy images, resounds with a pale, lifeless spirituality that can only be authoritarian in its dogmatic and moral declarations. Is it any surprise that iconoclasm, wherever it is found, requires an excessive use of force to justify itself, that is, its justification lies in its power to execute its will? But beauty, when cut off from the good and the truth, also suffers; the problem with “art for arts sake” is that what is produced is no longer art. It’s meaning has been lost with the elimination of its moral core, as Baudrillard rightfully points out. “The moral law of art has now disappeared. There only remains rules to a game that is radically democratic. It is even more than democratic: it is indifferentiating.”[5] What we see might seem pretty, it might not; but, what we get when the other transcendentals are lost is a soulless bauble without meaning, without content, without significance, save that of the fad.[6] In this way, the restoration of the images represents the triumph of orthodoxy, because it shows the truth needs to be beautiful to be made effective in our lives, just as beauty needs the truth in order to give it any meaning. 

Nonetheless, there is another way in which the relationship between orthodoxy, orthodopraxis and orthoidos presents itself to us today: the three are inter-related in our own salvation. We were made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26), but, because of the fall of Adam, we have become disfigured. That image of God, found at the core of our personage, has been hidden by our sin. Our mind, corrupted by sin, is incapable of perceiving the purity of truth; instead, it understands the world around us through those ideological lenses that we set up to protect the right to follow through with our sinful desires.  Because of that ideological barrier, we cannot see the impact our sins have had, not only upon others, but upon ourselves; it not only allows us to pursue them, but to feign ignorance when confronted with the consequences of what we have done. 

The tyranny of sin is that it traps us within its dictates. It creates a parody of freedom, making it difficult for us to realize how trapped we have become. It takes our choices, and reinforces them through the habits they create. Because we can continue to follow through and act out our lives according to these habits, it appears we are free, because we can do as we desire, but in reality, we are not – for we could do something different, something better, but only if we realize that we do not have to continue with the habits of the past. Indeed, once we reflect upon our lives, we can remember a time when we did not have the same desires, the same habits: a time when we had other possibilities before us, other options which we did not follow through. To experience true freedom, we need to return to that stage, by stopping the habitual loop which keeps us in sin. If giving in to inordinate desire creates the habits in which we live, then we must work to counteract that desire, until we have the strength to say no to it. At that point, we will find ourselves returning to a point of greater freedom. Our sin has turned us ugly; its tyranny aims for the complete elimination of the image of God form the world; it seeks to create its own world-order, its own truth, one that has no room for God in it.  And yet, when left to its devices, the paradise of sin becomes hell on earth.

But, no matter how much the powers of evil would like to remove God from its presence, God will not budge; the world is permeated by the Holy Spirit. And it is through that Spirit that the image of God in humanity is brought back to the world, by overshadowing the Theotokos and helping her to conceive the God-man, Jesus Christ. In him, God, the ultimate iconophile, is brought face to face with his would-be destroyer. Jesus let the powers of sin do its worst – no longer would they have to be satisfied with the representation of God in humanity; now they could directly confront and assault God. The abuse he took had an end, but not his love; in his death, sin found its goal accomplished; there was nothing left it could do, for the God-man had been taken out. But every bit of hate, every bit of antagonism, every bit of abuse the God-man took, he took willingly, openly, and it served to increase the revelation of his love, a love which attracts us to him. In the clouds of sin which sought to hide his beauty from the world, his glory was only made that much greater. Sin knows an end, but love does not. The resurrection shows to us the infinite power of love, capable of transcending the hate which tries to snuff it out. Indeed, it takes it on, and transforms it, making it a part of him as it is used for his glorification. The eucharist, the thanksgiving feast of love, has us re-member and re-experience the God-man at Golgotha, uniting us with him, bringing us together with him, so that in him and through him, we can be re-membered and resurrected in glory in the eschaton.[7] In him and through him, we find the hidden image of God in humanity, lost through the sin of Adam, has been restored, and the tyranny of sin, the ultimate iconoclast, has found its end.

Before your most pure image we bow in worship, O Good One, begging forgiveness of our stumblings, Christ God: because you chose of your own free will to ascend upon the Cross in the flesh to deliver from the enemy’s yoke those you had created. For this reason we cry out to you in thanksgiving: ‘You, our Savior, filled all things with joy when you came to save the world!’ (Troparion, Sunday of Orthodoxy).

In the midst of Lent, the Joy of the Resurrection is always brought before us. Indeed, Sunday is the Day of the Resurrection, and every Sunday participates in Pascha; every Sunday is the Feast of Feasts, the Eighth Day, overriding the penitential rules of Lent. On Sunday, we no longer kneel in sorrow, but stand in joy, singing alleluia to the king in the Divine Liturgy, where heaven is brought in union with the earth, and we experience a share of the eschatological glory to come. It is fitting that the first Sunday of Lent is one of triumph, for it reminds us that the Christian life does not have to be one of constant defeat, but of victory – for Christ our God has risen from the dead, restoring the Adam with him. The image of God in humanity has been restored. The annihilating abyss has been defeated. Truth, goodness and beauty have won.

 Footnotes

[1] There is a double-meaning within the text as to where Jesus is said to have found Nathanael: Jesus not only indicates where he saw Nathanael (as in, the place), but also, through the use of the fig tree, he indicates that he understands Nathanael and his embrace of his heritage: he is a true Israelite; his place is under the fig tree, that is, Israel.
[2] John VII was deposed from the Patriarchal See because of his iconoclasm, and  Methodius I (842 – 846) was put in his place. While II Nicea had officially declared iconophilia as doctrine, it did not prevent another iconoclastic crisis in Byzantium. Churches had found their icons removed or destroyed. The restoration of the icons was met with great acclaim by the people – iconoclasm had not only brought with it a destruction of the icons, but set its cruel sight on the people who opposed its dictates, causing many to suffer greatly, especially under the direction of Emperor Theophilus  (829 – 842). Theophilus’ wife, Theodora, had, in secret, venerated images, and was able to guide her son (Michael III), as regent, to work for the restoration of the icons, and is always pictured in the icons celebrating the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

[3] This was of one of the central points of the theologians who wrote in defense of the images: they were preserving belief in the incarnation, in the actual physicality of Christ. In his person, Christ should be worshiped, and that personage included a real physical body, and that body was not formless, but had a real form, a real image by which we would recognize Jesus. If images are not to be worshiped, then neither can we worship Jesus in his physical presence. Even after his resurrection, he was touched, demonstrating that he did not become incorporeal. The continued physicality of Christ therefore justified the use of the material world for the sake of worship. “If you assert that Christ is not circumscribed because He is without solidity after His resurrection, you must assert that He was not seen by His apostles. But if He is seen, He is circumscribed. Everything which is subject to vision must also be subject to circumscription; all the more that which has hands and feet, flesh and bones, which is touched and shares food,” St. Theodore the Studite, On the Holy Images. Trans. Catharine P. Roth (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), II n45.

[4] Ortho-eidos. As with the good and the truth, the concrete realization of orthoidos can differ according to circumstance; just as the concrete form of truth is found in the correctness of a statement at a given time and place, so the concrete form of the beautiful is found in how fitting a form is as it is used at a particular time and place. Thus “It is raining,” can be correct or incorrect, depending upon the time the statement is made, so a specific form of eidos, such as a specific architectural design, could be legitimate at one place, and, through a change of circumstances, not something which would be proper to reproduce. Changes in how we live will affect the forms of the buildings we construct, and what is appropriate at one time will no longer be the case later. This can be shown by the fact that we no longer need build walls to defend cities.  
[5] Jean Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art. Trans. Ames Hodges (Los Angels, Semiotext(e), 2005), 45.

[6] And then, as with any fad, what is popular one day becomes tomorrow’s rubbish.
[7] Likewise, when images were removed from the churches, we saw the limit of the iconoclast’s power; while not physically there, their memory remained, and with it, the power and attraction they held could not be overcome. Antagonism showed to the images only reinforced its attraction by the faithful, guaranteeing their eventual restoration. What is worse than antagonism is indifference, and that comes from today’s unaesthetic society.


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