March 24 is the first Sunday of Great Lent for Orthodox Christians and is known as Orthodoxy Sunday.
The theme of Orthodoxy Sunday is the “Triumph of Holy Icons.”
Great Lent starts Monday.
During the eighth century, the church was struggling with whether or not to keep or eliminate Holy Icons, the “pictures” of Christ, Virgin Mary and saints.
These icons were kept and venerated both in churches and private homes.
The iconoclasts or icon mashers, suspicious of any religious art that represented human beings or God, demanded the destruction of icons.
The opposite party, the venerators of icons, vigorously defended the place of holy icons in the life of the church.
What was the doctrinal significance of icons?
Supporters held that the icons safeguard the full and proper doctrine of Christ.
In fact, both those against icons and those who were in favor of icons agreed, that God can not be represented in his eternal nature.
The icon supporters held that if the Incarnation has made a representational of religious art possible, then God can be depicted because he became man, therefore he took on human flesh and dwelt among us.
In the Orthodox Church, the mystical body of Christ, icons are inseparable from belief.
They are viewed as extensions of the interior life of the church, objects intended to teach, but also to draw believers through the material world into communion with the ineffable beyond.
Generally speaking, an icon is a representation of a person or event in salvation history important to the Orthodox Christian.
Orthodox churches are usually filled with icons of biblical figures or saints.
Traditionally, each church contains an iconostasis, a richly colored screen separating the nave from the Sanctuary.
It tells the story of faith in visual images, both from Old and New Testament times.
To people unfamiliar with Orthodox thought, icons simply may seem to be religious “pictures.”
Yet, as iconographers and Orthodox theologians are quick to point out, icons are much more than pictures.
The main function of an icon is theological not decorative.
To Orthodox Christians, icons are often called “theology in colors.” They are a form of liturgical art, and as that name itself implies, they are inseparable from liturgy and from personal prayer life.
Orthodox Christians do not worship the icons, for worship is due only to God.
Icons are used to teach and remind us of God and his church.
Every sign, symbol, and church figure relates to our salvation.
They are visual aids to those who can not read.
When Orthodox believers prostrate themselves before an icon and kiss it, they are not venerating and paying homage to the material substance before them, but rather to that which is depicted.
Orthodox Christians like to describe icons as “windows to heaven” that are as passages into the spiritual world.
Icons do not merely depict the spiritual; they share in the holiness of the subjects they portray.
The final victory for restoring Holy Icons in the church took place at the seventh Ecumenical Council, 787 A.D. and is remembered as the “triumph of Orthodoxy.”
This historical event is commemorated annually on the first Sunday of Great Lent.
Many Orthodox from the Mahoning Valley will gather at 5 p.m. for a vesper service at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, 220 N. Walnut St., Youngstown. Homilist will be the Rev. Constantine Valantasis of St. Demetrios Hellenic Orthodox Church in Warren.
The Rev. Andrew Gall is pastor of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Sharon, Pa.