Imagine you are a Christian living in the eastern part of the Roman
Empire in the eighth century, and your essential instrument of prayer is an image
of Jesus, Mary or a saint. Suddenly, the emperor bans the veneration of icons. Soldiers
strip holy images from churches, and those caught with an icon are punished. Nearly
100 years later, icons and holy images were welcomed back.
Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians commemorate the restoration
of holy images on the first Sunday of Lent when they were returned to the
empire in 843. The celebration is known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy, and parishioners
of Epiphany of Our Lord Byzantine Catholic Church in Annandale marked the day
by bringing icons and holy images to be blessed March 5.
Children stood in the church’s aisle during Divine Liturgy, holding
icons of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, St. George and other saints to be blessed by
Father John G. Basarab, the pastor.
In his homily, Father Basarab told the history of the
Iconoclastic Controversy that began when Emperor Leo III took the first
commandment literally, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image … ”
The emperor commanded his soldiers to remove and destroy icons
from all places. The debate of venerating images of Christ led to the Second
Council of Nicaea in 787.
“The first time and only time a woman called an ecumenical
council, was when Empress Irene called the Seventh Ecumenical Council,” said
The council brought a brief period of peace to those venerating
holy images, but within decades a new emperor emerged, reviving the persecution
of icons. Iconoclasm ended when a new empress reinstated the use of holy images
with solemn processions to churches in 843.
“You and I have been made in the icon (or) image of God,” he
said. “Maybe our icon has been dirtied (through sin).”
A great defender of icons was St. John of Damascus, who compared
icons to human nature saying that humans have been created in the image and
likeness of God, and through sin our image is torn and scarred. Through God’s
mercy our nature is restored, he said.
Father Basarab said Lent should be a time for God to scrub us