Why Are Icons Orthodox?

TODAY IS THE SUNDAY OF ORTHODOXY, which celebrates the restoration of the Orthodox use of icons in the Byzantine Empire. But what exactly is “Orthodoxy” and what does it have to do with icons?

Literally the word means “rightly proclaiming” – those who glorify God in the correct manner. The oldest use of this term in the Christian East is in reference to the understanding of the Trinity as expressed in the Nicene Creed. If you could not profess this creed, then you were not Orthodox. Thus the sixth century Code of Justinian, the compilation of laws in the empire, decreed: “We direct that all Catholic Churches, throughout the entire world, shall be placed under the control of the Orthodox bishops who have embraced the Nicene Creed.”

Since then the Eastern Churches in the Roman Empire and their offshoots have called themselves Orthodox. There are two major groups of Orthodox Churches: those of the Byzantine tradition, called in English “Eastern Orthodox” and those of the Syriac and Coptic traditions, called “Oriental Orthodox.” The Armenian Church, considered one of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, does not generally use the term as Armenia was not part of the Byzantine Empire.

It was only after the separation of the Greek and Latin Churches in the Middle Ages that the term “Catholic” became more identified with the Western Church and “Orthodox” with the Eastern Churches. To this day, of course, Orthodox use the term “Catholic” and vice versa. Most Greek Catholics continue to use the term “Orthodox” when it appears in their liturgical texts, as well.

Orthodoxy and Icons

As the controversy over icons developed in the Byzantine Empire, many saw the use of icons as a necessary consequence of the Incarnation of Christ as expressed in the Nicene Creed. If the Word of God truly took flesh, He could be depicted in images. As St John of Damascus wrote, “In the old days, the incorporeal and infinite God was never depicted. Now, however, when God has been seen clothed in flesh and talking with mortals, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation.”

Since the Church saw icons as connected with its faith in the Incarnation, it came to see icons as an expression of the Orthodox faith. Thus the definitive restoration of icons in Constantinople on the first Sunday of the Great Fast in the year 842 was called the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.”

The Synodikon of Orthodoxy

During the Great Doxology at Orthros a procession is formed of many people carrying icons. When the procession comes to a halt the typikon prescribes the chanting of a document called the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy.” Although there are many local variants of this text, they all begin as follows:

“Let us Orthodox people, now celebrating this Day of Orthodoxy, especially glorify God, the Author of all goodness! Blessed is He forever. This is our God, who acquired and established His beloved heritage, the Holy Church, the foundations of which He laid even in Paradise, thereby comforting by His infallible Word, our forefathers who had fallen through disobedience. This is our God who, directing us to His saving promise, left not Himself without a witness, but first foretold the future salvation through the forefathers and prophets, and by manifold means gave lively descriptions of it. This is our God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke in antiquity to the fathers by the prophets, and in these latter days spoke to us by His Son, with whom also He created the ages: who declared His goodwill toward us, disclosed the heavenly mysteries, assured us the truth of the Gospel through the power of the Holy Spirit; who sent His apostles to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom to all the world, and confirmed it by various powers and miracles. Following this salutary revelation, and holding this Gospel, we believe…” And the people proclaim the Nicene Creed.

After the Creed the Synodikon continues:

“As the prophets beheld, as the Apostles have taught… as the Church has received …as the teachers have dogmatized… as the Universe has agreed… as Grace has shown forth… as Truth has revealed… as falsehood has been dissolved… as Wisdom has presented… as Christ awarded… thus we declare… thus we assert… thus we preach Christ our true God, and honor as Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy Icons; on the one hand worshiping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord; and on the other hand honoring them as true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them veneration.”

And the People respond in a loud voice: “This is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe.”

The Synodikon concludes with the proclamation of Many Years to the living defenders of Orthodoxy, Memory Eternal to the departed and Anathema to those who deny the faith just proclaimed.

When we venerate icons, then, we point in a concrete if wordless way to the truth of Christ’s Incarnation. He took on our nature completely and transfigured it completely, including our material side, which we honor in this material way. Icons of the saints point to the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Giver of life, in the Church which transformed them as well. Icons, therefore, profess without words what we proclaim verbally in the Creed.

An Ancient Synodikon

The following Anathemas are taken from an 1111 edition of the Synodikon by a monk of the Monastery of Oleni in Moroea. They show how Orthodox Christians of that age identified icons with faith in Christ’s Incarnation.

“On every innovation and action contrary to the tradition of the Church, and the teaching and pattern of the holy and celebrated Fathers, or anything that shall be done after this: Anathema!…

On those who accept with their reason the incarnate economy of God the Word, but will not allow that this can be beheld through images, and therefore affect to receive our salvation in words, but deny it in reality: Anathema!

Those who apply the sayings of the divine Scripture that are directed against idols to the august icons of Christ our God and his saints: Anathema!

Those who share the opinion of those who mock and dishonor the august icons: Anathema!

Those who say that Christians treat the icons like gods: Anathema!

Those who dare to say that the Catholic Church has accepted idols, thus over-throwing the whole mystery and mocking the faith of Christians: Anathema!”