445. The Triumph of Orthodoxy?

My wife and I love to watch old movies and television shows. The humor is always funny, the drama always exciting.

This spring you’ll get the same opportunity with this Blog. Occasionally you’ll see some “re-runs” of previous Posts – revised just a tad. The reason: We are about to move from the house we have lived in for nearly thirty years to an apartment. Between sorting and packing and our many Lenten services, there will be some weeks when writing time is limited – of which this week is definitely one.

Therefore here comes the first Post from the Past.

The Triumph of Orthodoxy

That title sounds brash and prideful, not to mention inaccurate – as if we think we Orthodox have beat everybody else out in this “religious game”, that we have all the truth and others have none, because we’re so smart and everybody else is so stupid (sounds like modern politics), or that we think we’ve taken over the world or something. That is not at all what we mean.

In order to explain, we need to go back to the Ninth Century.

The Iconoclastic controversy had raged off and on (mostly on) in the Byzantine Empire for over 150 years. Holy icons had been taken out of churches, removed from public places, stolen from homes, trampled, burnt, hacked, defaced and destroyed in a multitude of ways.

Finally on the First Sunday of Great Lent in the year 843, the Holy Icons were restored to the great Church Agia Sophia in Constantinople and then throughout the Empire. Ever since, all Orthodox have celebrated this day as the Sunday of Orthodoxy. The feast is often titled the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

What is this Triumph? We celebrate the victory not only over Iconoclasm, but of the continuity of the Apostolic Faith within the Orthodox Church through the centuries.

Let’s be clear: We believe that the Orthodox Church is the authentic * One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and that we possess the fullness of the Faith.

  • Personally I prefer this to the title “true Church” which to many ears suggests we’re torturing heretics, stretching them out on racks, burning them at the stake and what not. Even at our worst moments, the Orthodox Church has never done such things.

Is this a cause for pride? No, it’s a reason for humility. It would be more accurate to say that the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith has possessed us. We didn’t invent the Faith. It is the gift of God, the holy Tradition passed down to us from Christ and the Apostles. Our job is only to receive it humbly and pass it on unblemished to the next generation.

We are not “unchurching” anybody. That’s none of our business. Nor do we demean the positive gifts of the various denominations and other religions. The Holy Spirit fills the whole world. Nor does any one Orthodox person possess all the truth. Each of us sees only a facet of the jewel, which is Jesus Christ. We are not “the way, the truth and the life”. He is.

Now, having got that out of the way, let’s look at what we celebrate this Sunday.

Triumphant in the Faith 

Ever since that Sunday almost twelve centuries ago, by the grace of God, the Holy Orthodox Church and all her people have been completely united in the Faith. OK…there was that minor local dustup in the Fourteenth Century, which involved only a few theologians and was quickly overcome. Also we had an Ecumenical Patriarch who in the Seventeenth Century developed some Calvinistic tendencies, of all things. Nobody followed him in this. And that’s it.


The Orthodox Church has experienced nothing like the divisions and controversies brought on by the Protestant Reformation, and then by Roman Catholic revisionists at various times, all of which continue to this day. When I first looked at the Orthodox Church, I couldn’t believe it. I tried hard to find one seminary where the Faith is debated, one theologian or bishop or priest who denies the Faith, one parish where people believe other doctrines, a popular movement to alter Orthodox worship and morality. Maybe there are a few heretics hiding behind church pillars somewhere, but I couldn’t find any. The Holy Orthodox Church has a unity in Faith and Practice which no other Christian body on earth possesses.

The chart below shows how we Orthodox see Church history. Unfortunately, no matter how I’ve searched I can’t find a chart that we can see here! * I have no idea why they all go blurry. (Demons?) I suggest you search for “Orthodox Church History Chart” under “image”. You’ll find many similar ones.

  • The clearest one I found and almost included was from a minute breakaway group which showed canonical Orthodoxy as heretical. Whoops!

Briefly it shows Roman Catholics breaking away from us halfway through it, then Protestants later separating from them.

Courtesy of Saint Benedict Orthodox Church, Wichita Falls, Texas

Triumphant on Earth

The Orthodox Church obviously has not conquered the world. So in what way has Orthodoxy triumphed on earth? Because we have been given a wonderful power of faithfulness, continuity, stability, endurance. This, we believe, is a characteristic of The Church as Christ founded it, against which the “gates of hell” will never prevail. Matthew 16:17-19

The Orthodox Church has endured a lot of “hell”. After the dreadful imperial Roman persecution, Orthodoxy triumphed mightily. After the Crusader invasion and the Latin occupation of Byzantium, Orthodoxy emerged still united in her Faith. After four centuries of Turkish Ottoman oppression, when it was illegal even to have an Orthodox school or an Orthodox social institution, Orthodoxy returned still united in the Faith. (See Eastern Europe today.) After seventy years of horrendous persecution by the Communists (at one time there were only three bishops still active in all of Russia, two of whom were probably Communist dupes), Orthodoxy emerged powerfully * with the Faith unaltered.

  • but with political compromises which have now tragically emerged

Do you know the ugly story of how the American government tried to destroy Orthodoxy among the native Alaskans? It didn’t work. Today, after over a century living in the West with the subtle enticements of all its various religions and secularisms and nationalisms which have deeply compromised and divided and diminished many other Christian groups, Orthodoxy remains uncompromised, united in Faith.

Let’s talk about numbers. Only seventy years ago, to speak of the numerical triumph of Orthodoxy sounded absurd. We were reduced to perhaps 100 million practicing Orthodox in the world, and the Orthodox Church seemed almost headed for extinction. Today due to the end of Communism and Orthodox growth in the West, there are about 250 million Orthodox. Orthodoxy has triumphed again.

I’m sure it’s irreverent to compare the Orthodox Church to the Energizer Bunny, but I’m going to do it anyway: We just keep going and going and going. Sometimes we keep going in new places. Russian imperialism carried Orthodoxy to Alaska. The flight from Communism and lately from the Middle East has brought Orthodoxy to the rest of the Western world, and also to Australia and New Zealand – and just in time, I would say.

This also is none of our doing. It is the gift of God.

With good reason do we celebrate the feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

Icons in the Church

The word εἰκών in New Testament Greek means both “image” and “icon”. In Genesis 1, man and woman were created in God’s image, His icon.

From earliest times, Christians have made use of holy images, icons. Tradition has it that Christ created the first icon of himself, when he touched a cloth to His face and sent it to King Abgar of Edessa to heal his leprosy. This came to be called the Icon Not Made With Hands. This cloth was later taken to Constantinople. There are several stories regarding how it was lost or where it is now.

This is the Vladimir Icon, said to have been “written” by Saint Luke, long ago taken to Russia.

Tradition also says the first icons of the Theotokos were painted by Saint Luke, when he interviewed her, gathering information for his Gospel account.

None of that is documentable, of course, but it would explain why icons of Christ and His Mother have looked the same from the beginning. There must have been a common source, otherwise we would expect a multitude of early fanciful images of them.

Iconography was something new in our Judeo-Christian Tradition. The only images permitted in the Old Testament were those of gold cherubim above the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies in the temple. Exodus 25:18 Otherwise, it was forbidden to make images for religious purposes, since only God was worshipped and venerated, and He dwelt in “inaccessible light whom no man could see or ever can see”. 1 Timothy 6:16  Therefore the Second Commandment: “Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image of anything in heaven or on earth; thou shalt not fall down to it or worship it.” That seems clear enough.

But from the beginning Christians did not consider that Commandment binding. Why? Because something new, something unique had happened in Jesus Christ. God “the Word was made flesh, and we have beheld His glory, glory of the only-begotten Son of the Father”. John 1:14  To Philip Christ declared, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” John 14:9  We have seen “the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” 2 Corinthians 4:6 In Jesus Christ God can be seen and can therefore be imaged, “iconed”. Christians did not hesitate to have images of Christ. Through them people have been able to participate in what Nathanael experienced when Philip cried to him “Come and see”.  John 1:45-46

But why icons of the saints? Because Christ has restored the tarnished image/icon of God in Adam and Eve, in mankind. Here’s the theology: Christ is present not only in His Body born of Mary, but also in His Body the Church, His holy people. We perceive, know, see the presence of Christ our God in the saints, and so we have icons of them.


There were always a few Christians who were hesitant about icons, fearing idolatry, that people would begin to worship them. * But then in the Eighth Century came the Iconoclastic movement. These “icon destroyers” claimed that icons are idols, forbidden by the Second Commandment. Why did iconoclasm arise? No one really knows. This was the time of the rise of Islam, those fervent iconoclasts. Some think that the iconoclastic emperors (who were no theologians) concluded that Muslims won their battles because they forsook images.

  • a needless worry. Who ever worshiped wood and paint? Not even the pagans.

Just in passing, it’s interesting: In the Sixteenth Century as the Muslim Turks, iconoclasts, were on the march, here came the Protestant Reformation. And just like the earlier iconoclasts, radical Protestant Christians again threw out images and statues. Was this aspect of the Protestant Reformation also an import (perhaps unintentionally) from Islam?

This is obviously the Protestant Reformation. I find it painful to look at. (courtesy of epicworldhistory.blogspot.com)

Back to the story.

It’s important to note that Iconoclasm was largely a political movement, imposed upon the Church by imperial authority, beginning in the Eighth Century with Emperor Leo the Isaurian (his name even sounds nasty doesn’t it?). Icons were ordered removed from all public places including churches and destroyed. A few survived, illegally hidden by people in their homes, but many treasures were lost. Most bishops who depended on the emperor’s patronage went along with his iconoclasm. But some brave bishops, most theologians and nearly all monks (who had relatively little to lose) opposed him and his successors. Many were exiled, tortured, some even executed. Likewise it seems most lay people resisted. (“No, you will not burn the icon my grandmother gave me!”) When Leo ordered a great icon of Christ which hung over a gate of Constantinople torn down and destroyed, the people rioted.

Why did bishops and monks go to prison and death? for the sake of pictures? works of art? No, of course not. It was because this controversy went to the heart of the Faith. This was not so obvious at first, but then it came clear. The issues were these: 1 Was God really incarnate? Did He take flesh? If so then He can be imaged. In fact as witness to this we must have images of Christ. 2 Is the Church truly the Body of Christ? Does Christ live in His people? Then there can be, must be icons of the saints. 3 Is the Church subject to the state? to the whims of politicians? Does the government have the right to tell Christians what to believe? No way. That is why the Church fought back.

In the year 787 Orthodox bishops, during a time of peace, held the Seventh Ecumenical Council which condemned Iconoclasm in no uncertain terms. That didn’t settle the matter. Other iconoclastic emperors came to the throne.

The Restoration of the Holy Icons

courtesy of Greekcitytimes.com

Finally in the year 843 the new Regent Empress Theodora and the Patriarch Methodios called a Synod which restored the Holy Icons. On February 19, the First Sunday of Lent, there was a procession carrying the Icons back into the great church Agia Sophia. The Synod then fixed the First Sunday of Lent each year as the Sunday of Orthodoxy – and so it still is.

Since then the Holy Orthodox Church has been united in the Faith. Certainly we find things to argue about: the color of the church doors, what language to worship in, who has jurisdiction over the Ukraine (God help us all) – but about the essentials of Faith, Orthodoxy from one end of the earth to the other has remained at one.

You Orthodox, do not let our unity in the Faith go to your head. To repeat, this is by no virtue of ours. God knows we Orthodox often don’t have our act together – today’s division between Moscow and Constantinople, for one sorry example, and our multiple overlying jurisdictions in the West, for another. But even here both Patriarchates are entirely united in the Faith. This is merely an organizational dispute. Also, we Orthodox have at least our fair share of sinners and screwballs, trying to divide us. (Search out “Eastern Orthodoxy” on the internet. *) Even that doesn’t destroy our unity in the Faith.

  • No, don’t.

This Triumph of Orthodoxy is the gift of God. It is miraculous. It is the work of the Holy Spirit in His Church. 

Looking Towards the Future

Now let’s turn around and look ahead. We live in an age of images. This began with modern printing – first tintypes, and then easy access to illustrations and even movies. When I was young, Life Magazine was popular because it contained pictures of everything fit to print. Now we have pictures everywhere: television, computers, smartphones and more. The little images I push on my computer to give access to websites are even called “icons”!

Protestants (long ago) and lately even Roman Catholics have removed images from their churches. How peculiar. How irrelevant. This is “the age of images”. Dear Protestant and Roman Catholic friends, get with it! Put the images back. Catch up with the times!

The Holy Orthodox Church is ready for the modern age. Our churches are filled with images, icons, a multitude of them, ready for people to “come and see”.   

So on this first Sunday of Great Lent, 2024, as we Orthodox process around our churches, we are not just carrying icons into Agia Sophia in Constantinople long ago. We are also carrying  Orthodoxy, united, triumphant – the Faith as it always has been, is now and will be unto ages of ages –  on into the Twenty-first Century world, relevant as always in this “age of images”.

For as we proclaim at the end of our great Procession of Icons: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.”

Next Two Weeks:  More about Icons – their origin and purpose 

2 thoughts on “445. The Triumph of Orthodoxy?

  1. That church timeline looks interesting, when I enlarge it, it is too blurry to read. Can you tell us where the original is so we can look into it a little more? Thank you 🙏

    1. I was afraid of that. I have now tried a dozen similar charts and they all come out blurry. I corrected the text to suggest that people just search “Orthodox Church History chart”, under “images”, and you’ll find a bunch of them. Thanks for writing and telling me.

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