We venerate Thy most pure image, O Good One!
Priest Vladimir Sakovich
The first Sunday of the Great Fast is called the Sunday of Orthodoxy. On this day, in commemoration of the victory of Orthodoxy over heresies, the holy Church, as a loving Mother, invites her faithful children to venerate and honor in piety the holy icons of the Savior, the Mother of God and the Saints.
At the start of the eighth century in the Church there began a catastrophe that continued for more than a hundred years. A cruel persecution arose against the holy icons and those who venerated them. The holy vessels used in the celebration of divine services were trampled under foot, because the Saints were depicted on them. Everywhere holy icons were removed, taken from the temples and cast into rivers or burned. The defenders of the veneration of icons were subjected to all possible kinds of persecution, even capital punishment. At that time many bishops, priests and others were tortured for venerating the holy icons. They were shut up in prisons and tortured. Some had their noses or ears cut off. Others had their eyes put out or their hands severed. But the word of Christ, that the gates of Hell should not prevail against the holy Church, and that He would remain with it until the end of the age is immutable. In the year 842, after the last enemy of the veneration of icons finished his days in horrible torment, the emperor Theophilus and his wife the empress Theodora put an end to the persecution and unrest.
At her command on the forthcoming first Sunday of the Great Fast, February 19, the Patriarch Methodius in a solemn procession, accompanied by a multitude of joyful Orthodox faithful, entered the cathedral church and offered a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the restoration of the veneration of icons. The blood shed by the holy martyrs for their faith was victorious; the torments of the Church were triumphant. Truly "this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith," in the words of the holy Apostle John. The holy Church ordained that this solemnity should be observed each year always on this day in gratitude to the Lord God for His saving grace and strength in the time of crisis and for the edification of the faithful.
Yet it is sad and distressing to both hear and observe the terrible blindness regarding the holy icons on the part of sectarians who were once Orthodox. Some, on the pretext of identification with idols, denounce the holy icons; others with boastful pride in their hearts critically condemn the obsolete custom of venerating the holy icons. Respect for the holy icons, which is their due according to the highest principle, has unfortunately been lost among contemporary modern demands. Rarely do we find holy icons in the house as a sacred ornament. Rarely do they generate those worshipful sentiments, which should arise in us on seeing them. The icon in a Christian house is often not seen, having been conspicuously replaced by sensual artwork or colorful photos. And this is all because the holy faith has been weakened, and former religious convictions have been shaken.
This is really not the way it should be!
Every Christian believes and confesses that there is one God glorified in the Trinity, and that no glory or worship may be given to any other God or idol.
For this reason sectarians reproach the Orthodox unjustly for their worship of the one true God through sacred images. If a person consisted of spirit alone, if one had no body, then during worship services there would be no need for visual representations of unseen things. But since we are clothed in flesh, it is natural to require visual objects to influence our souls through our bodies and stimulate a prayerful attitude.
Bowing before visual sacred images, the soul of the Orthodox Christian is elevated in spirit to its prototype. For, after all, icons are only a representation of the true God in the form in which He revealed Himself to mankind. And who of the mindful children of the Church does not experience the strength of grace from the holy icons as a visual representation of the Lord, the Mother of God and His Saints? Standing before a holy icon, we are spontaneously lifted in spirit to that very personage depicted as a living person, we are inevitably reminded of his virtues and life of piety, of the grace of God which worked and works in him still. Standing before a holy icon we are transported in spirit to another, higher world, where all is pure and holy. We reject this vain and sinful world, and are elevated in mind and spirit. Our heart is filled with joyful thanksgiving to the Lord. We stand in front of the holy icon and feel that our joy is made stronger through communion with the depicted saint as a living intercessor for us before the throne of grace. If we experience sadness in our lives, we stand before the holy image and feel spontaneous relief in our hearts, because before our eyes our heavenly comforter actually stands in front of us, praying to God, always ready to help us in the fullness of love of his pure and holy spirit. And how many and varied lessons may be learned from the holy icons! What was it that converted the heart of Saint Vladimir, the equal of the Apostles, to the truth of Christ, when he was uncertain and wavered in choosing a faith? It was the depiction of the last judgment of God, unrolled before his eyes by a missionary philosopher, that convinced him to accept Christianity. This image resolved his uncertainty and indecision. It made him a follower of Christ. It made us Christians through him, and Orthodox as well.
An officer who returned not long ago from Siberia was showing a small icon of Saint Nicholas which he wore on his chest. It was a blessing from his mother, who had sent him off to war in 1914, and he had never taken it off. The little icon was slightly dented on one side, where it had been hit by a German bullet intended for his heart. The bullet did no harm to the soldier, and in his words Saint Nicholas through his little icon invisibly protected him during many dangerous battles. We can truly say, "Thy faith has saved thee!"
When we enter a church decorated with icons, we feel that we are in another world. We are spontaneously carried off in spirit to the community of the Saints whose visages are turned to us. We forget all the misfortune that assails us, and we lift up our hearts, soaring to the heavens in spirit. What can compare with this edification of the holy temple? "Standing in the temple of Thy glory, we think ourselves in heaven."
Bless yourselves with the sign of the Cross, O holy people! Kiss the icon of the Savior reverently and cry out from the depths of your heart along with your mother, the Church, "We venerate Thy most pure image, O Good One, and we ask forgiveness of our transgressions, O Christ our God." Amen.
Priest Vladimir Sakovich
Archpriest Vladimir was Holy Trinity Cathedral's Dean from December 12, 1917, until his death on September 13, 1931.
Translated from Russian and first published in the Holy Trinity Cathedral Bulletin on March 7, 1993.