Come, all Orthodox Churches!
Let us celebrate today in faith and true worship
the yearly commemoration of the divinely-arrayed Fathers
who gathered at Nicea from throughout the world!
There they refuted the heresy invented by Arius,
banishing him by a decree of the council from the catholic Church.
They taught all to confess openly the Son of God,
consubstantial and co-eternal with the Father,
proclaiming this with precision and true worship in the canon of Faith.
Therefore as we faithfully follow their divine doctrines
let us worship the Father, the Son, and the most Holy Spirit,//
the consubstantial Trinity in one Godhead.
(Vespers, Aposticha verse)
Here in October we annually commemorate the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council which took place in the year 787 A.D. The “Fathers who gathered at Nicea” and the “heresy invented by Arius” mentioned in the verse for the day refer to events surrounding the First Ecumenical Council some 450 years earlier in the year 325. In fact, all the liturgical verses for this day speak of the theological issues confronted and resolved in the Church in terms of what was done at the First Council, applying them to the same work of the Seventh Council. Clearly though times and challenges of the Church may appear to change, the core truths defining the Church remain fundamentally the same: one God who is the Holy Trinity, the Person of the Savior Jesus Christ who is both God and man, and the absolute unity of the Church in the same Faith and Worship.
The work of the Fathers at the Seventh Ecumenical Council – “ecumenical” means “pertaining to the entire inhabited world” – specifically addressed the need and use of icons in the Church. Their work was a response to the heresy that had been ravaging the Church for the previous half-century, known as iconoclasm, literally the “smashing of icons.” Not only had the Roman imperial authorities banned the making, possession, and veneration of religious images as idolatry, but they had convened their own Church council to justify their position theologically under the guise of Orthodoxy, and allowed and promoted the harming of the defenders of icons, some to the point of death.
The Fathers of the Seventh Council decreed that icons must be made and venerated in the Church: depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and saints in paint, embroidery, mosaic, and wood; other sacred objects such the Cross, chalices, and vestments; and relics. The icon (Gk., eikon) is a physical image conveying a divine reality; in other words, these physical images are essential in the Church showing how the Kingdom of God is participated in and communicated by God’s design. This divine design is epitomized in the Incarnation of the Son of God Himself who, though uncreated and indescribable, became a creature in the womb of His mother the Virgin Mary. Because of the Incarnation of the Son of God, we know what God looks like in the face of Christ, and the divine life is now communicated to all in Christ transforming us creatures in the likeness of God (see Gen. 1:26-27; John 1:14; 2 Cor. 4:4-6).
Icons are necessary because they are theological statements of the truth of salvation only in Jesus Christ the God-Man. We venerate icons giving honor to persons and objects genuinely sharing in the grace of God for eternal life. Icons demonstrate the goal of holiness possible for all who believe in Christ with a living faith active in the love of God. In this way we give worship to God alone who chooses to sanctify through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in the communion of the Church, His Body and Temple.
The Orthodox Church has always possessed and venerated icons. This was not a new phenomenon promulgated in the eighth century. The Fathers of the Seventh Council were simply reiterating the Orthodox Faith maintained “always, everywhere, and by everyone” who is genuinely Christian (St. Vincent of Lerins). Thus their work is expressed in the same terminology of the First Council, crucially reminding us to realize that what will always be essentially “Orthodox” (in this case, icons) is the saving knowledge of the only God, the Holy Trinity, redemption in the God-Man Jesus Christ, and the worship of God in the Church unified in this Faith.