A HOMILY FOR THE COMMEMORATIONS OF
THE HOLY FATHERS OF THE SEVENTH
ŒCUMENICAL COUNCIL

 

          Brothers and sisters!

          Today our Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Œcumenical Council.  At this synod the Church of Christ anathematized Iconoclasm, the rejection of the sacred images, which stems from the notion that the veneration of icons is idolatrous and therefore contrary to the second of the Ten Commandments.  Iconoclasm was first officially promulgated by the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, known as “the Isaurian,” in the year 726.

          The Patriarch of Constantinople at that time was Saint Germanus, who announced that he would not tolerate any change in our blameless Christian faith and refused to sign the imperial decree.  The Emperor responded to this by publicly humiliating the man of God, deposing and banishing him, and replacing him with an Iconoclast, Anastasius.  The false-patriarch officially endorsed the ruler’s doctrine in the year 730, and the authorities proceeded to destroy icons everywhere.

          During the four years between the edict’s appearance and its signing by Anastasius, Saint John of Damascus wrote and published three discourses refuting Leo’s charge that the veneration of icons was idolatrous and hence contrary to the Second Commandment.  These discourses are the most learned, carefully thought through, comprehensive, and powerful defense of holy icons, apart from the proceedings and decrees of the Seventh Œcumenical Synod, which are based in part upon them.  They have been translated into English under the title On the Divine Images, and are certainly worthwhile reading.  Since they were written for popular distribution and the translation is well rendered, they are quite easy to understand compared to most theological texts.  Their value is enhanced by Saint John’s compilation of many of the earlier patristic references supporting the use of icons.

          The first act of Iconoclastic violence was the destruction of a highly revered image of Christ above one of the entrances to the imperial palace in Constantinople.  A crowd of pious women, led by the holy nun Theodosia, set upon the soldier dispatched to perform the blasphemous deed and toppled him from his ladder, killing him.  As a result, all the women were put to death.  Truly, the Orthodox, women no less than men, had zeal for Christ and the faith in those days!  Following this, a fierce struggle commenced:  Orthodox bishops were exiled, layfolk were threatened with torture and death for defending or concealing icons, and the blood of martyrs and confessors flowed.

          In the history of the Iconoclast controversy, we see the lamentable results of the disruption of symphonia, the harmony or cooperation that should exist between an Orthodox monarchy and the Church.  The Emperor Leo was a brutal man.  He compelled Jews and Montanist heretics to accept Baptism against their will, to the point of driving them to mass suicide. He espoused a version of caesaropapism, the principle that the state could intervene at will in the Church’s affairs, altering its teaching and liturgical life.  Saint John of Damascus plainly expressed the Church’s response in his second treatise in defense of the holy icons:  “O Emperor, we submit to you in all things of this world, paying taxes and so forth, because these fall within your jurisdiction in the management of terrestrial affairs.  However, we have shepherds who administer the ecclesiastical realm and its institutions.”  It is the responsibility of the imperial authority, not to determine or define the position of the Church, but to carry out the hierarchy’s decisions in such a way as to further the success of Orthodoxy and quelch heresy and impiety.  Indeed, even hierarchs are bound in their resolutions by Holy Tradition and its ultimate defenders, the people of God:  that is, by the laity, monastics, and clergy.

          The Eastern Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem were at that time already under the yoke of the Muslims, which placed them beyond the reach of the ungodly Emperor.  All three rejected Iconoclasm.  Rome and much of Italy, however, still constituted part of the Byzantine Empire.  The Pope at the onset of Iconoclasm was Saint Gregory II, and he, like Saint Germanus, refused to submit to Leo.  Within a year of the issuance of the Emperor’s decree, he convened a local synod confirming the veneration of icons.  Most of the imperial possessions in Italy revolted, and the insurgents declared their intention of placing a different ruler on the Byzantine throne.  So doing, they were not guilty of treason, but were legitimately attempting to preserve the divinely established imperial authority from usurpation by a heretical tyrant.  They did not seek to overthrow God-ordained monarchical rule, as have modern revolutionaries, but sought to rescue the empire from a persecutor of the Church and to set over it a protector of Christ’s inheritance.

          Saint Gregory’s successor Gregory III, a Greek from Syria, convened a second council in Rome which excommunicated the Iconoclasts.  “In the future,” it decreed, “whoever removes, destroys, dishonors, or insults the images of the Saviour; His holy Mother, the supremely glorious Virgin; or the Apostles will be deprived of the Body and Blood of the Saviour and excluded from the Church.”  Gregory III zealously decorated the churches of Rome and defiantly commissioned the painting of numerous icons.  Because the iconoclasts also attacked the veneration of saints, Gregory instituted a special feast for all the Lord’s favorites who until that time were only celebrated locally.

          Iconoclasm reached a frenzy during the reign of Leo’s son Constantine.  An even more fanatical Iconoclast than his father, Constantine was generally known as Copronymus, or “the dung-named,” because during his Baptism he defiled the font with excrement.  The first ten years of his rule were relatively peaceful, since he was busy consolidating his hold on the throne, but then a persecution of the faithful ensued rivaling that of the infamous, wretched Diocletian.  Copronymus convened a synod of Iconoclast bishops who had replaced the Orthodox hierarchs expelled from their sees.  Whoever painted or possessed icons was deprived of his priesthood or, if a layman, excommunicated.  The venerators of icons were turned over to the civil authorities for punishment, and matters of the faith were officially made subject to the jurisdiction of the Emperor.  Saints Germanus and John of Damascus were specifically named in the heretical council’s anathemas.

          Over the past century monastics on Mount Athos and in Greece, Russia, throughout the East, and now in America have all too frequently shown themselves ready to reach accommodation with the bishops and “theologians” who espouse the Papal calendar and the heresy of ecumenism, but in those days the monks were the foremost defenders of Orthodoxy and were fiercely persecuted.  Their heads were shattered against icons; they were sewn into sacks and drowned; they were forced to break their vows; and if they were iconographers, their hands were chopped off or burned.  The Byzantine Empire at that time was full of monks.  It has been estimated that there were about 100,000 of them, whereas by comparison in Russia at the beginning of the last century there were about 40,000 monks and nuns, amid a much larger general population.  During the reigns of the first two iconoclast rulers, as many as 50,000 monks fled to Rome, Southern Italy, and Sicily.  Quite a few of those who went to Rome were iconographers seeking the Pope’s patronage, which is why that city never produced so many works of iconography as during the Iconoclast period.  The Christ-hating Muslims eventually destroyed most of the icons in their realm (except for those on Mount Sinai, which they revered as a holy place), and the emperors destroyed those in Asia Minor and Greece; therefore, our knowledge of Byzantine iconography of the eighth and ninth centuries is largely based on surviving examples in Rome. 

          With Copronymus’ death, the persecution abated.  His son Leo IV, while nominally an iconoclast, was unlettered and indifferent to theological concerns.  Leo IV’s wife Irene secretly held the Orthodox faith and after his death in 780 came to power with her son Constantine, who was still a child.  She set it as her first task to restore Orthodoxy.  Saint Tarasius mounted the patriarchal throne and, with the Empress’ cooperation, prepared to convoke the Seventh Œcumenical Synod.  As soon as the council began its work, the troops in Constantinople revolted, incited by Iconoclast bishops.  The blessed Irene dismissed the hierarchs, quietly replaced the soldiers with others faithful to Orthodoxy, and then reassembled the bishops.  Three hundred and fifty hierarchs participated in the reconvened synod, which was held in the year 787.  Numerous monks, as the foremost guardians of icon veneration, were also in attendance.  The Empress guaranteed the bishops’ freedom to express themselves, and the heretics were invited to explicate their doctrine.  On behalf of the Orthodox, a deacon read a point-by-point refutation.  In the end, the council voted to reestablish the veneration of icons and endorsed a series of steps intended to normalize Church life.

          Unfortunately, twenty-six years after the Seventh Council, there was a resurgence of Iconoclasm.  The Emperor Leo V decided that the heretical rulers had fared better in battle than had the Orthodox, and once more banned the divine images.  Since the contention that icons were idols had already been thoroughly discredited, the iconoclasts did not resurrect it, but this did not mean that the persecutions were any less violent than before.  For twenty-eight years the icons were defiled and the pious subjected to every cruelty.  Finally, the last Iconoclast Emperor, Theophilus, died, leaving his widow, the blessed Theodora, on the throne.  Like Irene, she was a secret venerator of icons.  She found a second Saint Tarasius in the holy Patriarch Methodius.  With his cooperation, she convened a synod in Constantinople that ratified the decisions of the Seventh Council and restored the icons to the churches on the first Sunday of Lent in 843.  It is this restoration that we celebrate yearly on the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

          And so, brothers and sisters, what were the results of the God-defying heresy of Iconoclasm?  Everything that the enemies of Christ could destroy was destroyed, which is why so few icons have survived from pre-Iconoclast times.  Icons were broken, burned, painted over, and subjected to the crudest defilement.  Troops were sent to the most distant provinces to destroy holy images, the Orthodox were banished, imprisoned, tortured, and executed; and their properties and possessions were confiscated.  In short, Iconoclasm was an utter catastrophe.  But as so often in the history of the Church, God turned the evil devised by man to good effect.  The persecutions of the first three Christian centuries resulted in the conversion of the Roman Empire.  Arianism resulted in a fuller understanding of the divinity of the Son of God.  Nestorianism resulted in a more fervent devotion to the Virgin Mary as the most holy Theotokos.  In our own day the pan-heresy of Ecumenism has brought about among the true Orthodox a sharpened awareness of the uniqueness of our Holy Church as opposed to the false-churches of the heterodox.  Before Iconoclasm, the Orthodox were sometimes oblivious to the full importance of sacred art, but the violence of the persecution and the resolution of the confessors made clear for all time the tremendous value and importance of holy icons.  After the era of Iconoclasm, no one faithful to the one holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church could possibly downplay or denigrate the icons as witnesses to the Lord’s Incarnation and to celestial realities, or fail to accord them fitting honor.  In the heat of the fight against blasphemy, the Church found words to give voice to the richness and depth of the teaching always inherent to her but previously not clearly expressed and explicated.  For this we owe a great debt of gratitude to the holy fathers of the Seventh Œcumenical Council and the other defenders of the icons.  Their confession was sealed with the blood of confessors and martyrs and constitutes a precious inheritance for every succeeding generation of the Orthodox.  May this day’s commemoration serve to remind us of how much we owe these blessed fathers; may it remind us not to take for granted any of the treasures of our holy Orthodox faith.  May it teach us, dear Christians, ever to avail ourselves of all the sacred paths and means to holiness handed down by the saints, not the least of which are the divine icons:  those witnesses proclaiming with mighty voice that God has come down, assumed our flesh, and truly become man to save us; those abundantly flowing channels of uncreated grace; those windows wondrously enabling even us, the sinful and defiled and spiritually short-sighted ones, to gaze clearly upon the celestial realm.  Amen.