Today is the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the 7th Œcumenical Council. The feast is kept each year on the Sunday falling on 11 October or next after.
The Council, which was convoked by the Empress Irene and presided over by St Tarasius, Patriarch of Constantinople, met at Nicæa in Bithynia, 24 September–13 October 787. It anathematised the impious and ignorant men who refused to honour the holy icons and accused the Church of idolatry for requiring their veneration, who had persecuted the faithful, especially the pious monks, for over seventy years under the iconoclast emperors Leo the Isaurian and Constantine V Copronymus.
At the conclusion of the Council, the Holy Fathers declared, ‘Just as representations of the holy and life-giving Cross, so should the venerable holy images, as well the image of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, as the images of our immaculate sovereign Lady the Mother of God, of the holy Angels and of all the Saints, whether represented in paint, mosaic or any other appropriate material, be placed in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and vestments, on walls and boards and in the streets … But as incense and candles are offered in honour of the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, of the holy Gospels and of the other sacred things [whose veneration the iconoclasts had permitted], so we do the same in honour of the holy icons, according to the pious custom of the elders. For the ‘honour paid to the image goes up to its prototype’ [quoting St Basil, On the Holy Spirit, cap. 18, para. 45] and whoever venerates an icon thereby venerates the hypostasis who is represented by it. By so doing, we maintain the teaching of our holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church which has proclaimed the Gospel from one end of the world to the other.’
The Synaxarion says, ‘The second Council of Nicæa is the seventh and last Ecumenical Council recognized by the Orthodox Church. This does not mean that there may not be ecumenical Councils in the future, although, in holding the seventh place, the Council of Nicæa has taken upon itself the symbol of perfection and completion represented by this number in holy Scripture [as in the seven days of Creation]. It closes the era of the great dogmatic disputes which enabled the Church to describe, in definitions excluding ambiguity, the bounds of the holy Orthodox faith. From that time, every heresy that appears can be related to one or other of the errors that the Church, assembled in universal Councils, has anathematized from the first until the second Council of Nicæa.’ (Both quotations above from Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra, The Synaxarion, Ormylia, Chalkidike: Convent of the Annunciation, 1998, I, 368–369.)
The Gospel reading for the Feast is, appropriately, Jesus’s parable of the Sower in Luke 8: 5–15: ‘A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold …
‘Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away. And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection. But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.’
The Feast of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Œcumenical Council is commemorated on the Sunday falling on or after 11 October.
The council, which condemned the heresy of iconoclasm, was convoked by the Empress Irene and presided over by St Tarasius, Patriarch of Constantinople. It met at Nicæa in Bithynia from 24 September to 13 October 787. As it was the second œcumenical council to meet there, it is sometimes called ‘II Nicæa.’
The Emperor Leo III the Isaurian had forbidden the veneration of icons in A.D. 730 and was also opposed to monasticism. His son, the Emperor Constantine V Copronymus, summoned a council in Constantinople in 754 under the presidency of Patriarch Constantine of Constantinople that declared images of Christ to be blasphemous, as his divinity could not be represented, and all images, including those of the Mother of God and the saints, to be pagan and idolatrous. It anathematised the defenders of icons, Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople from 715 until deposed by Leo in 730, John Damascene (c. 675–c. 750) and a monk, George of Cyprus. Following this synod, the persecution of iconophiles and monks redoubled.
The Seventh Œcumenical Council confirmed the orthodox teachings of Patriarch Germanus and Saint John Damascene—to claim that the divinity of Christ cannot be iconised is to deny the two Natures in the one Person of the Incarnate Word—and anathematised Anastasius, Constantine and Nicetas, the Patriarchs of Constantinople who had supported iconoclasm.
From the Decree of the Council: ‘… we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospel, a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, that so the incarnation of the Word of God is shewn forth as real and not merely phantastic …
‘We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church … define with all certitude and accuracy that, just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross [the only sacred image allowed by the iconoclasts], so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people.
‘For, by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence, not indeed that true worship of faith which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented.’ (Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, XIV, p. 550.)
Unfortunately, the council did not succeed immediately in putting an end to the iconoclast heresy. The Emperor Leo V the Armenian resumed the persecution of the iconophiles in A.D. 814 and it was not until the Empress Theodora restored the veneration of icons on the first Sunday of Lent in 843, ever after the Feast of Orthodoxy, that the heresy was finally expelled from the Church.
‘The second Council of Nicæa is the seventh and last Ecumenical Council recognized by the Orthodox Church … [I]n holding the seventh place, the Council of Nicæa has taken to itself the symbol of perfection and completeness represented by this number in holy Scripture … It closes the era of the great dogmatic disputes which enabled the Church to describe, in definitions excluding all ambiguity, the bounds of the holy Orthodox Faith. From that time, every heresy that appears can be related to one or another of the errors that the Church, assembled in universal Councils, has anathematized from the first until the second Council of Nicæa.’ (Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra, The Synaxarion (Ormylia, 1998), I, p. 369.)
Seventeenth-century icon of the Seventh Œcumenical Council. The holy fathers are assembled in the nave of the Church of Hagia Sophia in Nicæa, with the Gospel book in their midst. The iconostasis behind them bears the customary icons of Christ and the Mother of God to either side of the Royal Doors and above them the Deesis, the icon of the Mother of God and St John the Forerunner praying to Christ. Above the Deesis in turn is the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove. In the town behind the church are laypeople and monastics with icons on their walls. (Icon of the Novodevichy Convent, Moscow. Photograph from Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain.)
Today, the first Sunday in Great and Holy Lent, the Church commemorates the triumph of Orthodoxy—the restoration of the veneration of icons by the Seventh Œcumenical Council.
The feast was first kept on the first Sunday in Lent, 11 March 843, when the Empress Theodora re-proclaimed the decree of the 7th Œcumenical Council of 787 commanding the veneration of icons, which had been ignored by iconoclast emperors since 814. The restoration of the veneration of icons following the iconoclast controversy has become the type or symbol of the triumph of orthodoxy over heresy.
The iconoclasts claimed that the Mosaic prohibition, ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,’ (Exodus 20: 4) forbade icons.
St John Damascene replied, ‘Human nature was not lost in the Godhead but, just as the Word made flesh remained the Word, so flesh became the Word remaining flesh, becoming, rather, one with the Word through union. Therefore I venture to draw an image of the invisible God, not as invisible but as having become visible for our sakes through flesh and blood. I do not draw an image of the immortal Godhead—I paint the visible flesh of God …’ (First Apology for Images, 5–6)
The iconoclasts, forbidding the iconising of Christ, were denying that Christ had become at once True Man and True God, as was necessary for our salvation. They therefore repudiated the orthodox Christian faith.
Ever since, this day has been kept as the Feast of Orthodoxy. During the Vespers service, icons are carried in procession and the Synodikon of the Seventh Œcumenical Council condemning all heresies is read:
‘As the Prophets beheld, as the Apostles taught, as the Church received, as the Teachers dogmatized, as the Universe agreed, as Grace illumined, as the Truth revealed, as falsehood passed away, as Wisdom presented, as Christ awarded:
Thus we declare, thus we assert, thus we proclaim Christ our true God and honour His saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in holy icons, on the one hand, worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord, and on the other hand honouring and venerating His Saints as true servants of the same Lord.
‘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.’
Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Empress Regent Theodora and her infant son, the Emperor Michael III, are at the top left, St Methodius the Confessor, Patriarch of Constantinople, and monks at the top right. The Hodegetria icon (‘She Who Shows the Way’—the Holy Virgin showing us her Son, an icon believed to have been written originally by St Luke) is between them, held up by two angels. Below, bishops, monks and a nun hold up icons.
(Written c. 1400 and now in the collection of the British Museum. Image from Wikipedia in the public domain.)
Occasional comments by a convert to Orthodoxy.