Orthodox Sunday: Eastern Christians mark anniversary during Lent

Interior of a small church with painted icons on the walls

Painted icons inside the Antiochian Orthodox Mission in Homer, Alaska. Photo by Daniel Hoherd, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, MARCH 9: Increasing numbers of Orthodox Christians are gathering on this, the first Sunday of Lent, to mark the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. Each Sunday during Lent is assigned a specific theme, but this Sunday’s historical significance looms large: celebrating the 787 CE decision of the Seventh Ecumenical Council to uphold the use of holy icons in Orthodox worship (and, of course, the official implementation of the icons back into the Church in 842 CE).

The faithful believe that icons have a sacramental meaning, bringing the holy person depicted into the presence of the believer. Orthodox churches worldwide are decorated with ornately painted icons, and an icon screen separates the sanctuary from the nave of the church. Orthodox homes often have an icon corner, where household members like to pray.

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has posted a column about the observance, including this brief explanation of icons: “Icons are venerated by burning lamps and candles in front of them, by the use of incense and by kissing. But there is a clear doctrinal distinction between the veneration paid to icons and the worship due to God.”

That is an important distinction made more than 1,000 years ago at the 8th Century Seventh Ecumenical Council (also known as the Second Council of Nicaea). Wikipedia has an English translation from the Council’s conclusion on icons: “As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent adoration, not, however, the veritable worship which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone.”

THE SOCHI OLYMPICS
AND FAITH SPIKING IN RUSSIA

All eyes were on Russian athletes during the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, and increasing numbers of Russian athletes were spotted gesturing the Sign of the Cross. That was a sign of the growing influence of the Orthodox Church in Russia.

Pew’s Religion & Public Life Project reports that in 1991, only 31 percent of Russians over the age of 16 identified themselves as Orthodox Christians—but, by 2008, 72 percent of men and women were calling themselves Orthodox. In the same period, the number of adults claiming a belief in God increased from 38 percent to 56 percent. (The Huffington Post and Christianity Today reported.)

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