A SUNDAY SCHOOL LESSON FOR YOUTH
STORY OF THE SUNDAY OF ORTHODOXY
Since the beginning, Orthodox Christians have used icons in worship. What is an icon? An icon is a holy image. How do we use an icon? During prayer, as a reminder of the All-Holy Trinity (God), our Panagia, (the Virgin Mary, Theotokos), of holy people (Saints) or holy events, such as the twelve holy feast days of the Church.
Do we worship icons? No, we don't. We venerate icons, which means we honor them.
Back in the year 726 AD, a heresy arose in the Church. Do you know what a heresy is? A heresy is a wrong teaching. One wrong teaching that arose in the year 726 was known as "iconoclasm." That meant the destruction of icons.
Why did iconoclasm happen? Sadly, because some people thought the Christians were worshiping icons. Even some people who called themselves Christians thought it was wrong to venerate icons. However, to venerate means to respect or honor. It does not mean to worship.
The problem of iconoclasm lasted more than 100 years! Many people who were holy and correct in their thinking about icons were tortured and many died for the sake of venerating icons.
In the year 787, Empress Irene called a council to decide the Church’s teaching about icons. It was decided that the icons should be venerated by all Christians. This decision was made at the Seventh Ecumenical Council.
Some years after this decision, other emperors/empresses came to power and said icons were not to be venerated. The church leaders and the people rebelled and again, many holy people were tortured and killed for believing the right thing about venerating icons.
In the year 829, Emperor Theophilus came to power. He was married to Empress Theodora who was a true Christian woman. She secretly venerated icons. But her husband, Emperor Theophilus persecuted those who honored the icons, putting many into prison and killing others. Near the end of his reign as emperor (about 13 years later), he became very ill and was close to dying.
As her husband lay dying, Empress Theodora fell asleep and had a dream. In her dream she saw the Theotokos holding Christ as a babe in her arms and saw rows of angels whipping and cursing the Emperor. She woke up and heard the emperor crying out, “Woe is me, the wretched one! I am being whipped because of the holy images!”
At once, the Empress took an icon of the Theotokos and placed it upon the emperor and began praying to the Theotokos with tears. Even though the emperor was very ill, he saw someone near him wearing a medallion with an icon on it and he took hold of it and kissed it. At that very moment, he received relief from his suffering and fell into sleep, though before he did, he confessed it was good to honor and venerate the holy icons.
Then the Empress removed all her holy icons from her storage chests in order to kiss and honor them with all her heart and prepared the emperor for his death.
Shortly after the emperor died, Empress Theodora released those who’d been imprisoned or recalled those sent out of the country for the sake of the holy icons and ordered that they be allowed to live in safety. She also appointed a God loving leader known as a patriarch in the Church, one who honored the holy icons, to replace the patriarch her husband had appointed.
Meanwhile, the Empress Theodora and Patriarch Methodios received a visit from a very holy man named Isaiah. He told them that the Lord had a message for them, that those who dishonor the holy icons were to be stopped and that it is proper to honor the holy icons and the Cross. Immediately, the Empress held up the icon of the Mother of God that was hanging about her neck and kissed it saying, “If for love’s sake, anyone does not kiss and venerate these images in a correct manner, not worshipping them as gods, but as images of what they represent, let him be accursed!” And all the God loving Christians, rejoiced!
All the people were happy, but something troubled the Empress. She asked the holy priests to pray for the soul of her husband, Emperor Theophilus. She was worried because of all the terrible things he’d done to destroy the holy icons and to destroy the people who venerated them. So, all throughout the first week of Great Lent, the bishops, priests and people prayed all night for the soul of Emperor Theophilus.
At dawn on the first Friday of Great Lent, Empress Theodora fell asleep and had a dream. She saw men passing in her dream carrying instruments of torture. In the middle of the men, with his hands tied behind his back was Emperor Theophilus. Then she saw a man with a heavenly looking face sitting in front of the icon of Christ and Theophilus stood in front of Him. The Empress touched the man’s feet, pleading with him for the soul of her husband. Then she heard him say, “Great is your faith, woman! Know then, that for the sake of your tears and your faith and for the sake of the intercessions and prayers of my servants and my priests, I grant forgiveness to Theophilus your husband.” Then he said, “Untie him and give him back to his wife.” And she received her husband back in her dream with great happiness and then woke up.
In the meantime, Patriarch Methodius, after all the prayers and intercessions for the Emperor were finished, took a plain piece of paper and wrote the names of all the heretical emperors on it, including Emperor Theophilus. He placed the paper underneath the holy altar in the church. He, too, had a vision on Friday and in it he saw an awesome angel coming toward him at the Royal Doors of the church. The angel said, “Your prayers have been heard, and the Emperor Theophilus has been granted forgiveness. You needn’t trouble God about him any longer.” The Patriarch was amazed at this message and in order to test whether the vision had been true or not, he took the paper from under the altar table and unrolled it. And what do you think he found? The name of Emperor Theophilus was no longer there! God had removed his name from the list!
When Empress Theodora learned of this, she was exceedingly glad. Therefore, on the first Sunday of Great Lent, March 11, 843, she ordered the Patriarch to assemble in the Church all the people with candles, the holy images and precious crosses so that all the holy icons might be restored and that the miracle be made known unto all. So, they made a solemn procession with the holy images and the True Cross and the holy and divine Gospel Book. And every year since then, Orthodox Christians celebrate this holy festival with a procession of icons so that we never again fall into the same error and great sin of dishonoring the holy icons.
And this is the reason why we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Remember to bring your portable icon to the church that day. And remember, too, to always hold your icon carefully and with much respect.