Friday, February 24, 2023

The Sunday of Orthodoxy

As we approach the First Sunday of Lent, we are happy to share this article by Fr Deacon Philip Gilbert on the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy in the Byzantine tradition. Father Philip is a deacon of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church; we have previously published his articles on the week preceding Great Lent, and on the first ceremony of Lent in the Byzantine Rite, Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday. We also published photographs and a video of his subdiaconal ordination in 2018.

In the Byzantine tradition, the first Sunday of the Great Fast was at one time the commemoration of the holy prophets, but in contemporary usage it is known as the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy and commemorates the restoration of the icons in the year 843. Iconoclasm began with the emperor Leo the Isaurian who, in 726 “inaugurated imperial support for iconoclasm.. and in 730 convoked a silention to ratify an edict condemning icons.” [1] To put it briefly, the iconoclasts held that the veneration of icons was idolatry, since these were only boards and paint. This position become increasingly popular, and the topic was hotly debated, to say the least, sparking two councils: the iconoclast Council of Constantinople (claiming to be the seventh ecumenical council) in 754 which anathematized iconophiles [2], and the Seventh Ecumenical Council (II Nicaea) in 787, sponsored by the Empress Irene, which defended the veneration of icons. Part of the text of II Nicaea reads:
We, having received the grace and strength of the Spirit, and having also the assistance and co-operation of your royal authority, have with one voice declared as piety and proclaimed as truth: that the sacred icons of our Lord Jesus Christ are to be had and retained, inasmuch as he was very man; also those which set forth what is historically narrated in the Gospels; and those which represent our undefiled Lady, the holy Mother of God; and likewise those of the Holy Angels (for they have manifested themselves in human form to those who were counted worthy of the vision of them), or of any of the Saints. [We have also decreed] that the brave deeds of the Saints be portrayed on tablets and on the walls, and upon the sacred vessels and vestments, as has been the custom of the holy Catholic Church of God from ancient times; which custom was regarded as having the force of law in the teaching both of those holy leaders who lived in the first ages of the Church, and also of their successors our reverend Fathers. [We have likewise decreed] that these images are to be reverenced (προσκυνεῖν), that is, salutations are to be offered to them. The reason for using the word is, that it has a two-fold signification. For κυνεῖν in the old Greek tongue signifies both to salute and to kiss. [3]
A Greek icon of the late 14th or early 15th century, representing the restoration of the icons, with the Empress St Theodora, her young son Michael III, and the Father of the Second Council of Nicea. From the icon collection of the British Museum.
Despite II Nicaea definitively defending the veneration of the icons, a second period of iconoclasm began in 814, again initiated by the ruling emperor, this time Leo the Armenian. It wasn’t until 843 that Theodora (regent for the emperor Michael III in his minority) presided over the Synod of Constantinople and ended the iconoclast controversy. After the first session of the synod, there was a triumphant procession from the church of Blachernae, the city’s most important Marian shrine to Hagia Sophia, restoring the icons to the church buildings. This took place on the first Sunday of the Great Fast, and it was decreed that this would be commemorated every year on the anniversary of the feast, named the “Sunday of Orthodoxy.” The icon of the Restoration of the Holy Icons depicts this triumphant procession with the icons.
The hymnography of the services of this Sunday (which are contained in the Triodion, the collection of liturgical texts for Forelent, Lent and Holy Week) expound the theology of the defense of the icons, and revel in their veneration. The troparion of the feast very pointedly says: “We venerate Thy holy ikon, loving Lord, asking Thee to pardon our transgressions, Christ our God. For Thou of Thine own will wast pleased in the flesh to ascend upon the Cross, so to deliver from the bondage of the enemy those whom Thou has fashioned. Therefore in thanksgiving we cry aloud to Thee: Thou has filled all things with joy, our Saviour, when Thou hast come to save the world.” [4] A sticheron at Vespers is even more explicit: “The grace of truth has shone forth upon us… for behold, the Church is clothed in a beauty that surpasses all things earthly, through the ikon of the incarnate Christ that was foreshadowed by the ark of testimony. This is the safeguard of the Orthodox faith; for if we hold fast to the ikon of the Saviour whom we worship, we shall not go astray. Let all who do not share this faith be covered with shame; but we shall glory in the ikon of the Word made flesh, which we venerate but worship not as an idol. So let us kiss it, and with all the faithful cry aloud: O God, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance.” [5] Another from the aposticha at Vespers says: “Advancing from ungodliness to the true faith, and illumined with the light of knowledge… with due honor let us venerate the holy ikons of Christ, of the all-pure Virgin and the saints, whether depicted on walls, on wooden panels or on holy vessels, rejecting the impious teaching of the heretics. For, as Basil says, the honour shown to the ikon passes to the prototype it represents...” [6]
This video was made at the Lavra of the Dormition in Univ, Ukraine, about 30 miles east of L’viv, on the evening before Orthodoxy Sunday, 2021; Vespers, which include the texts cited above, begins at 11:25 (None is said before, and Compline after.)  
There is a tradition that on this day, the faithful come to church with icons, and hold them throughout the services. Furthermore, the Sunday of Orthodoxy is often celebrated with a procession, usually around the church, each person triumphantly holding their icon, in commemoration of the triumphant procession to Hagia Sophia in 843. Sometimes in Slavic churches this is accompanied by the prayer for the blessing of icons and sprinkling them with holy water. (Greeks do not bless icons this way).
Orthodoxy Sunday procession at the Univ Lavra; reproduced from their Facebook page.
Yet the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” in this Sunday is not limited to the triumph over the iconoclasts. Archbishop Job Getcha comments that “we should not forget that, after the victory of the hesychasts in 1351, the Sunday of Orthodoxy took on an additional meaning. It commemorated not only the victory over iconoclasm, but the victory over all heresies, including the victory of the hesychast monks over their enemies.” [7]
This additional meaning is especially apparent in those places where the Synodikon of Orthodoxy is read in conjunction with the festal procession. This is the decree of the Council of II Nicaea, which proclaimed its decisions and definitions regarding the veneration of icons, and anathematized the heretics, not only the iconoclasts, but also Arius, Eutyches, Nestorius, and others. [8]
The ceremonial reading of the Synodikon varies in structure from place to place, but generally includes: the singing of “Memory Eternal” to the defenders and teachers of the faith who have gone before us, as well as “Many years” to the current civil authorities and hierarchs; the recitation of the Nicaeo-Constantinopolitan Symbol of Faith with the beginning “We believe” as at the Council: and, the proclamation of anathemas of various heresies and heretics.
The Anathema Service at Holy Transfiguration Greek Catholic Church in McLean, Virginia, on Orthodoxy Sunday of 2019.
The service of the proclamation of the Synodikon has somewhat lost its popularity, or perhaps has just been forgotten, in the Greco-Catholic Churches. However, the text of it can be found in various places, specifically in Greek in the 1879 Vatican edition of the Triodion, in Church Slavonic in the 1740 edition of the archieratikon from the Univ monastery in Ukraine, as well as the 1716 edition of the same from Suprasl in what is now Poland. These latter two, being Uniate Ruthenian editions, even anathematize such figures as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli “and their disciples”.
The Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy celebrates the victory of the Church and Her teaching over the lies and destruction of the heretics. Byzantine Christians revel in their icons, covering nearly every inch of their churches with the likenesses of the Saints and the saving acts of God. Since God became man and took on flesh, we are able to depict Him and know Him. And since we can know Him, we can know what He taught us and has passed on to us by way of the holy Apostles and Fathers. This, too, we celebrate on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, repeating the anathemas of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. While the proclamation of anathemas may strike some as odd, in today’s politically correct and high-tolerance world it is rather a refreshing thing to hear, reminding us that truth exists, and the teachings of the Gospel are not relative.
[1] “Leo III” in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) 1208. Available at
[2] The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, trans H. R. Percival, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace, (repr. Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), XIV, pp 543-44. Available at
[3] “Second Council of Nicæa” on New Advent,
[4] The Lenten Triodion, Trans. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, (South Canaan, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1994), 302.
[5] Triodion, 300.
[6] Triodion, 301.
[7] Archbishop Job Getcha, The Typikon Decoded, (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2012), 185.
[8] “The Decree” in “Second Council of Nicæa” on New Advent,

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