The word anathema means severance, rejection. When the Church anathematizes a teaching, it means that that teaching contains blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and for the sake of salvation it should be rejected and removed, as poison is removed from food.
I am happy to have the opportunity to conclude the first week of Great Lent with the solemn All-Night Vigil in Sretensky Monastery. This was a very special week, particularly for those who were able to attend church. But even for those who were not able, the very remembrance, the very thought that we have entered the arena of the Holy Forty Days Fast has undoubtedly left a beneficial mark upon our thoughts and deeds. It is during the first week of Great Lent that many people make important decisions to change in their lives.
The Iconoclasts, by repudiating all representations of God, failed to take full account of the Incarnation. They fell, as so many puritans have done, into a kind of dualism. Regarding matter as a defilement, they wanted a religion freed from all contact with what is material; for they thought that what is spiritual must be non-material. But this is to betray the Incarnation, by allowing no place to Christ’s humanity, to His body; it is to forget that man’s body as well as his soul must be saved and transfigured.
But again, the celebration is about more than just the restoration and veneration of holy icons; it is a celebration of the victory of the Orthodox Faith itself. That is to say, it is a victory of both right-belief in (and right-worship of) our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Really, did the Lord Jesus Christ, who we glorify amd who we venerate in icons, not living among us? Did the Virgin Mary, who was painted by the apostle and evangelist Saint Luke not live among us? This icon was blessed by the very Theotokos herself, saying that grace would always be with this icon. Do you know how many miracles happen from icons of the Virgin Mary?
An icon celebrating the veneration of icons, the Triumph of Orthodoxy is the festal icon for the first Sunday of Great Lent. As Lent is a period of communal fasting which continues for seven weeks, such triumphalism early on is understandable: it helps to strengthen the faithful for the coming days.
Were those anathemas, as many suppose, condemnations? No. In a condemnation there is hatred, and a desire for revenge and destruction. Here, though, is what was being clearly confessed: The Church did not condemn, but simply separated from its midst those who did not see themselves as belonging to it, those who refused to accept its teachings. Those who do not believe as the Church teaches, are separated from it, are alien to it, are "anathema," "set aside," but they can always be received again, should they recognize their error and return to Orthodox teachings.
We are walking through Great Lent. And its first Sunday is dedicated to the dogma of the veneration of icons. As if it were the most important thing in Great Lent, as if it were the main theme and the first discovery we make after the first week of a very strict fast. Why? What is the connection between these phenomena?
My dears, our friends, children of God, children of the holy Orthodox Church! Today is a special day—the day of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the day of the triumph of the Holy Orthodox, Catholic, and Apostolic Church; of the Heavenly Church Triumphant and the earthly Church Militant.
The Triumph of Orthodoxy is in that the gates of Hell, as the Lord foretold, have not overcome the Church He created, although the powers of evil have sought for these past 2,000 years to destroy it. They still have not given up their insane hope for it. But the Church of Christ lives, and is even growing before our eyes. People pray, confess, commune, baptize their children, venerate its sacred objects, and are saved. It’s a great Triumph!
The way to find joy is not by imagining that we can run away from our problems. It is, instead, to find healing for our souls, which means becoming more beautiful living icons of Christ in the midst of life as we know it.
You know, there were kings, and bishops, and other people who believed that icons were not befitting of the Orthodox Church. Perhaps these bishops and kings wanted to remove the icons from the Church to easily attract Muslims, who had no icons, and Jews to Christianity. Meanwhile, brothers and sisters, there were icons in the Church from the very beginning.
But what we profess is not a philosophy, even if (in the hands of some) it has become an ideology. What we profess is not mere history. What we profess is human history transformed and transfigured to become Holy Tradition, the Voice of the Holy Spirit leading the Church from generation to generation.
Lent is a time for us to become much more conscientious about what impressions we allow to be made on our souls. What do we watch? What do we listen to? Do these things befit our dignity as human beings? Are we cleansing and adorning the image of God within us, or are we obscuring and damaging it?
Just as we were made in the image and likeness of God, our Lenten struggles are our attempt to cooperate with the grace of God to restore that likeness which was distorted by sin. We can aspire to that which is heavenly because the Infinite One has borne our lowliness and enables us to descend and ascend to and from the heavens on Him.
Why do we love Orthodoxy and the Orthodox Church? During the days of His earthly life, pious listeners, our Lord Jesus Christ united around Himself all those who believed in Him, and among these believers He drew the apostles particularly close to Himself.