No one could describe the Word of the Father; but when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos, He accepted to be described.
(Kontakion for the Sunday of Orthodoxy)
Today the Orthodox throughout the world celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy over the last of the great heresies.
A heresy is a deviation from the truth of the faith. Orthodoxy does not have an official compendium of doctrines apart from the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed proclaimed by the first two Ecumenical Councils of 325 and 381. However, this Creed lays the groundwork for a consistent and excellent perspective on who God is and what He does for His creation. God is proclaimed to be perfectly One. He is the Father. Also He eternally begets the Son, who is true God of true God, the divine Person concretely incarnate within space and time as Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, the Christ.
Jesus is one divine Person in whom the divine and human natures are in perfect union, yet unmixed but distinct. It is this, Orthodoxy joyfully proclaims, which saves us. The Son of God has lovingly accepted to be fully incarnate as human, thereby linking with divinity the humanity we share with Him as a result of this Incarnation, for He always remains true God of true God. It is this which opens the way to Paradise for us. It is this which makes it possible for us to grow towards the potential with which God created us, to become like our Creator, gods by grace as He is God by nature.
This truth is beyond rational understanding, for it links humanity—a profound mystery in itself—with divinity, which is infinitely beyond human understanding. It must be accepted by a loving and wondering faith—and then it sheds a radiant light on all that is around the believer. We see our source and our destination as the ineffable love of God. We see the path which we must travel, as well as our sometimes dismal failure to do so. We see the inexhaustible forgiveness, direction, encouragement, and strength which are always so generously extended to us by God—so that we may rise each time we fall, return each time we stray, and keep on pressing forward to our high calling.
Yet the human mind, bound up as it is in external realities, captivated by the sense of its own ingenuity, keeps on trying to make rational that which is beyond reason (but is not, for all that, unreasonable). And so it became necessary to defend this truth and, in so defending, find the words to express it as appropriately as could be—usually by paring away statements that did not portray it very well. Thus, even though the previous Councils had proclaimed the truth that Jesus is perfectly human as well as perfectly divine, some churchmen who gained the ear of the Emperor, Leo the Isaurian (685-741), were of the mind that one could not portray the Lord in images, because one could portray only the human nature and not the divine, and therefore such images or icons would divide the indivisible Christ.
Yet one of the characteristics of a true human being is that he or she can be portrayed and described in words and in images. To say that this could not be done in Jesus’ case was, in effect, to deny that He was truly human—that He must always and forever be beyond true humanity. It would follow that He did not truly unite with our human nature and could not truly identify with and have compassion towards us. In other words His Incarnation would not save us, but simply give us another reason to worship and adore Him and forever yearn for, and—since we are fallen and unable to save ourselves—never truly attain union with Him, never truly attain peace and harmony, never regain the Paradise which, although created for us, would forever remain tantalizingly closed to us.
For more than a hundred years the Orthodox prayed, meditated, suffered, and finally received the full victory of the joyous truth: Jesus is indeed truly human as well as truly divine. He can indeed—as can all of His people and His angels—be portrayed in icons, in the particular style developed to do so which intends to convey both His humanity and His divinity. He has truly come to us, to be with us, to raise us up from our tombs and bring us to Paradise.
This final victory was celebrated on the first Sunday of the Great Fast at the command of the Empress Theodora in 843 (some sources say 842), and the Orthodox have celebrated it ever since. There were times when, for political reasons, anathemas against heretics, real or perceived, were also proclaimed at such celebrations. This is usually no longer the case. Instead the Orthodox in many cities gather together in one temple, celebrate a special Vespers, and walk in a triumphal procession holding up icons.
We thank God for His wonderful mercy towards us, for His unfailing and unfathomable love, and we dedicate ourselves to becoming ever better icons of His infinite glory, power, and love.
This reflection appeared originally on the website of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada and is republished with the author’s permission.
Father Ihor Kutash is the pastor of St. Mary the Protectress Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Montreal QC.