SERMON ON THE FATHERS OF THE 7th ECUM. COUNCIL
“Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you. Follow their faith!...Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:7-8).
In the reading from Hebrews, today, St Paul is exhorting the community of Jewish Christians to “remember,” that is, “pay attention to” or “obey” their leaders. The Greek word here for “leaders” is “ἡγουμένων.” For Orthodox Christians, it is common knowledge that the word “игумен” (Igumen) in Russian, or “ἡγούμενος” (Igoumenos) in Greek, refers to the spiritual head of a community of monastics. But at the time that St. Paul was writing, it meant the spiritual heads of the churches – the Bishops. He is telling the Jewish Christians to rely on what the Bishops are teaching them and to be obedient to their instructions. “Follow their faith” he says, because what they believe and what they teach comes directly from the Apostles including himself, and the teaching of the Apostles comes directly from our Lord Jesus Christ! The Bishops are the New Sowers, casting the seed of the Word of God throughout the whole world. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever!” Not only is Christ Himself unchanging, but the doctrine, the teaching about Christ is equally unchanging and unchangeable. This is what the Orthodox Church confesses. False bishops and impious emperors are false sowers, wolves in sheep’s clothing, who scatter seeds of death and corruption. Our Orthodox “Christology,” is unwavering and immutable, and the doctrine of the Incarnation occupies a central position in the teaching of the Orthodox Church. According to Orthodox Faith, Jesus is SO much more than merely a righteous man or a holy prophet, or a great teacher. He is the "Son of God who became the Son of Man.” The doctrine of the Incarnation is an expression of the Church's experience of Christ. In Him, the fulness of divinity is united with the fulness of humanity, without changing, altering or confusing either. Jesus Christ is truly God who shares in the same essence as the Father and the Spirit, and He is truly man who shares in the same essence with us. In One Christ, the Divine is united to the human, In One Christ, Heaven is united to earth.
For the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in Nicaea in 787, the task was a simple one – preserve, intact, the Apostolic teaching of the Incarnation of Christ. This was the problem: Islam was sweeping across the Middle East and the eastern mediterranean world, and with it came its hatred of the Holy Icons. This demonic teaching began to influence even some Christians who bought into the idea that God could not be depicted, in keeping with the Old Testament’s Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5). This influence infected the Assyrian Christians early on, and continues to infect many Protestant sects today. The problem with this teaching is the New Testament Christ, Who was God from the beginning, whom now “we have heard (with our ears), and seen with our eyes...and our hands have handled,” as the Apostle John testifies (See 1 John 1:1). Images of any kind were forbidden in the Old Testament because God was invisible. Any image would be a false image, a lie, an invitation to the devil, the father of lies. But the revealed God-man could be depicted. In fact, St. Luke the Evangelist was the first to paint an image of Christ and His Most pure Mother, and he did so many times!
In addition to depicting the Incarnation, the holy icons are, themselves, spirit-bearing matter, windows to the Kingdom, and a union of heavenly and earthly. Hence, the holy fathers of the Seventh Council declared: “We decree that the holy icons, whether in paint, mosaic, or some other material, should be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and liturgical vestments, on the walls, furnishings, and in houses and along the roads, namely the icons of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, that of our Lady the Theotokos, those of the venerable angels and of all the saints. Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to remember and love their prototype. We decree also that they should be kissed and that they should be objects of honor and veneration (τιμή και προσκύνησης), but not of the kind of worship (λατρεία), which is reserved for God alone, Who is the subject of our faith and is proper only to the divine nature... Honor shown to the icon is, in effect, transmitted to the prototype. He who venerates the icon, venerates, in reality, the one represented.”
So today we honor those champions of our faith, the restorers of the holy icons, and the defenders of the doctrine of the Incarnation, the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. May God, through their prayers, grant us the grace to, likewise, be confessors and defenders of the Incarnation of Christ, to whom be glory, honor and worship forever. Amen.