26 February 2023

Eastern Rite - Feasts of 26 February AM 7531

Today is the Sunday of Orthodoxy (the Catholic Faith) commemorating the defeat of the Iconoclastic heresy and the Feast of Our Holy Father Porphyrius, Bishop of Gaza.

The first Sunday of Lent is called the Sunday of Orthodoxy. It is the day we celebrate the return of icons to the churches. Icons were venerated in the Eastern Church until the reign of Leo III (717-741 A.D.) when under the influence of two bishops from Asia Minor; he decreed that the veneration of icons was idol worship. This decree marked the beginning of a long bloody battle against sacred images in the Eastern Church. Icons were destroyed or burned and their defenders cast into prison, exiled and even tortured. This battle lasted, with short intervals of peace, until 842 A.D. when Empress Theodora restored the use and veneration of icons. A synod at Constantinople was convoked which restored the veneration of holy images. The right way to use icons was defined, saying that the icon should be honoured or venerated, but not worshipped as an idol in itself.

“We define that the holy icons, whether in colour, 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 Saviour Jesus Christ, that of our Lady, the Theotokos, those of the venerable angels and those of all saintly people. Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to commemorate and love their prototype. We define also that they should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honour, but not of real worship, which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the divine nature.”

On the first Sunday of the Great Lent, the icons were brought back to the churches in solemn procession. That day is remembered as the triumph of Orthodoxy (Tradition) over the iconoclasts (those who opposed the use of sacred images). Icons are important in that they affirm the dogma of the Incarnation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ—the Word of God made flesh. As this dogma is central to Christianity, the victory over the Iconoclasts came to broadly represent the victory of the true faith over all errors.

The name of this Sunday reflects the great significance that icons possess for the Church. They are not optional devotional extras, but an integral part of our faith and devotion. They are held to be a necessary consequence of Christian faith in the incarnation of the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, in Jesus Christ. They have a sacramental character, making present to the believer the person or event depicted on them. So the interior of our churches is often covered with icons painted on walls and domed roofs, and there is usually an icon screen, or iconostasis, separating the sanctuary from the nave, often with several rows of icons. Many of our homes have an icon corner where the family prays.

Icons are venerated by burning lamps and candles in front of them, by the use of incense and by kissing. But there is a clear doctrinal distinction between the veneration paid to icons and the worship due to God. The former is not only relative; it is in fact paid to the person represented by the icon. This distinction safeguards the veneration of icons from any charge of idolatry.

The theme of the victory of the icons, by its emphasis on the incarnation, points us to the basic Christian truth that the one whose death and resurrection we celebrate at Easter was none other than the Word of God who became human in Jesus Christ.

The heart of Eastern Christianity, the inner mystery of its radiant beauty, the source of its worship and teaching is the glorification of Christ, the living God, through whom we know the Father and from whom we receive the Holy Spirit.

The veneration and the honour that is shown to an icon, an image, goes to its archetype, goes to its prototype. So if the Christian would venerate an icon of Jesus or of some saint or some martyr, the veneration and the honour that would be shown to that person that was depicted would be, obviously—or at least it should be obvious—transferred to the person himself, and in the case of Jesus, this would be to the Lord himself.

We Christians believe that he who sees Jesus sees the Father in him. The Father’s invisible, but he becomes visible in his Son, who is his word, who is his image, who is his wisdom, who is his truth, who is his peace, who is his light, who is his life. He actually becomes flesh and becomes visible. Therefore, when you have an image of Jesus, you have an image of God becoming visible; that in the humanity of Jesus, you are given insight into the invisible character of God. The icon testifies to the incarnation of the Son of God, the real incarnation of the Son of God; that God really became a human being whose image can be depicted.

We really believe in the Incarnation, that the Son of God, who is divine with the same divinity as God the Father, really became a human being, a man just like us, without ceasing to be God. We really believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human in one Person. And therefore, we believe that his image can be painted, and not only painted but venerated and honoured. And as true Christians, we believe that by doing that we are confessing the faith and proclaiming the Gospel of our salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Icons, hymns, prayers, worship and liturgy of the Eastern Church unceasingly focus our attention, our hearts, minds, and spirits on Jesus Christ: His person, redeeming message, and divinity. Icons are windows into that holy realm where God and the saints now dwell. By beholding of the sacred icons, each liturgical year as events are celebrated, we see the unfolding of Our Salvation.

“As the prophets beheld, as the Apostles have taught,… as the Church has received… as the teachers have dogmatized,… as the Universe has agreed,… as Grace has shown forth,… as Truth has revealed,… as falsehood has been dissolved,… as Wisdom has presented,… as Christ Awarded,… thus we declare,… thus we assert,… thus we preach Christ our true God, and honor as Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy Icons; on the one hand worshiping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord; and on the other hand honoring as true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them veneration. This is the Faith of the Apostles, —this is the Faith of the Fathers, —this is the Faith of the Orthodox…”
Affirmation of Orthodox Faith
Synod of Constantinople
March 11, 843

Troparion — Tone 2

We venerate Your most pure image, O Good One, / and ask forgiveness of our transgressions, O Christ God. / Of Your own will You were pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh / to deliver Your creatures from bondage to the enemy. / Therefore with thanksgiving we cry aloud to You: / You have filled all with joy, O our Savior, / by coming to save the world.

Kontakion — Tone 8

No one could describe the Word of the Father; / but when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos, He accepted to be described, / and restored the fallen image to its former state by uniting it to divine beauty. / We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images.

Saint Porphyrius, Archbishop of Gaza, was born about the year 346 at Thessalonica. His parents were people of substance, and this allowed Saint Porphyrius to receive a fine education. Having the inclination for monastic life, he left his native region at twenty-five years of age and set off for Egypt, where he lived in the Nitrian desert under the guidance of Saint Macarius the Great (January 19). There he also met Saint Jerome (June 15), who was then visiting the Egyptian monasteries. He went to Jerusalem on pilgrimage to the holy places, and to venerate the Life-Creating Cross of the Lord (September 14), then he moved into a cave in the Jordanian wilderness for prayer and ascetic deeds.

After five years, Saint Porphyrius was afflicted with a serious malady of the legs. He decided to go to the holy places of Jerusalem to pray for healing. As he lay half-conscious at the foot of Golgotha, Saint Porphyrius fell into a sort of trance. He beheld Jesus Christ descending from the Cross and saying to him, “Take this Wood and preserve it.”

Coming out of his trance, he found himself healthy and free from pain. Then he gave away all his money to the poor and for the adornment of the churches of God. For a time he supported himself by working as a shoemaker. The words of the Savior were fulfilled when the saint was forty-five years old. The Patriarch of Jerusalem ordained Saint Porphyrius to the holy priesthood and appointed him custodian of the Venerable Wood of the Cross of the Lord.

In 395 the bishop of the city of Gaza (in Palestine) died. The local Christians went to Caesarea to ask Metropolitan John to send them a new bishop who would be able to contend against the pagans, which were predominant in their city and were harassing the Christians there. The Lord inspired the Metropolitan to summon the priest Porphyrius. With fear and trembling the ascetic accepted the office of bishop, and with tears, he prostrated himself before the Life-Creating Wood and went to fulfil his new obedience.

In Gaza, there were only three Christian churches, but there were a great many pagan temples and idols. During this time there had been a long spell without rain, causing a severe drought. The pagan priests brought offerings to their idols, but the woes did not cease. Saint Porphyrius imposed a fast for all the Christians; he then served an all-night Vigil, followed by a church procession around the city. Immediately the sky was covered over with storm clouds, thunder boomed, and abundant rains poured down. Seeing this miracle, many pagans cried out, “Christ is indeed the only true God!” As a result of this, 127 men, thirty-five women and fourteen children were united to the Church through Holy Baptism, and another 110 men soon after this.

The pagans continued to harass the Christians. They passed them over for public office and burdened them with taxes. Saint Porphyrius and Metropolitan John of Caesarea journeyed to Constantinople to seek redress from the emperor. Saint John Chrysostom (September 14, January 27 and 30) received them and assisted them.

Saints John and Porphyrius were presented to the empress Eudoxia who was expecting a child at that time. “Intercede for us,” said the bishops to the empress, “and the Lord will send you a son, who shall reign during your lifetime”. Eudoxia very much wanted a son, since she had given birth only to daughters. Through the prayer of the saints, an heir was born to the imperial family. As a result of this, the emperor issued an edict in 401 ordering the destruction of pagan temples in Gaza and the restoration of privileges to Christians. Moreover, the emperor gave the saints money for the construction of a new church, which was to be built in Gaza on the site of the chief pagan temple.

Saint Porphyrius upheld Christianity in Gaza to the very end of his life and guarded his flock from the vexatious pagans. Through the prayers of the saint, numerous miracles and healings occurred. The holy archpastor guided his flock for twenty-five years and reposed in 420 at an advanced age.

Troparion — Tone 4

Adorned with the royal purple of your virtues, / you were glorious as a hierarch and shone forth resplendently, wise Porphyrius. / You were excellent in word and deed / and you strengthen all with the grace of godliness. / As you ever serve Christ, do not cease to pray for the world.

Kontakion — Tone 2

You were adorned by your holy way of life / and were resplendent in the robe of the priesthood, all-blessed, divinely-wise Porphyrius. / You are famous for your powers of healing / and you unceasingly pray for us all.

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