The seventh ecumenical council
The 7th Ecumenical Council was held in Nicaea between September 24 and October 13, in 787 A.D. (Asia Minor -Turkey today) .The Empress sponsored the Council being the guardian of her minor son Constantine who was less than 10 years old.
The Patriarch Tarasius (of Constantinople) presided over the Council. Legates of Pope Adriano and the Patriarchs of (Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem) attended the Council. The number of participants was 376, besides many monks.
The main objective of the Council was to explain the Church attitude towards the “veneration of the Holy Icons” on the basis of previous councils, besides the teachings of the Holy Fathers. The restoration of the Holy Icons is the core of the church life.
The official attitude of the church was affected by the civil authorities who had banned the veneration of icons rather tried hard to confiscate them and later to destroy them and prosecute those who defended them, and were in favor of them.
It is noteworthy here, to say, that persecutions had started with a decree issued by the emperor Leo iii in 725 and continued under his reign, until 741.
During the reign of his son Constantine v (741- 775) consecutive persecutions in that time, led to the emergence of martyrs, and other people who suffered from torture, and even, from exile.
The Council consisted of eight sessions, and legislated 22 canons .It also received some heretical bishops who came to the Fathers of the Council expressing deep repentance .Besides, It (the Fathers of the Council), excommunicated the heretical patriarchs ,in the council held in Hungary in 745 as well, praising the Fathers who defended the Orthodox Faith.
Among the results of this Council, regarding the attitude towards Icons, are the following: “We maintain all the traditions of the Church, up to the present day, without change or moderation. Among these traditions, the pictures(images) that represent people .This is from different aspects, a useful tradition, since it displays that the incarnation of the Word, our God, is real, not imaginary or illusionary. For icons, despite the signs and clarifications they possess, can arouse noble feelings and sentiments in us. Thus, this Council showed clearly, the Theology of the Icon in its final form.
We commemorate the Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council on the Sunday between 11 and 18 October.
The iconoclast period went on for 120 years .Many Icons were destroyed or burnt, besides much bloodshed that monks and faithful laymen suffered from because they defended, with all their might, the Theology of the Icon which is deeply associated with the divine incarnation”.
There are many reasons behind this bloody persecution; some are from within the church, and some others are from without, associated with external factors and other opposing beliefs too. But all these reasons and factors, can be reduced to one single reason associated with rejecting Christ’s Incarnation, namely that God became a man like us. Consequently breaking our salvation, because the whole thing is from the Evil one.
The Iconoclast war was divided into two main phases or periods:
The First Period:
This started in 726 A.D. and went on until 787 A.D. when Leo iii the emperor attacked the Icons , banned using them ,and burnt them , damaged them , destroying every icon his soldiers could reach wherever they went; he even persecuted and killed the Christians who rebelled against his will .The First phase ended under empress Irene .
Because of these events, the seventh ecumenical Council was held in 787, in Nicaea .367 bishops were present. The Council proclaimed the veneration of the Holy Icons, for they are associated with the Mystery of Incarnation.
The second period:
This started 813 and ended in 842 A.D. after the death of Theophilus the emperor who fought against the veneration of Icons. Under Empress Theodora, the war against the veneration of the Holy Icons stopped, and this was counted as second triumph.
The Church reaction:
We worship Christ, but we venerate the saints on top of who is the Theotokos, the Mother of God. Consequently, we do not venerate the matter (wood or stone), but only the person represented on them. In other words, we venerate what the Icon represents.
It is impossible to draw God because he is inconceivable and unattainable, but because he became man like us, and lived among us, we can draw or paint God who can be seen by the eye. We do not worship the matter, but its Creator who became matter, for our sake.
“St. John of Damascus says:”as being born from the Father, he is unpaintable, for it is impossible for him to be drawn or pictured”. Whereas, Christ is born from a mother who is a virgin, this makes him paintable, for he can have a picture similar to that of his mother (St. Theodor the Studite).
- God said in his Commandments not to make a form or picture of him because he is invisible.
- Icon veneration is absurd because it means worshipping matter.
Why did the Church specify the First Sunday of the Great Lent for the Orthodox Faith (the right faith)?
It is because if our Dogma were wrong, fasting would be useless, and abstaining from food would be in vain. The right faith is the beginning of the Christian Life, its criterion and continuity, as well.
The feast was established in 842 after the Iconoclasts had been defeated. On the First Sunday of the Great Lent an official statement used to be read (Synodicon), where the heretics were excommunicated upon hearing their names.
Christians believed that man should confess his faith, for confession of faith is a duty, a need, Martyria, and even faithfulness.
What do we celebrate?
On the First Sunday of the Great Lent, we celebrate our Orthodoxy which is the Church of the Fathers, Martyrs, and all the pious members. We celebrate what the prophets had prophesied; We celebrate the Teachings we had received from the Apostles ,and which had been written by the Holy Fathers, and had been approved of, by the whole universe, by which it remained Orthodox and right ,and revealed the Truth received from the Lord Jesus Christ, for the whole world.
The Holy Tradition:
In the 4th Ecumenical Council (451), the Fathers clearly and obviously defined the Church Tradition & Life by which I mean the Orthodox Teachings. The Church lives her tenets and doctrines as a faith we received from the Lord Jesus Christ. She (the Church) proclaims Christ through Oral and Written teachings .She proclaims the Lord Jesus Christ through the Divine Liturgy as workshop, and through the Holy Sacraments too. The Church considers the Holy Tradition “the precious treasure”, which she lives and experiences on the basis of the apostolic faith, the Holy Fathers, and all the Orthodox faithful (the members of the body of Christ). By the Orthodox teachings, the Church tries to uncover all the realities of faith, proclaiming to the whole world bravely and courageously that Christ is the real God whom she adores and worships.
The Church teaches us to venerate all the saints on top of who is the Mother of God (the Theotokos) for the sanctity of her Life, and for the faithfulness of their words, their works, and for the sacrifices they exerted amidst the Church. She offers them and their Icons proper veneration. Whereas worship, is restricted to the Lord Jesus Christ. Christians have been sanctified by Christ, and to Christ they have laid down their lives, for he is all in all.
On this Sunday, the Church shows her responsibility before God, History, and the whole community of believers, and assures that her faith in reality is the same faith the apostles had with the Holy Fathers and the whole Church. For she is the only one capable of interpreting the Holy Bible in a way based on Life and experience, referring to the Holy Fathers who understood the Bible through the same Spirit that inspired those who wrote it and lived it and have been sanctified by it, with the Grace of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Fathers are her priority in interpreting the Holy Bible “because the spiritual one can judge in everything” (1 Cor 2: 15) as the apostle says.
The Triumph of Orthodoxy:
Today, it is a day of triumph; it is the triumph of real faith over the deadly false teaching. This Triumph has started ever since the Incarnation of God and his becoming a man like us, where the Divine Nature and the Human One, united. This reality is referred to in the Troparion of the Feast of Annunciation”………….” which is followed by the death of Christ and his Resurrection.
Our Joy in the Resurrection of Christ from the Dead is equal to our Joy of the Triumph of Orthodoxy over the false teachings. As every Christian celebrates the Resurrection of the Lord from the Dead, so does he celebrate the Triumph of his Orthodoxy over the out spread of false teachings that ruin Life? The Lord said:” …………..”(Mathew 24: 35). And he said to Peter:”you are the Rock and on a strong faith like this one I build my Church, and death itself will not be able to dominate it. ” (Mathew 16: 17 – 18).
This is our faith which is supported by the presence of Christ amidst his Church. He himself protects her.
The texts that are recited or sung in the morning or evening prayers, this Sunday, emphasize the reality of the Divine Incarnation. The Incarnated Christ and Lord is the Essential and Original Pattern of all the Icons. Some excerpts of the Triodion express the deep sense of Veneration, given to these Icons. The Glorified Saints were living Icons to God, nevertheless they are far from perfect. They have become Icons on the likeness of the Prototype, the Incarnated Christ. This is the meaning of “Icon”, in Greek, a pattern of the Prototype. That is why we say the Icon is written not drawn; it is written in spirit to become living like Christ who was incarnated by the Holy Spirit, and by the most Holy the Virgin Mary according to what we say in the Creed. And during the Divine Liturgy of this Sunday we hear the inspired writer in the Epistle to the Hebrews where he describes the sufferings of Moses, David, and the Fathers of Israel, and its Martyrs. Those were drawn pictures not on pieces of wood, but in flesh. They represented the Prototype the person of the savior, and foretold of him
The gospel read this Sunday expresses the Orthodox Faith when it says “from now on you see the heavens open and the angels of God ascend and descend on the son of man”.
“. If our Lord is the bridge between Heaven & Earth, this means he is the only & real God. For this reason the Apostle Philips leads Nathanael to Jesus to become Jesus’ disciple.
It is a turning point in Nathanael’s Life, so is it in the Life of each one of us. In moments where we are lying under the fig tree. They could be hard moments in which Jesus saw us without being seen, and interfered, and knocked at our door, expecting our answer.
Let’s lift our Icons high, crying in loud voices:
“This is our faith, and we are going to protect it forever.”
“Orthodoxy” is an old term; it means “Right Doxology”, namely, “The Right Belief”, or “The Right Faith”.
The Faith of our Holy Fathers which they received from the Apostles, and the Apostles from the Lord Jesus Christ, and continues in the Church, unto ages of ages by the Holy Spirit, has been translated into prayers , chanting, sermons, and hymns, all of which manifest the Holy Tradition.
The Holy Tradition consists equally of the Bible, Liturgics, and the teachings of the Holy Fathers.
If we compare “Dogma” to prayers, and the Holy Bible, we find they are one. This is manifested clearly in the 7 Ecumenical Councils, and in the Life of the Church as a whole.
In fact, rejecting the Holy Icons was not born right away, for in the 4th century, the Elvira Council, a local one, alluded to that. Eusebius of Caesarea (strongly tending to Arianism), is a church historian, who sees that the veneration of Icons (the Lord’s, Peter’s, Paul’s), was a custom observed by the gentiles in the 4th century.
In the 4th century (St. Epiphanius of Cyprus) tore a curtain in a church in Palestine, because it had an image of the Lord with a saint’s, on it.
In the 5th century Khinaeas the bishop of (Manbej) 488 was against icons, before his ordination.
This was all under Arian influence where the Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ is rejected, and Christ himself is believed to be mere creature. Arianism refuses the Incarnation of God.
In the 6th century Agathias tried hard to protect the icon of St. Michel against his opponents. About the end of the century 599 bishop Serenius of Marseille, forbade the presence of icons in all the churches. St. Gregory Pope of Rome wrote to Serenius urging him not to worship what is manmade; at the same time he reminds us of the illiterate believers who do not read or write, and that it is necessary to help them see what they cannot read in books. We cannot also forget that the Jews themselves would not approve of icons, so did Islam teaching that icons are acts of the Evil one (See Sourat al Ma Ida). At the same time Manichaeism in her Pauline appearance, rejected the veneration of the Icons.
Leo and the Icons:
Charles Deale sees that Leo was bred in an Asian family rejecting icons ,and used to see in the act a step out of the Dogma, and that Leo sought after politico- socio-and economic reformation, and thought that if he fought icons, he would direct a heavy blow against Monks. This way he would easily get two birds with one stone.
On the other hand, Car Shink detects in the person of Leo iii Austere Piety and Mysticism that made him think that what befell the State was attributed to the Veneration of Icons.
Charles Schwartz follows the same line of thinking, yet he adds that Leo was a tough soldier not ready to taste Art, and that the Education he got from his parents, besides his Contacts with Muslims and Jews led him to destroy and damage all icons, especially when he thought of himself as an earthly and spiritual leader
Yazid and the Icons:
Many specialists see that the book of the Muslims forbade Idols and Monuments, yet was silent in regard to drawings and paintings. And that forbidding itself was due to Hadith only. They see too that the Umayyad decorated their palaces with drawings of living animals; they even used the Byzantine Coins which had drawings of the emperors, and that fighting these drawings started under Abd Il Malek Ben Marwan. They also see in the absence of drawings and Mosaics in the Mosque of Umayyad –previously a church- is a clear evidence of fighting against drawings in the early 8th century. Iconoclasm included icons, churches, temples, houses, and Abd Ilmalik Ben Marwan, ordered that crosses be destroyed. Then Yazid ii (720- 724 ) was in good relations with a Jew from north Palestine; he listened to him a lot .The Jew urged him to destroy all Icons and crosses wherever they are found, if he really wishes to live longer. And his orders were carried out. Finally he died in 724.
It is mentioned in a book by Makrizi pages 492-493 that when Yazid died, Usama Ben Zaid Tanoukhi in charge of taxes paid by Nasara in Egypt fought the Nasara and controlled over them. That time churches, crosses, statues and monuments were totally destroyed.
It is also mentioned by Abi Faraj Malti that Yazid gave orders that pictures of living people were to be put down in temples, on walls, and wood, stones and books. When Leo was in power he did the same thing.
The bishops of Asia Minor:
The people heard what Yazid did, and the news spread out in all Asia Minor. Constantine bishop of Nocotia heard the news and welcomed it. But the archbishop of Synnada objected. Constantine rode to Constantinople to discuss the matter with the archbishop in regard to what is mentioned in Exodus :” I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in heaven above or in the earth beneath. You shall not bow down to them for I the Lord your God, am a jealous God recompensing the sins of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me..” (Exodus 20: 3 – 7).The archbishop had written to the patriarch concerning the same matter .The Patriarch silenced the bishop writing to the archbishop. The bishop went back to Nocotia keep the patriarch’s message. The Patriarch hearing what happened sent a message to the bishop in which he threatened to defrock him. Constantine showed toleration for Tom the bishop of Clodiapolis and for Theodosius bishop of Ephesus. There was a sharp controversy between both of them that led to destroying new Icons.
Leo & the Syrian Basar:
It has been reported in the Annals prepared by Theophanous that Leo was in good relations with a man from Syria called Basar. Basar was real hero that is why Leo admired him. Basar was encaptivated by the Arabs. He endorsed Islam and was admired by a Jew close to Yazid the Caliph. It was reported that Basar went back to Constantinople in 723 and tried to contact Leo who made him patriarch and was killed in a revolution in 740. Some researchers give great importance to the contact between Basar & Leo. They say that Leo declared openly his attitude regarding Icons the same year he was in contact with Basar.
The volcano of Centorina:
In 726 there was the eruption of Centorina volcano. Small Island sank and a new one emerged. Leo saw in the event a sort of divine anger. He called the inhabitants of the capital, urging them to worship God and repent of what they did against the veneration of icons. The people murmured complaining among themselves. The emperor tried to assure that he was not devaluating Icons nor showing contempt against them. But he only wishes to raise them somewhere high in the church, so that touching them or kissing them would not lead to damaging them. In fact, the contrary was intended, this was proven later on.
The Icon of Khalke:
In 727 Leo felt free to do anything he wished. He ordered that all icons be put down; even the Icon of the Lord himself was put down from above the gate of the palace. The people of the city got agitated and started the attack to prevent the soldiers. The soldiers started a counter-attack, and people from both sides fell victims. Some demonstrators fell at the hands of the soldiers, others were whipped, others, deformed, and others were sent to exile. Leo’s words were not heard among the professors in the university of Constantinople, they were angry for being treated this way. The emperor felt insulted and ordered that the university be shut up.
The Patriarch &the Pope:
Leo would not regret, but tried later on to seize the right opportunity; He negotiated the ecumenical Patriarch Germanos in regard to icons.He also claimed that all the patriarchs and emperors had gone astray when they showed veneration to icons.But the patriarch would not agree with Leo, and he disappointed him.
Leo wrote a letter to the Pope Gregory ii promising him a lot if he would approve of not venerating icons, at the same time he threatened to dethrone him in case he disobeyed him. The Pope informed the people how fierce the emperor was. He even found justification for the act in the torah (18:4-5 2kings) claiming that he is imitating the Good King. In the letter, Leo protested that he considered himself a priest and an emperor. But Gregory blamed Leo for doing what he did without referring to the authorities in charge, showing that what was mentioned in the Torah was to curb the Jews from worshipping the idols.
In late 729 Leo tried again the topic on veneration of icons with Germanos. But Germanos insisted on the faith of the Holy fathers venerating the icons according to what they represent.
Prevention of the icons:
In 730 Leo called the Senator Council, and all statesmen, and clergymen, to meet at Daphne Palace.Leo had ordered for an official statement regarding the prevention of Icons. When Quorum was complete, the emperor asked the Patriarch to sign the statement. The Patriarch refused to do so, and raising the Omophorion he said to the emperor:” I am Greek, throw me into the sea. I cannot confess other than the Creed decided by the Holy Council “then he walked out to his father’s house where he spent his days there. Leo considered the see of Constantinople vacant. Then Anastasius was installed instead. Anastasius was declared ecumenical patriarch. This took place on 28 of the same month. He first called for the Council to be held, and the first thing he did was, the prevention of the Icons. Then he sent letters one of which was to Gregory ii and he informed of what he did. The pope of Rome protested and insisted on his coming back to Orthodoxy.
The emperor and the new Patriarch pressed hard on those who supported the veneration of Icons, they even sent a great number of believers to torture, killing others, and deforming others too.
The position of the Church of Antioch:
The Church of Antioch was still orphaned and without a pastor, but her pious son St. John of Damascus stood to defend the right faith. He wrote three letters in which he replied to Leo and his followers. He gave excellent, logical, and sound arguments that enriched the ecumenical council which later on became the main argument endorsed by the Church herself.
These letters are counted among his best writings and he proved to be a great authority that surpassed all the religious thinkers of the time (8th century).
He was not satisfied with one of St. Paul’s sayings:”so then, our brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions which we taught you both in preaching and in our letter” (Thessalonians 2: 2:15), but he joined the veneration of the Icons with the divine incarnation, and with the mystery of Salvation, assuring that the one who fights the icons, denies the sacredness of the visible form of God, and threatens the mystery of incarnation making it collapse.
Some researchers today, see that John Damascus speaks of this on behalf of John V Patriarch of Jerusalem and the leader of the Church of Jerusalem and Antioch then. This made him threaten Leo and accurse him even excommunicate him. What is noteworthy here is that our St. objected to Leo’s interfering in Church Dogma considering the discussion of the matter restricted to the Universal Church alone.
Leo’s concerns in religion led him to the separation of some Syrian Dioceses from the Church of Antioch to be annexed to Constantinople.
In doing that, our Church lost 24 bishops and archbishops. In fact, the political and military circumstances brought about this division, and Assyria became after the Islamic conquest, far away from Antioch, and under the Jurisdiction of the Emperor.
Pope Gregory III (731 – 741)
Gregory III called for a local council in Rome in 1 November 731. The council excommunicated those were against the veneration of Icons.
Leo, in turn, deprived the bishop of Rome of the church income in Calabria and Cecilia. He also prevented him from spiritual authority over Calabria, Sardinia, and annexed both to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This led to Schism in the church that finally had terrible consequences.
Constantine the Zibeline: (740 – 775)
Leo died in 740 and Constantine V succeeded him and took power .Constantine V adopted the fight against Icons assuring the impossibility to represent God with matter, for matter is passing and subject to decay, while God is immortal. He also said that what applies to God, applies as well to Mary the Virgin and to all the saints, because all of them are with God now. And if they are to be represented with matter, they will no longer have dignity being before God.
He also added that Christ is the image of the Father, and when he is represented with matter we deprive him of his divine nature. In that we become like the Nestorians.
The Patriarch Neciphorus says that Constantine V wrote a letter in this regard to assure the impossibility of representing the 2 natures of Christ, claiming that the Eucharist is necessarily the only image of the Lord.
Constantine went far in his illusions; he used the word “prositon”for “hypostasis”, in that he became Monophysite.
He persecuted the Church, and ridiculed the saints and all the Celebrations in it. He forbade fasting and all the feasts, besides he destroyed the Icons and painted the walls of all the Churches to cover the icons and paintings on them. He only venerated the Cross; he drew it on different parts of the Church; sometimes he drew it small, and other times big. It was graven even on official seals too.
But the Cross of those who destroyed the icons was wide from all sides, similar to that which the Malta knights keep. It also appeared on the seals above stair stands. It also appeared on other times with some tree leaves similar to the Cross used for victory in Constantinople. Perhaps the relation between the cross and victory was the motive behind not destroying the cross.
Upon the conflict that appeared between the emperor of Rome and some great figures in the Orthodox Universal Church in the Patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, the authority of Hisham Bin abd al Malek weakened, he allowed them to have the ancient rights back to install patriarchs among their people. They elected a monk highly respected by Hisham to be installed a patriarch in 742 and was called Stephen IV.
Now the controversy among Muslim scientists and the Christian Fathers became tense, they quarreled in their meetings, each party wishes to win.
Peter the archbishop of Damascus interfered to support the Antiochian Patriarch Stephen IV. The Caliph Walid II got angry (743 – 744), for he felt insulted with all the Muslims. He ordered that Stephen’s tongue be cut. The Patriarch died in 744. Then he gave orders to have Peter’s tongue cut too, and was sent to “Happy Arabia”.
In 745 Marwan II was in good relations with the Orthodox Priest Theophylactus Bin Konbora, he wanted him to be the new Antiochian Patriarch. Things went as he wished, and the new Patriarch was the head of the church of Antioch. Immediately, he sent official letters to the leaders of the five sees, and defended the right dogma.
The Council of Hieria(754):
Constantine the Zibeline started in 753 an exchange of thoughts regarding the dogma which he had decided to adopt and he ordered governors and bishops to meet for this purpose. And when he felt about to win, he called for a council.
The council was held at a palace called Hieria neighboring to Chalcedon on the 10th of February 754. 338 bishops attended the meeting. Papal legates were absent, besides the leaders of (Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem). The Ecumenical Patriarch Anastasius died before the meetings started. He was replaced by Theodosius the bishop of Ephesus who was known for being against the icons.
The Fathers of the Council discussed issue of Icons. They finally adopted what Leo believed about them, with his son, and ordered that they be eradicated.They believed that drawing Christ with the matter and by matter means one of two things:
Either saying with Nestorius the possibility of separating the two natures only to describe and draw the human one or supporting the Monophysites with the belief in the divine nature only. The Holy Fathers refused to accept any teaching adopted by the emperor.
About mid August of 754, the Zibeline(the Emperor), introduced the new Patriarch Constantine Silarion to the Holy Fathers...On the 27th of the month, the summary of the works of the council was declared with the imperial will which presupposes that resolutions are to be carried out, besides defrocking Germanos of Constantinople,Georgios of Cyprus, and John of Damascus. The fathers of the council plagiarized “ecumenicity” for the council, considering it to be the 7th ecumenical council.
Upon feeling strengthened by the resolutions of the council, the emperor Constantine V fought fierce fully the icons more than before, and he poured his anger on the monks taking out the eyes, cutting the hands and arms, with the ears. He also killed many believers, and he did not even hesitate to force some monks to marry unwillingly. He even forced many of them to hold women by the hand in a big stadium to be seen by everybody.
Theophanous says that a governor in Asia Minor gathered all the monks of his region with nuns too, forcing them to wear white clothes to get married. And those who would rebel, had their eyes pulled out and were sent to Cyprus. The emperor praised the governor for doing so, and said: I have found in you a man like me, ready to desire what I like, and also ready to carry out my desires easily. Under his reign, the monasteries were confiscated and was annexed to the State.
Many monks and nuns ran away to Italy, and south Russia, to Lebanon and Palestine.
(Refer to Assad Rustum, an historian - Iconoclasm).
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