It is the 11th of March 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 843.
So, one of the problems with the 10 Commandments is that there are more than 10 Commandments. You may have heard this before. In the Hebrew Bible, they are called the “10 Words” and weren’t delivered with helpful but anachronistic Roman numerals. And so this has led to some, well, many issues. There are essentially two positions. (Although please don’t email telling me that there are actually about six. Yes, but for our purposes, and essentially two positions.) Origen popularized one. It takes the first Commandment as “thou shall have no other gods before me.” The second Commandment is then “thou shalt not make any graven images.” The other position, which comes down from Augustine, tucks the graven image part under the first Commandment subordinating that thought to the more significant concept of worship. On account of this divide, the church has seen many controversies regarding the use of “graven images” in worship.
In the early Greek churches, the answer to this issue was to simply take the “graven” out of “graven” images. Graven denotes three-dimensionality. Thus, the church created one-dimensional icons (a la the ancient Egyptians) and painted them in elaborate and bright colors (if you have a picture in your mind of a Greek Orthodox icon, you get it.) But there are few things some Christians like less than other Christians getting away with what looks like a theological loophole. And thus, the early Middle Ages in the East were consumed with the battle between the Iconoclasts (anti-icon) and Iconophiles (icon lovers). Now, there were also some extenuating circumstances. Let’s break those down.
Many Christians, especially those with contact with Muslim communities, could see the acceptance of images as a distinctly Christian prerogative. Such was the thought of John of Damascus, who saw the incarnation as the justification for making the eternal and divine tangible. But it is also likely that some Christians near Muslim communities (such as in Spain) saw the reverence with which the Muslims held for Allah as something wholly “other.”
Another issue had to do with the growing division between the Eastern and Western churches. Since the Fall of the Roman Empire, the Emperor resided in Constantinople. The “Emperor of the Romans,” who was ironically not in Rome, needed to keep friendly relations with the Bishop of the real Rome, aka the Pope. There’s a fun story here about a mistranslated text from the Second Council of Nicaea that junked the relationship between the two sides, but that’s for another time. When the Pope got tired of dealing with the iconoclastic struggles in the East, he decided to crown his own Emperor. Enter: Charlemagne.
One more extenuating circumstance: anti-clericalism, the “tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme.” Some Eastern priests argued that images could not be kept personally by individual Christians because they must mediate their only true contact with the divine. You can imagine the widespread dismay with that.
So the whole issue is ultimately settled by two women. The first, Empress Irene, we have recounted on the show before. When her husband, the Emperor, died, she became the Empress consort for their young son. When he gets older, he starts getting iconoclastic designs, and so she blinds him, deposes him, and puts him in prison. You may make what you will of that story.
Theodora was the husband of Theopholis, known as the last iconoclastic Emperor (so you can see where this story is going). When he died, Theodora called a council to settle the whole issue. In 843, a council met and decided in favor of iconophilia, granted that this is seen not as the kind of worship reserved for Yahweh alone. The council members marched from their meeting, with Theodora, to the Hagia Sophia to officially restore icons to the church on the 11th of March in 843. Since that day, this has been celebrated as the “Feast of Orthodoxy.” Your local Orthodox Church may celebrate today as a general feast for the church instead of the victory against the iconoclasts, which is fine, but know you know where it came from.
The reading for today comes from John of Damascus, one of the more universally beloved Orthodox characters in the universal church. This is his “Into the dim earth’s lowest parts descending,” translated by John Mason Neale.
Into the dim earth’s lowest parts descending,
And bursting by Thy might the infernal chain
That bound the prisoners, Thou, at three days’ ending,
As Jonah from the whale, hast risen again.
Thou brakest not the seal, Thy surety’s token,
Arising from the Tomb Who left’st in Birth
The portals of Virginity unbroken,
Opening the gates of heaven to sons of earth.
Thou, Sacrifice ineffable and living,
Didst to the FATHER by Thyself atone
As GOD eternal: resurrection giving
To Adam, general parent, by Thine own.
That was Into the dim earth’s lowest parts descending by St. John of Damascus translated by John Mason Neale.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 11th of March 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. My favorite iconophile, Christopher Gillespie, produces the show. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.