The first Sunday of the fast is truly a great festival - and not just because we made it through the first week of the fast. It is known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy because we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy. On the first Sunday of the fast in 843, after two bouts of iconoclasm, during which many suffered and died in defense of the holy icons, the holy icons were triumphantly returned to the church.
The triumph of Orthodoxy Christian faith over all heresies is manifested in the holy icons. This may sound strange to some but with a little consideration it is clearly not strange at all, for there can be no Christianity without icons.
Icons bear witness to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Actually the text says the Word became flesh and tented among us. This is actually quite important because the tent calls to mind the tabernacle made of skin dyed red in which the Israelites worshipped God wondering in the desert for 40 years and in the promised land until the building of Solomon’s Temple. Thus this is clearly stating that same God who dwelt with His people in the Tabernacle cloaked Himself in flesh - becoming the God-man, our Lord Jesus Christ. This is what Christmas is really about and without it there is nothing else, for if God did not become man then we are still in our sins and death still reigns supreme.
God is Life and cannot die, but by becoming a man - yet remaining God- He was able to ascend the cross in the flesh where He surrendered His soul (for it could not be taken from Him) and descended to death, which He shattered by His divinity. Having given up His life He took it up again, arising from the dead and ascending on high where He sits at the right hand of the Father.
This is why icons are not only permitted but necessary. If the Word became flesh He can and must be depicted (or else His incarnation will be questioned and even denied). Of course His Divinity remains beyond description, but His humanity can and must be depicted as any other man’s. So when we gaze upon the icon of our Lord Jesus Christ we gaze upon the Divine Person of the Word of God who became a man - we truly see God. Thus when we venerate the icon of our Lord Jesus Christ we remember His great love for us, for it is in becoming man that He wrought our salvation, thus we reverence (kiss) it out of the love and gratitude.
Now the holy fathers make a clear and necessary distinction between worship (adoration) and veneration (honor). We worship God alone. We venerate icons. The veneration demonstrated when we bow before and kiss an icon is translated to the person depicted on the icon - not the material of which it is made. This is much easier to understand today than centuries ago. Let’s say one has a picture of a loved one on the dresser or mantle piece, we look at it and many memories come back and our hearts are filled with laughter, sadness, love… But not because of the paper and pigment, but because of the person depicted. Should we lose such a picture we are saddened, but not because we lost the picture, but because we no longer behold the image of the one who was depicted. So it is with icons: the material is not worshiped. God alone is worshipped. The Mother of God and the Saints are venerated.
Why do we venerate the icon of the Mother of God (Theotokos) and Saints along with Christ? Well, for the Theotokos it’s easy to understand. The Word became flesh - of her. She is His mother, for He is born eternally of the Father without mother and in time of His mother without a father. This is why she is rarely depicted apart from Him. She is always pointing to, directing our attention to Him. She is revered above the Cherubim and Seraphim and honored above all except God Himself - not because of who she is - but because of who her Son is.
So why do we venerate icons of the Saints? Because each person is created in the image and likeness of God. In other words, we are all icons of Christ, who is the image of His Father. The saints are those who, by embracing Christ, grow from glory to glory. When we venerate them we glorify God who is wonderful in His saints. The love, life, light and truth of God is present in the saints because Christ is present in them.
Thus icons bear witness to the veracity of the economy of salvation (by which we mean all that God did and does for our salvation), as well as how that salvation is manifested throughout history in the persons of the saints.
Which leaves a very important question: Is Orthodoxy triumphant in me? In other words, do I live the faith, or am I Orthodox in word alone but not in life? Is the love, life, light and truth which is Christ evident in my life? This may sound a bit odd but in a world so full of selfishness, death, darkness and deception anyone who truly embodies Christ, in whom Christ is enfleshed, for we commune of Him when we partake of His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, becoming His abode. Christians are bearers of Christ, bearers the Light, Truth, Light and Love, which can’t be hidden, even if we wish it to be, because it so contrasts the world in which we live. We are called to be Christ’s witnesses. If we truly become such, then Orthodoxy is triumphant in us.