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Icon blessing has special significance for Eastern Catholics

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Imagine you are a Christian living in the eastern part of the Roman Empire in the eighth century, and your essential instrument of prayer is an image of Jesus, Mary or a saint. Suddenly, the emperor bans the veneration of icons. Soldiers strip holy images from churches, and those caught with an icon are punished. Nearly 100 years later, icons and holy images were welcomed back. 

Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians commemorate the restoration of holy images on the first Sunday of Lent when they were returned to the empire in 843. The celebration is known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy, and parishioners of Epiphany of Our Lord Byzantine Catholic Church in Annandale marked the day by bringing icons and holy images to be blessed March 5. 

Children stood in the church’s aisle during Divine Liturgy, holding icons of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, St. George and other saints to be blessed by Father John G. Basarab, the pastor.

CONNOR BERGERON  |  CATHOLIC HERALDIn his homily, Father Basarab told the history of the Iconoclastic Controversy that began when Emperor Leo III took the first commandment literally, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image … ” 

The emperor commanded his soldiers to remove and destroy icons from all places. The debate of venerating images of Christ led to the Second Council of Nicaea in 787.

“The first time and only time a woman called an ecumenical council, was when Empress Irene called the Seventh Ecumenical Council,” said Father Basarab. 

The council brought a brief period of peace to those venerating holy images, but within decades a new emperor emerged, reviving the persecution of icons. Iconoclasm ended when a new empress reinstated the use of holy images with solemn processions to churches in 843.

“You and I have been made in the icon (or) image of God,” he said. “Maybe our icon has been dirtied (through sin).”

A great defender of icons was St. John of Damascus, who compared icons to human nature saying that humans have been created in the image and likeness of God, and through sin our image is torn and scarred. Through God’s mercy our nature is restored, he said.

Father Basarab said Lent should be a time for God to scrub us clean.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017