We all know that the first Sunday of Great Lent is called the Sunday of Orthodoxy and that it was instituted in the year 843, at the end of the period of the Ecumenical Councils, as a witness to the victory of the Orthodox Faith over all heresies, a victory synthesized in the re-establishment of the veneration of icons.
But not all of us know that this celebration of Orthodoxy was superimposed on the ancient commemoration of the Prophets Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, attested to at least since the time of Patriarch Germanos of Constantinople († 740). At that time Great Lent was full of biblical commemorations: in the 2nd week Noah was commemorated, in the 4th the sacrifice of Isaac, and in the 5th Isaac himself. Makarios of Simonopetra speaks in detail about these commemorations in his exceptional work on the Triodion.
The celebration of the prophets harmonized well with the 1st week of Great Lent and the Old Testament atmosphere of the readings during the services. Fortunately this celebration of the prophets was not eliminated, but remained in connection to the feast of Orthodoxy, being justified by the fact that the prophets anticipated and foretold the Incarnation of the Word to which the icons witness.
In his discourses on the icons, St. John of Damascus had already laid out the analogy that exists between them and the visions of the prophets. They did not see the visions they were granted with physical eyes, but with spiritual eyes, like the apostles on Mt. Tabor; and what they saw were “icons” of God, not His Being. These visions were “images” of what would be fully revealed through the Incarnation. Under the New Covenant those things that had served to prefigure were abolished and the prophets’ visions were replaced by icons. As we know, icons are based on the Incarnation of the Son of God, on the fact that God Himself was revealed to human beings. The prophets’ visions prefigured the Incarnation, “the natural Icon of the Father” (St. John of Damascus), so that they can be considered “icons of these icons” (Makarios of Simonopetra), and the prophets can rightly be celebrated together with the holy icons on the 1st Sunday of Great Lent.
By means of this double celebration, the Sunday of Orthodoxy reveals a wonderful work of God in the history of salvation. For if no one had seen God before the Incarnation, until He had taken on human nature, still the prophets foretold Him, seeing across time, actually before the time, the face of the Incarnate God. The Creator was awaiting “the fullness of time” in order to reveal Himself as Savior, but His chosen ones, the prophets, took part in this revelation in order to preserve the faith alive among the people.
Our times are not lacking in the temptation to misunderstand the purpose of icons. Their celebration on the Sunday of Orthodoxy can be for us an occasion for strengthening our faith and for proclaiming the divine revelation. This, if Lent brings us back to the Father’s house, from our wanderings in the world.
May Christ the Lord grant us peace and spiritual joys, together with increased strength to ascend the steps of Holy Lent in a worthy manner toward the light-giving Resurrection!