The Synaxarion of the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
On this day, the first Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the restoration of the holy and venerable icons by the ever-memorable rulers of Constantinople, the Emperor Michael and his mother, the Empress Theodora, during the patriarchate of St. Methodius the Confessor.
It was with God’s permission that when St. Germanos (comm. May 12) had taken up the rudder of the Church, Leo the Isaurian (717-41) seized the scepter of the empire after having been a mule driver and manual laborer. The Patriarch was summoned immediately to hear the Emperor say, “In my opinion, Bishop, the holy images are no different from idols; therefore, I command that they be removed from among us as soon as possible. If it should be the case that they are the true forms of the saints, however, then at least see that they be hung up high so that we, who are stained by sin, may not soil them with our kisses.”
The Patriarch sought to turn the Emperor away from such hatred, saying, “God forbid, Emperor, that you should rage against the holy images, for we hear that some have nicknamed you the “One Who Plasters Over.”
And he replied, “But I say this myself, that I was called this from childhood!”
Thus, when the Patriarch could not be persuaded to agree, the emperor sent him into exile and replaced him with Anastasius, who shared the imperial opinions, and so it was that the battle against the holy images broke out. It is said that it was the Jews who first instilled such great hatred in the emperor, at the time when he was poor and doing business with them through his livelihood as a mule driver, and that they had helped him rise to the throne through some kind of sorcery.
When Leo’s evil life came suddenly to an end, his like-minded whelp, Constantine Copronymous (741-75), that namesake of dung, succeeded not only to be seated on the imperial throne, but even more to rage against the holy images. But what is the necessity in telling how many evil things this lawless man did? When he died, in an even worse manner than his father, his son by the Khazar woman was set up as emperor, and after he had measured out his life in evil-doing, Constantine (780-97) and then Irene (797-802) inherited the imperial throne. They were guided by the most holy Patriarch Tarasius to convoke the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), and so the holy Church of Christ received the holy images back again.
After these two had laid down their rule, Nicetas Genikos (802-11) ascended the imperial throne, then his son, Stavrikios (811), and after him Michael Rangabe (811-13). All of these reverenced the divine images. Michael was succeeded by the brutal Leo the Armenian (813-20), who had been corrupted by a certain monk, an impious recluse, and he gave rise to the second war against the images, throwing the Church of God once more into disorder. Leo was succeeded by Michael Amorians (820-29), and Michael in turn by Theophilus (829-42), a true son of the frenzy against the images who was the worst of all. Now this Theophilus both persecuted many of the holy fathers with monstrous punishments and tortures for the sake of the holy images and insisted that his cause was just. It is said, though, that once, while he was proceeding through the crowds in Constantinople, he looked lor someone of the same opinion and was unable to find such a one for many days. After he had ruled as emperor tor twelve years, he fell ill with dysentery. With his, life about to end, his mouth opened up so wide that his insides could be seen within.
The Augusta Theodora, who had been greatly distressed by this development, had just fallen asleep when she saw in a dream the immaculate Mother of God embracing the Babe Who is older than eternity, encircled by rows of angels who were whipping and cursing her husband, Theophilus. Just as sleep departed from her, Theophilus recovered enough to cry out, “Woe is me, the wretched one! I am being scourged because of the holy images!” At once the empress placed upon him the image of the Mother of God and prayed to her with tears. As for Theophilus, even though he was so ill, when he saw one of the onlookers wearing a medallion with an image on it, he took hold of it and kissed it. Immediately, the mouth which had railed against the holy images and the throat which had been gaping wide were restored to their original state. His whole condition eased, and he fell into sleep, though not before confessing that it is good to honor and venerate the holy images. The empress then removed the venerable and holy images from her storage chests in order to kiss them and honor them with all her heart and to prepare Theophilus for his death. Shortly after he departed this life, Theodora recalled all those who had been exiled or imprisoned and ordered that they be allowed to live in safety. She also deposed John the Grammarian from the patriarchal throne, for he had really been more like Pharoah’s magician — Jannes, a master of divination and a consorter with demons — than a Patriarch. He was replaced by the confessor of Christ, Methodius, who had previously suffered greatly and had even Iived sequestered in a tomb.
At the same time, a kind of divine visitation happened to the great Joannicius, who was living the ascetic life in the mountains of Olympus. The great ascetic, Arsacius, came to him and said, “God has sent me to you so that we should both go to that most venerable man, Isaiah, the recluse from Nicomedia, in order to learn from him what is pleasing to God and fitting for the Church herself.” So both of them went to the most venerable Isaiah and heard from him the following:
“Thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, the end draws near for the enemies of My form. You, therefore, when you have gone to the Empress Theodora, and to the Patriarch Methodius as well, will speak as follows: “Put a stop to all the unholy men!” Then, together with the angels, you may offer sacrifice to Me by honoring the image of My form and that of the Cross.’”
When they heard this, they went directly to the city of Constantine and announced to the Patriarch Methodius and to all God’s chosen ones what had been said to them. After this gathering, they all went to the Empress and persuaded her with evidence from the Fathers, for she was devout and a lover of God. The Empress immediately held up the image of the Mother of God that was hanging about her neck and kissed it, saying, If, for love’s sake, anyone does not kiss and venerate these images in a relative manner, not worshiping them as gods but as images of their archetypes, let him be anathema!” And the rejoiced with great joy.
In turn, however, the Empress asked them to intercede for her husband, Theophilus. Although at first they were taken aback, they accepted her request because they had seen her faith. Then the saintly Methodius gathered all the clergy and people including the bishops, in the Great Church of God. Those present included the following select ascetics from Olympus: the great loannicius and Arsacius; both Naucratius and the disciples of Theodore the Studite; and Theophanes of the Great Field and Theodore, the writers and confessors. There were also Michael of the Holy City and Syncellus, along with many others. Together they celebrated an all-night intercession to God for the sake of Theophilus, all of them praying with tears and concentrated petition, and they repeated this throughout the whole first week of the Fast. The Empress Theodora was doing the same thing as well, together with the women and the rest of the people.
At dawn on that Friday, the Empress Theodora fell asleep and had a dream. She seemed to find herself at the column of the Cross, and some men were noisily passing by and going along the road carrying different instruments of torture. In the middle of them, being led bound and with his hands tied behind his back, was the Emperor Theophilus. On recognizing him, she joined the group as it was making its way. When she reached the Bronze Gate, she saw a man with a supernatural countenance sitting in front of the image of Christ, and Theophilus was standing opposite him. The empress touched the man’s feet, pleading with him for the emperor, and he straightway opened «his mouth, “Great is your faith, woman!” he said, “Know then that, for the sake of your tears and your faith, and for the sake of the intercessions and petitions of My servants and My priests, I grant forgiveness to Tlieophilus your husband.” Then He said to the men, “Untie him and give him to his wife.” And on receiving him back, she went away greatly rejoicing. At that moment the dream came to an end.
While this was what the Empress Theodora saw, the Patriarch Methodius, after the prayers and intercessions for the emperor were finished, took an ordinary piece of paper and wrote down on it all the names of the heretical emperors, and he included Theophilus among them. Taking the paper, he placed it underneath the Holy Table. On Friday, he also had a vision. He saw a frightening angel entering in at the Great Doors and coming toward him. The angel said, “Your petition has been heard, Bishop, and the Emperor Theophilus has been granted forgiveness. Neither you nor the others need trouble God about him any longer.” The Patriareh, though, in order to test whether the vision had been true or not, went down from his place and took up the paper and unrolled it. He found — O! the judgments of God! that God had entirely removed Theophilus’ name from the list.
When the Empress was informed of this, she was exceedingly glad. Therefore, on the first Sunday of Great Lent, March 11, 843, she ordered the Patriarch to assemble in the Church all the people with candles and the holy images and precious crosses, so that the holy images might be restored, and so that this latest miracle might be made known to all. When all had gathered in the church with candles, the empress and her son, Michael (842-67), joined them in a solemn procession with the holy images, with the divine and august fragments of the True Cross, and with the holy and divine Gospel Book. Singing “Lord, have mercy,” they went out to what is called “the Milestone” and then turned back toward the Church, where they celebrated the Divine Liturgy. Once more the holy images were set in the place in Great Church by certain chosen holy men; those who had been devout and had rightly justified the images were proclaimed, and the impious who had opposed them and not accepted the honor of the holy images were denounced and surrendered to anathema. From that time forward, the venerable confessors ordained that this holy feast should take place annually to insure that we do not tumble again into the same iniquity.
We should know that the holy Empress Theodora is commemorated on February 11 and the venerable Patriarch Methodius on June 14.
О Christ our God, depicted and honored on the holy icons,
through the intercessions of Your holy confessors,
have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
The Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and the Pentecostarion, ed. Fr David (Kidd) and Mother Gabriella (Ursache), Rives Junction, MI: HDM, 1999, pp. 60-66