If we aren’t careful our traditions can become our idols, and rooting them out may be hazardous to the church’s health. This was the case in Eastern Christianity’s infamous iconoclast controversy.

During Medieval times, Christians began worshiping and praying to saints, a practice that gradually led to the prominence of icons—flat pictures representing Christ, Mary, or some other saint. While Christian art has edified believers since the days of the catacombs, the Eastern church began worshiping these images. The pictures were reverently kissed. Incense was offered before them. Prayers were rendered to them. Some icons reputedly possessed miracle-working powers.

The Byzantine Emperor Leo III was repelled by the worship of icons, perhaps because his political enemies, the Jews and the Moslems, accused him of heading an empire of idolaters. In 726 he outlawed image worship and soon thereafter ordered the destruction of icons everywhere. But image worship had become so entrenched in the Byzantine church that his edicts were viewed as attacks on Christianity itself. An uprising raged through his empire, and many died. Pope Gregory in Rome ridiculed the emperor and held two synods condemning Leo’s iconoclasm (icon-breaking).

Leo’s son, Constantine V, continued his father’s war against icons with vigor. He convened a church council in Constantinople, attended by 360 bishops. The council, citing the second commandment, denounced icons as idols and declared all religious paintings and sculpture as pagan. Their use in public and private worship was forbidden. The council’s decree was carried out with intensity, and sacred images were smashed, destroyed, painted over, and burned. Fifty thousand icon-producing monks fled or perished. For the next 89 years, the icon controversy seesawed back and forth, tearing the church, ripping its unity, and providing it with a new crop of dubious martyrs.

The persecution ended only after the death of Emperor Theophilus, the last great iconoclast, in 842. On March 11, 843 icons were formally sanctioned and reintroduced in all Eastern Orthodox churches. This day, the so-called “Triumph of Orthodoxy,” has been commemorated in Eastern congregations around the world for over 1,000 years.

People of Israel, your God is a mystery,
Though he alone can save.
Anyone who makes idols will be confused
And terribly disgraced.But Israel, I,
the Lord, will always keep you safe
And free from shame
. (Isaiah 45:15-17)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Mar.11.

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