Saint of the Day: St. Theodora the Empress

(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press.Today's saint, St. Theodora, comes from Volume 1 of the series.)
Saint Theodora the Empress

Anyone bearing the name Theodora must feel an inner pride in having been so named. It not only means the “gift of God,” but is also the namesake of one of the most noble souls in all Christianity. Theodora was the wife of Theophilos, emperor of the Byzantine Empire during the ninth century, when the empire was at its zenith.

Royalty has its advantages but the influence of a monarch’s wife does not often hold sway, particularly in a complex issue such as Iconoclasm which, for one hundred fifty years had divided the Greek Orthodox Church. Much as Theodora abhorred the idea of stripping church interiors of icons, it is to her everlasting credit that, rather than let herself be swayed in her determination, much as she chose to sway the emperor herself, she lived in the hope that the icons would one day be restored and that the issue would be settled in her lifetime, although it had stormed for three lifetimes. If for nothing else this profoundly religious woman and empress could have been sainted for her unyielding stand on the issue when she could have chosen a course of resignation or indifference.

Claims and counterclaims, lay and clerical, swirled about her. She had only to join sides with the iconoclasts and that in itself might very well have settled the question once and for all after a century and a half of dissension. It could very well be that it was Theodora’s courageous stand that made a difference. Hers was not a voice in the wilderness. It emanated and echoed from the palace. The echo of her voice of protest never died and our churches are what they are today because she refused to be stilled. She was not a nun. She was an emperor’s wife, but a handmaiden of God by her own choice.

During this period Iconoclasm was a strong, swift-moving force which swept the empire. The supporters of the iconoclastic movement believed that icons should be purged from the churches. They thought that veneration of icons was tantamount to idolatry. In fact, many Orthodox Christians had come to believe that icons, rather than being symbolic, were to be worshiped for themselves. As a reaction against this false understanding of the place of icons in Orthodox worship, many favored the complete elimination of icons. Believing that they were fighting against idolatry, some emperors issued decrees banishing icons from the churches and persecuting anyone possessing icons.

Theophilos was such an iconoclast emperor, but due solely to the efforts of his most noble wife, Theodora, he was the last. After a hundred and fifty years, Iconoclasm was finally defeated.

During the reign of her iconoclast husband, Theodora secretly possessed many icons. She would kneel in prayer and meditation before her icons, firm in the belief that the time was at hand when the icons would once again resume their rightful place in the house of God.

Shortly after the death of Emperor Theophilos, one of the first official acts of Empress Theodora as regent for her son Michael III was to reinstate the icons. To do this she convoked a General Synod in 843. This Synod formally accepted the use of icons in Orthodox worship, affirming that the veneration is paid to Christ and the saints depicted on the icons, and not to the material substance of the paint and wood. This historic decision is celebrated each year in the Orthodox Church on the first Sunday of Lent, known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

Thus, Empress Theodora gave all her support to the recognition of icons as an essential element of Orthodox worship, and in so doing proved to be an instrument of God’s glory.

In her lifetime Empress Theodora revealed her true nature to be more religious than civic, and because of her faith and devotion to Christ, the Church became as mighty as the empire. With her precious icons before her, she died on February 11, 859, a true champion of the Orthodox faith.

Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia.

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