|29 Orthodoxy Sunday, March 16, 2008|
Hebrews 11:24-26; 32-40
Since the 9th century, the first Sunday of Great Lent has been dedicated to the commemoration of the holy fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. They affirmed holy icons as essential in the worship of Christ’s
The icon affirms the Incarnation of God the Word. An icon is not an idol. An idol is a false god. The icon does not depict a false god; it depicts the true God, Jesus Christ, the beloved Son of God. To venerate the icon is not idolatry. Idolatry is worship of a false god. To venerate the icon of Christ is to venerate an image of Him Who Is the Lord and who has revealed himself to us.
One of the arguments used by the “iconoclasts” in the 8th and 9th centuries, and which is repeated by modern day iconoclasts – those who denounce icons and their veneration – was that the Law of Moses forbids the making of an idol or a likeness of anything in heaven above or in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth that people should bow down and worship them. In the first place, the proscription in the Law of Moses is not against icons (eikwn) but against idols (eidwlon). An icon is not an idol; an icon is an image of the true God as he revealed himself in the flesh. I will come back to this point.
In the second place, the Law of Moses prohibits the depiction of God in any likeness because he had not yet appeared in the flesh. Let’s look at this principle of iconography more closely.
The Orthodox icon, then, is not a religious picture any more than it is an idol. It is not a picture depicting a religious theme as the artist imagines it to be, but it is an image of God and his saints as they have appeared to us in the flesh and in history. Since the icon depicts the historical appearing of God and of his saints, the icon, by means of certain artistic techniques under the guidance of strict canons, sets forth both their spiritual reality or theological meaning and also how they have actually revealed themselves to us in history. Because the icon accurately delineates both the actual likeness of Christ or the Theotokos or the saints, and their spiritual or theological meaning, the icon helps us not to fall into idolatry; it helps us not to worship our own religious imagination or our idea of God as though it were God. Moreover, because the icon faithfully depicts the Savior, his Mother and the saints, the Orthodox believe that the icon is a focal point of their presence in the same way that their body was the focal point of their presence on earth. This belief is confirmed time and again throughout the history of the Church by the many miracles that have been performed in association with icons.
It would seem to follow from this that if a person rejects the icon, one is rejecting God – for one is rejecting that very God who has appeared to us in the flesh in such a way that he can be depicted in an image. If one feels an aversion to the veneration of icon, and if one believes one is a Christian, one needs to subject one’s religious understanding to a very serious examination. To be a Christian is to confess Christ God in the flesh; to feel an aversion to the icon that depicts his appearing in the flesh indicates that one feels an aversion to the Savior’s Incarnation and to the theology that goes with it, and it casts into serious doubt the integrity of one’s Christian confession.
This brings us to the deeper principle of the icon, its theological meaning. What does it mean to confess the Incarnation of God the Word in such a way that one doesn’t just talk about it and write about it but also depicts it in sacred art as it is depicted by words in Holy Scripture (such that the Holy Scripture, too, is an ‘icon’, a literary icon, that we venerate)?
To venerate holy icons means that one believes in the sanctity of the body, that matter or the flesh is essentially holy and spiritual, or “good” as God is Good. In Orthodox theology – that theology that is an expression of that worship of God that is in Spirit and in Truth – the icon is essentially spiritual; but spiritual does not mean something that is immaterial, or without body. It means a capacity to receive God in Holy Communion, to become a partaker of the divine nature, a communicant of life eternal. Understand that the pre-eminent icon of all is Christ himself.
Perhaps now we begin to understand why the icon is not just an important feature of Orthodox worship, but essential to it if it is to be worship that is in Spirit and in Truth. Standing before holy icons when we pray to God in worship, we are standing in his presence made concrete for us in the icon. He is not an abstraction, a religious idea we talk about. He is a presence; he is truly “in our midst” in a physical way in the icon.
The veneration of icons in the Orthodox manner is an affirmation of the Incarnation. And in that, it is also an affirmation of the fundamental goodness of creation and of human nature not only in its immaterial but also in its material aspects, viz. the body. It is an affirmation of the inherent capacity of creation and of the whole human nature, body as well as soul and mind, to receive God, to be filled with God, to live the very life of God, to become partakers, as St Peter writes, of the divine nature so that it is no longer we who live, as St Paul writes, but Christ who lives in us. The veneration of icons is an affirmation that the ultimate reality, and the destiny of mankind and the world, is nothing less than communion with God.
Therefore, we venerate thy most pure image, O Good One; and we ask forgiveness of our transgressions, for of Thy good will Thou wast pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh and to deliver Thy creatures from bondage to the enemy. Therefore, with thankfulness we cry aloud to Thee. Thou hast filled all things with joy, O our Savior, for Thou didst come to save the world. Amen.