|26 - Sunday of Orthodoxy, Feb 21, 2010|
Hebrews 11:24-26, 32 – 12:2
This first Sunday of Great Lent is given to the commemoration of the restoration of icons in the worship of the Church in the 8th century after over a hundred years when icons were prohibited by imperial policy on the grounds that they were idolatrous. At the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787, the bishops and fathers of the Church condemned this iconoclastic imperial policy and affirmed the necessity of icons for the worship of God in Spirit and in Truth.
The affirmation of icons is at heart a confession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God, Light of Light, true God of true God who in these latter days was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary and became man. Because God the Word took flesh and was found in the form of a man, he can be depicted in that form. Portraying the Savior through the art of icons, as one portrays Him in the words of Orthodox doctrine, therefore, testifies to the Gospel proclamation that God became fully man; and as man, He can be depicted. The icon, then, is much, much more than a religious picture. It is a Christological statement, a test of one’s Orthodoxy and of the sincerity of one’s belief that Jesus is truly God the Word become flesh. If one disdains icons, one disdains the Incarnation.
There is another aspect of the icon that needs to be stressed. The icon depicts the Savior, His Mother and the saints as they were in the flesh. In the flesh, Christ, His Mother and the saints had a specific “form”, specific “features”, they “looked” a specific way. The icon, therefore, is “written” according to strict canons so that the features of the Savior, of His Mother and of the saints are governed by the Church’s memory of how they actually looked when they were in the flesh. An Orthodox icon, that is to say, does not submit to the artist’s imagination. The iconographer is not free to draw an icon any way he or she wishes. The iconographer must adhere to the strict canons of the Church that govern the drawing, or the “writing” of the Icon. This is the ascetic aspect of iconography that also affirms the reality of the Incarnation of the Word of God. The Word of God as man became flesh with specific features. These, together with the theological mystery of Christ’s divinity, govern the iconographic art.
This may raise in your mind the question, why then does Christ look different from one iconographer to the next? It is true that Christ and His Mother and the saints look different from the work of one iconographer to the next; but, you can always tell who is who! You can tell who is Christ and who is St Peter, who is St Mary of Egypt, who is His Mother!
The making of an icon is governed by the canons of the Church; but it is an icon; it is not a photograph. An icon portrays the Divine Person, Jesus Christ or His Holy Mother or one of the saints; and it is drawn or “written” by a person. There is therefore a personal interaction between the iconographer and the holy Person depicted on the icon. And so, even within its canonical rules, the icon has a certain freedom and flexibility that reflects its personal quality, and also, we should say, the freedom that is won in Christ when we submit ourselves firmly to His commandments. In this aspect, the icon is not unlike the Divine Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy is the same in every Orthodox parish; and yet, it comes to life in the personality of each parish that celebrates it.
This points to the spiritual dimension of the icon and of the iconographic art. Precisely because iconography dares to depict the Holy Incarnation of God the Word, it is a sacred art and a spiritual discipline. To write an icon that is fit for use in the worship of the Church, the iconographer must acquire the mind and heart of the Church by living a moral life and practicing the Faith of the Church in submitting to the Church’s spiritual disciplines, becoming a student of the Church’s doctrines. Indeed, this is true for any work of the Church. Whether one is reading the hours or the epistle, or serving in the altar, whether as an altar boy or as a subdeacon or a deacon or as a priest, or teaching the faith to others, both children and adults, or simply doing the common work of the Divine Liturgy, one is showing forth the Word of God, Christ Jesus Our Lord and Savior, so that all of these different works of the Church are different kinds of icons, and so they are each a sacred work of iconography. Therefore, we should do none of these things casually. Even coming to serve the Divine Liturgy requires that the faithful prepare themselves through prayer and fasting, reading of Holy Scripture and living their daily life according to the commandments of Christ. In all of these different works of the Church, we are iconographers on some level; we are putting together an icon that communicates and portrays the sacred mystery of the Incarnation of God the Word for the salvation of mankind. To do this work faithfully, so that it actually conveys the Word of Christ and not our own word, we cannot be casual about it. We cannot be casual about our life in this world, accommodating ourselves to the world by embracing the values of the world and filling our minds and our hearts with the things of this world, or giving our love to the pleasures and comforts of this world. We must be living ascetic lives of prayer and fasting, emptying ourselves into Christ, denying ourselves for the sake of Christ, so that we are growing in the love of Christ, so that our inward being is being purified in the Spirit of Christ, so that what we express in our words and deeds as we undertake the common work, the Liturgy of the worship of the Church in all of its different aspects – preaching, teaching, reading of Holy Scripture, liturgical movements and gestures, prayers and the holy icons – is not human sentiment or human imagination, not what we imagine Christ to be, but the very Christ Himself incarnate; so that the common work that we do is the Divine Liturgy and not a human liturgy.
Holy things are for the holy. The icon is a depiction of that which is most Holy: Christ God Himself, His Holy Mother and all the saints in whom God rests. When the icon is blessed by the sprinkling of the holy water in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; i.e., when the icon is offered to God for His glory and for the salvation of those who make use of the icon, we believe that the icon is united to Christ to become part of His body, the Church, so that it expresses the Christ in the mystery of His incarnation and serves as a palpable, concrete witness to the great joy of the Christian Faith, that Christ is in our midst! The icon then, becomes, a focal point of Christ’s presence, an embodiment of Christ on earth. We therefore understand that when we venerate the icon – when we honor it, treat it reverently, when we kiss it – our veneration of the icon passes over directly to the One who is depicted on it.
And the same is true for all the different aspects of the worship of the Church as we were explaining a moment ago. The one who reads the epistle to the faithful in the “Liturgy of the Word”, or the one who reads from the Old Testament in the Vespers services, for example, should understand that the word he or she is reading is the embodiment of the Word of God. And so the reading should be done with a certain fear, reverence. Care should be given that the word is read clearly so that all can understand it. And this same attitude of reverence should be had with anything we do in the Church; for in all the things we do in the Church, we are expressing and communicating the Word of God. This makes everything we do in the Church a kind of icon. By His Grace, God has allowed us to make these icons so that His Word becomes audible in the spoken words of Scripture and in the prayers and doctrines of the Church, and it becomes visible in the icons and in the architecture and in the liturgical movements of the Church.
This brings me to the final point I want to stress. The most perfect icon of God on earth is man, because we were made in the Image of God. All we’ve been saying about how everything we do in the Church is a kind of icon applies to each one of us. Created in the Image, the Icon, of God, which is Christ, we are able to receive Christ and to become icons in the likeness of Christ who express Christ in our words, in our deeds and in just the way that we are. And so we should not be casual about ourselves or about our life in this world. As sinners called to salvation by Christ, we have a task to do: to become like God and so fulfill our natural destiny as icons of God that express and show forth Christ and draw others to the Light of Christ by the Light of Christ that shines in us. Taking up our cross to separate ourselves from the darkness in order to unite ourselves to Christ and to clothe ourselves in the Light that He wears as a garment, this is how we go about doing the task of fulfilling our natural destiny as icons of God. United to Christ, our daily life in this world, then, is transfigured to become the arena wherein we prepare ourselves for the central work of our life; the Divine Liturgy, when we come together as the faithful to worship Christ, to partake of His divinity, to become sharers of His eternity, and so become the icons of God that we are, communicating and expressing Christ to the world in the joy and love of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father. Amen.