28 - Restoration of Icons, March 13, 2011

Hebrews 11:24-6, 32 -12:2

John 1:43-51

On this the first Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate the Restoration of Icons as an essential element of the worship of God in Spirit and in Truth. The restoration of holy icons to the worship of the Church was affirmed after an extended period of bitter conflict between iconoclasts, who were suspicious of icons and who demanded that religious art, or icons, be “destroyed or broken”, and iconophiles or iconodules, those who believed that the image or the icon expresses the fundamental truth of the Christian Faith, that Jesus Christ is God the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. At the Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in the year 787 AD under the Empress Irene, and again at a regional synod held in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the year 843 AD under Empress Theodora, the veneration of icons was affirmed and solemnly proclaimed. Monks and clergy came in procession and restored the icons in their rightful place in the Church. On this day each year, the first Sunday of Great Lent, the “Sunday of Orthodoxy,” the faithful become part of that same procession when they process around the Church with the holy icons and call out the “Symbol of Faith.” Iconoclasm – the rejection of icons as essential to worship of God in Spirit and in Truth, and the refusal to venerate them – is a form of heresy, specifically the heresy of “monophysitism”. Iconoclasm comes from a theological vision that denies the Incarnation. Many Christians today are iconoclasts. Whether they mean to or not, by rejecting icons as essential to Christian worship, and by refusing to venerate them, they deny the Incarnation of Christ.

Christ Himself is the Icon of the invisible God. Man was made in the image, the icon, of God, which is Christ. This alone tells us immediately that the icon is central to the Christian Faith – for the Icon is Christ, and man is created in the icon of Christ. The icon and the theology of the icon open onto the mystery of God and man in its fullness. The icon, then, is the whole of the Christian Faith.

This morning, the point I want to draw out from the rich storehouse of the theology of the icon and reflect on with you is very simple: made in the image and likeness of God, man becomes whatever he eats, whatever he thinks on, whatever he loves.

To the question, what is that essential principle that distinguishes man as man, human wisdom from the first days of philosophy in the 8th and 7th centuries BC to modern day science has sought to find the answer in some irreducible principle of cosmic being. Different schools of thought have taught that man is essentially air or fire or earth or water or mind. Other schools have focused on the incorporeal aspect of man, the soul, and taught that the essentially human principle is reason, mind or freedom. Nowadays, it seems that the prevailing assumption governing the textbooks of the schools and academia is that man is but a kaleidoscopic configuration of genes, DNA, descended through generations of material generation from the subconscious rhizome of atoms and molecules, and that man essentially, in his irreducible principle, is simply energy, of the same essential stuff as rocks, plants, animals and stars.

We must understand that the Church does not derive her wisdom from human philosophy or science. Her wisdom is revealed to her directly from Christ in His uncreated Word. The God who created the world and everything in it has spoken to the Church first in His prophets and in His Law; and, in these last days, He has spoken to us in His Son, Jesus Christ, the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us, the only-begotten of God who is in the bosom of the Father and who has made Him known to us. In this Wisdom of the Church, the holy fathers of the Church have answered this question, what is man, what is that essential principle that distinguishes man as man, according to what they have seen and heard. In the Wisdom of the Church, the holy fathers have taught us that the primary principle that makes man to be man is his having been created in the image, the icon, of God; i.e., in Christ, in the mystery of the divine, uncreated Person of Christ, the Son of the Father. This image, moreover, in which man is made, the holy fathers have taught does not refer to one aspect or element of human being only but to the whole man. That is to say, it is not just the incorporeal aspect of man – his soul or his mind – that is in the image of God. His body, too, is in the image of God.

And what, precisely, is the defining quality of this image of God in which man is made, such that it pertains to his whole being, his body as well as his soul and his mind? That defining quality is given in the biblical revelation of Christ as the Icon of the invisible God, and so the Image of God in which man was made. This means that man is made to exist in communion with God, as a partaker of the divine nature, because he is made to exist in his conception not outside of God but in God, because he is brought into being and made to exist in Christ, in Him who is the Image of the invisible God, i.e., God the Father. He is made to exist body and soul in Christ, so that his body as well as his soul, his corporeal as well as his incorporeal aspects are made to exist in Christ. From this, the holy fathers of the Church have taught that the defining quality of the image of God in which man was made is an innate capacity for union with God. This capacity for God is the irreducible principle of man’s essence: not air or fire or earth or water or mind or reason or even freedom, but the capacity for union with God; therefore, the capacity to become God. That is to say, to become by grace what God is by nature; to become what God is by living and moving and having his being in union with God. And this capacity for union with God applies to his body as well as to his soul, to his visible and corporeal aspect as well as his invisible and incorporeal aspect. The body, too, that is to say, is holy, sacred, and spiritual as the temple of God in whom God dwells. When the Word of God becomes flesh, then, He makes the body to be what it is supposed to be by nature: saturated with the living waters of the Holy Spirit like a sponge saturated with water, and so it is spiritual, sacred and holy, the temple of God in whom God takes up His dwelling on earth.  

St Luke the Evangelist concludes his genealogy of Jesus’ human ancestry by tracing it all the way back to Adam, the son of God. This is the biblical vision of man: man is akin to God. He has an innate affinity for God, because God, as his creator, is his Father, and he is made to exist in the image of God. He is made to exist in Christ who is Image of God. Christ is the Son of God, so that having been created in Christ, man is made by the gracious goodness of God also to be the son of God by grace in his union with Him who is the Son of God by nature, Christ Jesus Our Lord and Savior.

To participate in God: this is what man was made for. This biblical vision of man is given in the first pages of the bible, in both Gn 1 and Gn 2 which recount in a theological way the creation of man. In the bible, man is called “Adam”. This is a Hebrew word that means “ruddy-colored clay.” For indeed, man was shaped by the hands of God – this is what St Irenaeus of the 2nd century calls the Word and Holy Spirit of God – from the clay of the earth. Made from clay: this is using the mythopoeic images common to the time that Genesis was written to convey a theological truth: man, not just in his body but also in his soul and in his mind because the whole man is made from the clay, is malleable. That is to say, he is shaped by whatever he gives himself to. He is shaped not only in his body by what he gives his mouth to. He is shaped in his mind also by whatever he gives the windows of his mind to; these are his eyes and his ears. His mind is shaped by whatever wisdom he devotes himself to, whatever he reads. If he devotes himself to the wisdom of the world, he becomes worldly in mind, and so he becomes darkened in mind because the wisdom of the world in its arrogance and pride has rejected God even to the point of murdering Him on the Cross. But, if he devotes himself to the Wisdom of the Church, which is Christ Himself, he becomes like God in his mind. In his soul, man is shaped by whatever he gives his moods or emotions or feelings to. If he gives his feelings and his emotions to the riches of the world, to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, then he becomes lustful, angry, envious, greedy, vain, proud. He becomes darkened in his soul because these are not in the image and likeness of God, and so they are not in the image and likeness even of man since man was not made in the image and likeness of these things but in the image and likeness of God. Finally, if man gives himself to his body or to the wisdom of his own mind or to the feelings of his own soul, he becomes darkened in the shadow of death; and finally, he becomes a corpse in the stench of decay and corruption.  

Only as man gives himself to Christ does he become like Christ and therefore truly himself; for in Christ he attains to the principle of his nature in the image and likeness of Christ. Reflect on the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent in the light of this theology of the icon revealed to us in the Wisdom of the Church. What we are doing when we fast not only with the mouth but also with the eyes and the ears, the hands and the feet; when we fill the emptiness created by the fast with prayer, with reading of sacred texts such as the bible and the lives of the saints; when we make the effort to come to the serenity and beauty of the Church to pray with our brothers and sisters in Christ; what we are doing in all of these things is dying to the world and giving ourselves to Christ that He might reshape us in His image and likeness. Let us therefore be resolved to keep the fast. It is the cross by which we follow Christ into the light and life of His Holy Resurrection. Amen.