29 Orthodoxy Sunday, March 16, 2008

Hebrews 11:24-26; 32-40

John 1:43-51

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 Holy Church. We call this the Sunday of Orthodoxy. In my sermon from last year, I shared with you something of the history of the Seventh Council. This year, I would like to share with you something of the theology of the icon affirmed by the Seventh Council, so that we can understand better why the icon is not just important but essential to Orthodox worship, that worship of God which is in Spirit and in truth.

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.[1] 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.

St Paul argued that God the Word has revealed himself to us in many ways;[2] first, in the creation itself,[3] for the creation was brought into being by God and echoes if you will the sound of his voice. The heavens are telling the glory of God,[4] and the earth is full of his glory.[5]  It bears the stamp of his likeness, for the creation is “good”[6] in the likeness of God who alone is Good.[7] Second, God the Word revealed himself to us in days of old through the written Law of Moses and in the prophets, whose writings embody the Word of God in the written word. Finally and pre-eminently, God has revealed himself to us in the mysteries of the Incarnation of his Son.[8] Illumined by faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, the holy fathers could discern the manifestation of the Holy Trinity throughout the Old Testament. The event when three lordly men visited Abraham under the oaks of Mamre, to tell him of punishment they were about to mete out to Sodom and Gomorrah, is particularly instructive for this principle of iconography we’re illustrating. Abraham addressed the three men as Lord, i.e. in the singular, as one, even when one of them, stayed with Abraham to listen to his prayers for mercy, and the other two were already gone off to Sodom and Gomorrah to mete out the divine punishment. In other words, even though they were three, they were one and even though they were separated by earthly distance, they were not separated from one another in essence or in will or in knowledge. They acted as one. Clearly, these three men were the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Here is the one time when the Holy Trinity appeared in the form of three men. Therefore, this is the only instance when the Father and the Holy Spirit may be depicted as men in holy icons, as you see in the icon of the Holy Trinity, which depicts the three lordly men sitting at the table of Abraham under the oaks of Mamre. The Holy Spirit is depicted in Orthodox iconography also as a dove and as a fiery flame, and as light, for that is how he has appeared in the history of the bible. Finally, the Son of God is depicted as a man because he did not simply appear in the likeness of a man; he became man and dwelt among us in the flesh. You can see in all of this how the principle of Orthodox iconography works. We depict each person of the Holy Trinity in iconography not as we imagine him but as he has actually appeared, as the Scriptures themselves attest: “God is the Lord and has revealed himself to us.” “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” “That which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of Life – the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us – that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us.” By depicting the Lord in holy icons as he has appeared, we can see him as he actually is, just as he was seen as he actually is in his appearances to men.

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. St Paul writes that Christ is the “icon of the invisible God.”[9] And man, as male and female, is made in the Image of God. He is made, in other words, in Christ, such that, as an icon of Christ, human nature exists in the principle of communion with God. To the disciples in the Upper Room, the Savior says: “He who has seen me has seen the Father. I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” Here, Christ is giving to us the definition of an icon, for he is giving to us a definition of himself. An icon points to its source, as Christ points to his source, the Father who begets him; and, it participates in its source, as Christ is in the Father and the Father is in him. In this, the icon is essentially spiritual; for the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father through the Holy Spirit. And we say of the Holy Spirit that he is everywhere present, filling all things, but he is present in a special, personal way in those who confess Christ God in the “orthodox manner”, i.e. who worship him in Spirit and in Truth, who love him and keep his commandments and who confess in word and in deed that Christ God is the Lord and has revealed himself to us in the flesh. From this, you can see that when we say that something is essentially spiritual, we do not mean that it is immaterial, for the Son of God himself became flesh, and the Spirit rested upon him in the flesh; the Spirit raised him from the dead in the flesh; and the Spirit descends on the Holy Gifts to transform them into the very body and blood of Christ in Holy Eucharist. We mean by spiritual that something is able to receive God. Made in the image of God, man, as body, soul and mind is able in the very principle of his nature to receive God, to be permeated with the Holy Spirit, to be soaked, as it were, in the living waters of the Holy Spirit so that the life man lives in the body is the life of God; the thoughts he thinks in his mind are of the Wisdom of God, which is Christ, and the passion that he feels in his soul is the Passion of Christ, which is the love and compassion of Christ, the “only lover of mankind”, for all that he has made.

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.

[1] Ex 20:4-5

[2] Heb 1:1-3

[3] Rom 1:19-20

[4] Ps 19:1

[5] Isa 6:3

[6] Gn 1

[7] Lk 18:19

[8] Heb 1:2

[9] Col 1:15