So we all believe, we all are so minded, we all give our consent and have signed. This is the faith of the Apostles, this is the faith of the Orthodox, this is the faith which hath made firm the whole world. Believing in one God, to be celebrated in Trinity, we salute the honourable images!
This might seem like an odd spiritual text to reflect on. After all, it is not the wisdom of a hermit, but the decree of a Church council. Nevertheless, it has something at its heart that is central to ancient Christian piety. Today, in the Orthodox Church, we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy, commemorating the end of the iconoclastic controversy that spanned over a century and claimed countless martyrs for the faith. The victory of the Orthodox making and veneration of holy icons is, to me, a day of great hope: many people lived and died and fought for this faith, never to see the victory in their own lifetime. But today, Orthodox churches are covered in beautiful icons; all their effort was not in vain. In addition to this feast day, tomorrow is the Feast of the Annunciation and Tuesday is the Jewish Pesach (Passover). The theme of hope runs through these celebrations as well, and it is this that I would like to explore here as a matter of everyday asceticism.
For one hundred years a Christian who owned an icon of Jesus Christ, his Mother, or one of the saints, did so at his/her own peril. Possibly hoping to accommodate Jews and Muslims in the Roman (Byzantine) Empire, the emperor overstepped the bounds of his power and violated the sovereignty of the Church, declaring that all icons should be destroyed as idolatrous and censoring, exiling, even murdering anyone who would not comply. Thus began in the mid-eighth century what is known as the iconclastic controversy.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council, from which the above decree comes, happened right in the middle of the controversy, in 787 in the city of Nicaea. At a brief moment when the political powers were once again at peace with the Orthodox in the Church, the council occurred. Not long after, a new iconoclastic emperor took the throne and the persecution continued.
At stake was something central to the Christian faith: the Incarnation of the Logos of God, Jesus Christ. The Orthodox contended (and still contend) that though the divine is, indeed, invisible, in Jesus Christ God became human without ceasing to be divine: the invisible became visible for our salvation. Thus, while a Jew of the Old Testament rightly would never depict God, a Christian of the New rightly does depict Jesus Christ, without contradiction. Indeed, God had given the following reason for the prohibition of images in the Old Testament:
Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth. (Deuteronomy 4:15-18)
The rationale here is that the Israelites “saw no form,” therefore they should make no form. For Christians, something very important has happened since then: the Son of God has taken on flesh and become human, thus become visible. As St. John the Theologian describes it, He is “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled … the Logos of life” (1 John 1:1). This confession is essential to the Christian faith.
Thus, from the very earliest days, sometimes despite the disapproval of some of the more severe, early teachers, Christians have been making and honoring images of Jesus Christ and the saints. Jesus because he is God become human. The saints because they are human beings becoming God by grace. In both cases the invisible divinity becomes manifest to us through Jesus Christ. This is what people fought for during the iconoclastic controversy, and hoping against hope their efforts bore fruit in the end.
Similarly, at the Annunciation, which we celebrate tomorrow, the Virgin Mary receives word from the Archangel Gabriel that she will conceive the Son of God in human form. Despite the fact that this would scandalize her community, and that few people would believe her (it took a miraculous dream for St. Joseph!), and that her very life would be in danger as a result, her only response is “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). In embracing the hope announced to her, Mary became the Mother of God.
Lastly, the Jewish Pesach is in two days. This feast, though superseded by the Christian Pascha (Easter), nevertheless is one worth reflecting on. In fact, Kelly and I have a Godson who is ethnically Jewish and we will be celebrating it in some form tomorrow night. The Seder meal is rich with symbolism about the suffering the people of Israel endured under Egyptian slavery and the deliverance that God brought to them through the Passover. This story colors their whole history as a people: so often oppressed … and delivered. And, furthermore, Pesach looks ahead in hope to the coming of the promised Messiah that will bring ultimate deliverance, who Christians believe is Jesus Christ.
It may seem strange that the veneration of images in the Church could be “the faith which hath made firm the whole world.” However, there is something iconographic about all of life. The Victory of Orthodoxy, the Annunciation, Pesach—all of these feasts are icons of hope. Though amazing in themselves, they point us beyond themselves to something greater, just as an icon points us beyond the paint and wood to the persons depicted and the mysterious reality of the Incarnation.
As an Orthodox Christian, I often pray in front of icons. Such images help to focus my mind in prayer and have been a great comfort to me. I remember how, before I became Orthodox and did not pray with icons, my mind would often wander in prayer. But now, well, it is pretty difficult to forget that one is speaking to Jesus Christ or his saints when one is staring at their pictures. Icons have been for me a great practical aid, and in their own way they have given me hope: hope not only of the Incarnation, but also of my own spiritual progress.
And this wonderful aid in prayer, this spiritual practice, is a precious gift to me, purchased first of all with the blood of Jesus Christ, but also with the blood of the martyrs who gave their lives to pass these icons on to me. In all things, indeed, they are a great gift from the God who alone works wonders.