The Orthodox Pages


15th February 2007



































































































































When I first started painted Icons over 20 years ago a young cousin of mine and his friends who were all still at school told me that a friend of theirs from school told them that venerating Icons was idolatry. After a few days another school kid told me the same thing and then again after a few more days another kid told me the same thing. This started me thinking because I also grew up in England and so did all my friends, but we never once questioned the veneration of Icons: it never even occurred to us. So it seemed strange that this new generation of young Orthodox should all have the same view. I felt something was wrong so I returned to each of them and asked them to tell me about these friends who told them that venerating Icons was idolatry.. In each case their friends were all re-born Christians and they made a point of teaching Orthodox Children at school against Icons. The Church has always had enemies and the Icon has had more that its fair share of attackers, but after more than a hundreds years of defending the Icon, Orthodoxy was victorious and the Icons took their rightful place in the True Church of God. I felt that I had to do something to teach these youngsters to understand what Icons meant for the Church and in that way they could give an answer to these false allegations. I decided to write two or three pages on the subject and give them a copy to read. As I started writing, my two or three pages became a small book of about 50 pages. What you will hear today are extracts from this book which if anyone is interested in reading to the full they can find it on my web page. (See Discovering The Icon)
So What are Icons?
An Icon is a painted image of Christ, the Mother of God, or of one of the saints. We also have Icons depicting events, parables and other stories related to us in the Holy Gospels and other Holy Scripture, as well as miracles and events that have taken place since the birth of Christ until now. There are many good reasons why the Orthodox Church has Icons: let us first see why the Church accepted Icons and their veneration.
In the Old Testament, we read that God gave to Moses and the children of Israel the Ten Commandments. With the second commandment, the Lord said, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God” [Exodus 20: 4-5]. This law was given because God is uncreated and invisible and therefore indescribable. To show Him in any form whatsoever would have been a false image, because the invisible and Absolute Being of God, cannot be described by created matter. This law was also to protect the people of Israel from idolatry [the worship of false gods]. God foresaw that without the law to guide His chosen people, the weak in faith would be more vulnerable to the devil’s temptations to abandon the worship of the One Invisible God and worship gods made by men’s hands. This is shown very clearly in the story of the Israelites in the wilderness. God performed many miracles and delivered Israel from the hardship and evils of Egypt. But having eaten all their food supplies in the wilderness, the people suffered from hunger, so they complained to Moses that it would have been better for them to have stayed in Egypt, in spite of all their sufferings, than to die of hunger in the wilderness. From here, it is already clear that as soon as there was any affliction, they began to lose faith in God and did not put their trust in Him to help them. Even so, God made food fall from heaven in the form of quail and manna. Then they suffered from thirst and again complained, so God gave them water from a rock. Then when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the law, he delayed many days, and the people, losing faith in God and presuming that Moses had deserted them, melted their gold jewellery and vessels and made a false god in the form of a calf.
This story shows us that if we fail to put our complete trust in God, it is all too easy to fall into the same trap of worshipping other things. Many of us do so in our normal daily lives without even realizing, because it takes on another form such as money, a prized possession we cannot bear to part with, a pop idol, a favourite television programme, etc. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans took worshipping false gods to great extremes. They worshipped the sun, moon, stars, mountains, sea, birds, animals and even men who where strong and successful were worshipped as gods or sons of gods. It is a great wonder that with the coming of Christ it was their descendants who smashed and put aside these false gods and accepted and embraced the Holy Trinity as their only God.
The old law did not in fact prohibit every representation of created matter. In Exodus 25: 18, we read that God said to Moses, “Thou shalt make two cherubim of gold; of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat”. The mercy seat was to be placed on top of the Ark of the Covenant. Solomon used this same ordinance when building the temple: “and within the oracle he made two cherubim of olive tree each ten cubits high” [1 Kings 6: 23]. Again, in Numbers 21: 8, the Lord said unto Moses, “Make thee a fiery serpent and set it upon a pole”. Is God then contradicting himself? On the one hand, he tells us not to make any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth and then on the other hand he tells Moses and Solomon to make Cherubim and a serpent. It is obvious from these exceptions found in the Old Testament that God only prohibited images that were to be used as idols of gods or even as images that would represent Himself. In this case God’s commandment was unquestionably and theologically correct because God could not be represented in any form. God was not only invisible and indescribable; He was also uncircumscribable. This means that He was everywhere, in everyplace and without being confined to any boundaries in any given time. Let us imagine that an image of God was made; we would then be able to draw a circle around this image, thus making it possible to say that God is within that circle. This circle would form a boundary and would limit God to that space alone. God cannot be confined to any boundary, He reaches beyond all creation and beyond our understanding.
God is Trinitarian, that is to say, Three Persons, in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. These Three Persons of the Holy Trinity each have their own individual characters, but all three have the same essence [nature], which makes them one. The three Persons possess the same attributes and all the inexhaustible riches and treasures of the Divinity. But again each Person has his very own particular and distinguishing mark, his own hypostatic attribute or idioma: that is to say, the Father is unbeggoten, He is the “cause” or “source” of the Godhead, born of none and proceeding from none. He is the principle of unity among the three. The Son is begotten, that is, He was born of the Father from all eternity [before all ages]. This means that the Father begets the Son from His own essence eternally, timelessly and unexplainably. The Holy Spirit proceeds, that is, He proceeds from the father from all eternity and is sent into the world through the Son. All of God’s works, the works of creation, recreation and the salvation of man are brought about by all three Persons of the Godhead for the Father does all things through the Son and in the Holy Spirit.
The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, whom we call the Son of God, became a human being by taking flesh from the Virgin Mary and received as a man the name Jesus Christ. Before the Son of God became a man, He had only one nature: the divine nature common to the Holy Trinity. Now in the flesh, He is still the same person, but with another nature: the nature common to man. He does not lose by becoming a man His first nature, but remains what He was and becomes what He was not. Therefore, Christ is both God and man: two natures but one person [hypostasis], Jesus Christ, the Son of God. For this very reason the old law on images had to change, for whereas before God was uncreated, invisible and indescribable, He has now become as one of His creatures: a man visible and describable, and whereas before God was uncircumscribable, now He has made Himself circumscribable.
The Icon had many opponents in the early Church, they did not understand the true meaning of the Icon and by using various arguments, like the prohibition of images in the Old Testament law, they claimed that the Icon was an extension of, and linked to the pagan religions of ancient Greece. These opponents of the Icon came to be known as iconomache or iconoclasts [Icon smashers]. The greatest opposition began in 725 A.D. The iconoclastic movement, supported by the emperor Leo III and the iconoclast bishops, smashed and burnt Icons, tortures, killed or exiled anyone who opposed them. This continued until 780 A.D. when the Empress Irene came to the throne and suspended the persecution. In 787 A.D. she called together a general council at Nicaea, which proved that the veneration of Icons was legitimate. Act 7 of this council stated: “We define the rule with all accuracy and after thorough examination, that in a manner similar to the precious and vivifying cross, the venerable and Holy Icons, painted or mosaic, or made of any other suitable material, be placed in the Holy Churches of God, upon sacred vessels and vestments, on walls and panels, houses and streets, both of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and of our undefiled Sovereign Lady, the Holy Mother of God; and also of the Holy Angels, and of all the saints. For the more often and frequent their representation in an image is seen, the more those beholding are lead to remember the originals which they represent and for whom the person beholding begets a yearning in the soul and grows to love them more. Also such persons are prompted to kiss and pay them honorary adoration, not the true adoration which according to our faith, is proper only to the one divine nature, but in the same way veneration is given to the image of the precious and vivifying cross, the Holy Gospels and other sacred objects, which we honour with incense and candles according to the custom of our forefathers by way of manifesting piety. For the honour given to the Icon is passed on to the original, and whosoever bows down in adoration before the Icon, is at the same time bowing down in adoration to the person represented on it”.
In 815, there was another iconoclast period until the Empress Theodora came to the throne. In 843, she called together a council, as had Irene before her, and once again proved and proclaimed the legitimacy of venerating Icons. A great feast to celebrate this victory took place on the first Sunday of Lent, March 11, 843. This feast is still celebrated by the Orthodox Church on the first Sunday of Lent each year, which is called the Sunday of Orthodoxy or the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Church continues to celebrate this feast because it was not only the Icon that was being defended, but also the very dogma of the Incarnation [the church’s beliefs concerning God becoming man]. The Icon is directly connected to this dogma, which is the very foundation of Christianity and which all our hopes of salvation depend on. If the Church was to oppose the Icon, as did the iconoclasts, then it would actually be denying that God became man and therefore the means to man’s salvation is lost, because it would break the union between God and man which Christ united in Himself. The iconoclasts also regarded all created matter as evil and despicable and therefore incapable of representing something that is spiritual. This school of thought was in reality saying that the incarnate body of Christ fell into the same category. It was to deny that His human body had been deified and at the same time, it betrayed the belief that man’s body, as well as his soul, can and must be saved. But if we accept that God became man and His flesh was deified, then in truth, God deified matter, making it spirit bearing, and as the flesh was sanctified, then so could other matter, though in a different way. God created nothing evil and despicable, for in all things that He created, He saw that it was good [Genesis 1].
Between the iconoclast periods and the councils, it was established how and why we venerate an Icon. When we venerate an Icon, we do not venerate the paint or the wood, but the veneration is passed on through the Icon to the actual person. The Icon does not become that person because by nature the person and the Icon are made of different materials, The Icon relates to the person because; it depicts his recognizable image and must carry his name. In biblical understanding, the “Name” signifies the presence of the Holy One [we stand before this house and in thy presence for thy Name is in this house
(2 Chron. 20:9)]. The name of a saint on his Icon does the same; it identifies the person or persons and at the same time is a seal of sanctification and constitutes its blessing. for as with the cross and the Bible, the Icon does not need to have special prayers read over it or receive any other form of blessing by a priest to make it holy. It cannot receive any additional benefit from a priest’s blessing or any application of Myron [holy oil]. Some icons have no inscription, which is contrary to the theology of the Icon, for it is the inscription that brings about its sanctification: without it, the Icon remains a common work of art.
With the icon of our Lord Jesus Christ, we do not say that the Icon becomes God; this is because it does not share in his divine nature. But we can say that it is the image of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, because it shares with Him His hypostasis [person], by the fact that it bears His image and name. We as human beings all have one nature, that is, we are all made of flesh and blood. But we differ from each other because we have different characters and names. I am not like John or Anthony, and they are not like Andrew or Peter. What we all share we call the nature, what makes us different from each other we call the hypostasis or person.
In helping us to understand how the Icon participates in the hypostasis and not the nature, St.Theodore the Studite gave us an example by using the image of a seal on a ring and its imprint. He said that if we take a ring which has carved upon it the image of the Emperor and make an imprint with the ring in wax or clay, the imprint would be the same n both the wax and the clay, but the two would still be different from each other because they are made of different materials. The wax has the image of the Emperor but it is still wax, and the clay has the image of the Emperor but it is still clay. In this same way, they are also different from the ring, which is the original (prototype). Neither the wax nor the clay image can be the ring; the only thing that all three share together is the image of the Emperor. It is the same with Christ and His Icon: the Icon is the image, or as in the case with the ring, it is the imprint, but it cannot be more than this, that is, it cannot be His human body or His divine nature. Therefore, when we venerate the Icon of Christ, we worship the hypostasis (person) of Christ and the Icon acts like a transmitter, transmitting the worship to the very person of Christ, in whom is united his two natures.
Some people have the opinion that it is acceptable to kiss the Icon of Christ because He is God, but to show such reverence to the Icons of the Mother of God or of one of the saints is a form of’ idolatry. Let us therefore try to understand why this is a wrong belief arising from a Lack of knowledge of the relationship between God and man.
In the Gospels, we find the event of the Transfiguration. From St. Matthew we read that Christ took with Him Peter, James and John his brother and went up into a high mountain [Mount Tabor], “and was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun and his raiment was white as the light” [St. Matth. 17:2]. St. Mark says of the same event, “And his raiment became shining exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them” [St. Mark 9:3]. St. Mark tries to describe this light, but can only say that, “no fuller on earth can white them”. As created beings, we can only explain what we see, hear or understand, by other things in our life. We cannot begin to describe this light of the Transfiguration because it is not created, as is the light of the sun: it is the uncreated divine light of God that proceeds from His inaccessible nature. Therefore, Christ appeared to His disciples as God in the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, for as has already been mentioned, when the Son of God became man, He did not lose His divine nature, but accepted another. Christ is both very God and very man. This event in the life of Christ not only tells us that He appeared to His disciples as God, but also that man’s nature appeared in the divine glory. God became man so that man may become God.
We find in the writings of the fathers and from the lives of some of the saints, that through inner peace, prayer and contemplation, they received while still in this life, this same uncreated light whereby man is transfigured and is united to God. Also in St Matthew 5:48, we read Christ’s commandment, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”. Again from St. John 17:21-23, “That they all may be one; as thou Father art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them that they may be one even as we are one: I in them and thou in me that they may be made perfect in one”. We see therefore that Christ Himself desires that we be one with Him. In His desire, He gives us of His glory that we may be made perfect in one. It is for this reason that man was created, to reach perfection and oneness with God.
The Church recognizes that many of her members have obtained through righteous living or martyrdom this oneness with God. It is these that the Church has promoted to the ranks of saints. By nature, these saints are still men, but they have been deified through the grace of God. To be deified by the grace of God means to be exalted and made as a god. The Holy Trinity is God by nature; when a man is deified, he receives deification as a gift from God. It is not something that belongs to him by nature because by nature he is a human being. God bestows upon man the greatest gift of His love and raises him to Himself by making him a god by grace. It is the final end for which man was created: to be united in oneness with God. This does not mean that man becomes an additional hypostasis [person] to the Three Hypostasis of the Holy Trinity. The divine nature is always inaccessible to all creatures that have their nature in something else. Man partakes not in the nature of God, but in the divine energies that proceed from the divine nature.
When we honour a saint through his Icon, we do not worship him as if he was God, we give him honour and respect because of his oneness with God. When we pray to the saint, we do not ask him to save us directly as though he was God, but we beseech him as our fellow man to intercede to God on our behalf, for having already reached perfection [insofar as he can until the general resurrection of the dead], his prayer is of great strength before the face of God.
In 787 A.D., the Church made a clear distinction in the type of veneration offered to the Icons of Christ and the Icons of the saints. In Christ, it takes on the form of worship because He is God. In the saints the veneration is called ‘honorific’, this is to say, it is honour and respect but never worship which is reserved only for God.
Although the Icon does not share in the uncreated divine nature of God, it is nevertheless still holy, for what is meant by this term is that it does not become deified [a god]. This does not hinder it from being sanctified. The icon is sanctified through its communion with Christ and the saints, through the image and the inscription that it bears. It is holy in the same way that the Cross and the Bible are holy. St. Basil the Great says that iconographers are equal in honour to the Gospel writers. He says this because what the Gospels explain by means of words, the painter explains by means of his works. The Bible is holy not because of the paper and ink, but because the words it contains are the words of God, written by men inspired by the Holy Spirit. These words of God are holy because they proceeded from the mouth of God and sanctify us each time we hear them. In the same way we are sanctified through the icon because it also is the word of God represented in images, and to put it another way, as the Icon is the image of Christ, so likewise the Bible is the verbal image of Christ, Both inspire and teach us how to live so that we may find the narrow road that leads to salvation.
Many people believe that if a holy man paints an Icon, then it is very likely that that Icon will be holier that others and therefore perform miracles. This may well be true, but to make such a statement can give rise to confusion as to who is being glorified. In all probability, God may well choose to glorify the iconographer by glorifying his work, and reveal to the world that he lives in the light of the Holy Trinity, but if an Icon of a certain saint is revealed as miracle-working, whom is God glorifying, the saint whose Icon it is, or the iconographer? If we give the glory to the iconographer, we take away the glory due to the saint, for it is to the saint, that prayer was offered and a miracle had taken place. All holiness proceeds from God and all Icons are holy because they are in communion with the saints who live in God’s holiness. If we have an Icon of the Mother of God, which has been revealed as miracle working, and another, which has not, the holiness of both Icons, is the same. If we say that one is holier than the other, we are in danger of saying that the Mother of God’s holiness is variable and fluctuates in degrees. The actual person of the Mother of God in heaven is All-Holy and all her Icons are in communion with her to the same degree. Where the one Icon is revealed as miracle working, it is not the holiness that varies but divine intervention due to the state of someone’s faith. Some icons in Orthodox Churches are given special honour because they have been manifested as miracle-working Icons. It is not wrong to give these Icons special place; on the contrary, it is right that special honour is given to such Icons that continually manifest the healing grace of the Holy Spirit. The Church often distinguishes in the glory and honour given to the saints. In the closing prayers of a service, the Church always mentions after Christ, the Mother of God who is ranked as first among the saints, then St. John the Baptist, the Apostles and other ranks of saints according to the type of service. We also see that certain saint’s days are kept with more grandeur than others. This can be either because they suffered greater than other saints in their lifetime or through martyrdom, or that God manifested how much He has glorified a saint through the many and glorious miracles performed through the saint. In the same way that we give special place to certain saints, so too it seems right with the Icon, but, keeping in mind, that all Icons can be miracle-working.
God performs miracles according to our faith; to help us grow stronger in faith and sometimes even because of lack of faith. In the Gospel story of the woman with the issue of blood we read, “And behold a woman which was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years, came behind him and touched the hem of his garment: for she said within herself, if I may but touch the hem of his garment, I shall be whole. But .Jesus turned him about and when he saw her he said, daughter be of good comfort: thy faith hath made thee whole, And the woman was made whole from that hour” [ Matthew 9:2O-22]. Also in the Acts of’ the Apostles 19:12, we read that handkerchiefs and aprons that Paul had touched were placed on the sick and possessed and they were cured. These two accounts tell us that we need faith if we are seeking for a cure or miracle, and that God often makes use of created matter to perform his works. This is especially so with the Icon if we believe and have faith that He can do so. Miracles through Icons also confirm that God approves of our venerating them.
The Icon exists to help us see in visible forms, the whole teaching of the Church and to make accessible through visible means the mystery of the Divine Economy to the human spirit. When we enter a church, the first things we notice are the Icons, the smell of incense and the voice of the choir. These elements work through our senses to lift our minds to a different plane, away from the worldly existence of our normal lives and to awaken in us, the senses of the soul which have otherwise been closed, due to the noise and rush of our daily lives. When we look into the Icons during the Divine Liturgy, we get a sense of feeling that the invisible world is among us and worshipping with us. The icon helps us to put aside our earthly troubles and raise our spirit to the heavenly plane so that we may receive Christ our King. It serves to make us aware of the words of the ‘Cherubic Hymn’ “Let us who mystically represent the cherubim and chant the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, put aside all earthly cares so that may receive the King of all who is invisibly attended by the angelic hosts”. The Icon makes this possible by staying clear of earthly reality and seeking through symbols, shapes and other forms, which have no identity with the real world, to speak to us of the spiritual world.
The Icons serve to inspire, guide and encourage us to seek the Kingdom of Heaven. They also serve to remind us of Christ’s suffering and that He suffered all things for us so that we may have eternal life. They remind us that, the saints are those who genuinely served the Lord in faith and devotion and that we should strive to imitate them and follow in their footsteps. The Icon therefore expresses the Life of the Church and her worship, free from all earthly reality and revealing the spiritual reality of the Kingdom of Heaven, the kingdom of the Holy Trinity that is worshipped in spirit and in truth.
What I have said on Icons can be summed up in the service for Sunday of Orthodoxy. At the end of the Liturgy the priest will stand by the royal Doors and say in a loud voice:
A yearly thanksgiving is due to God on account of that day when we recovered the Church of God, with the manifestation of the pious dogmas and the overthrowing of the blasphemies of wickedness.
Following prophetic sayings, yielding to apostolic exhortations, and standing on the foundation of the accounts in the Gospels, we make festival on this day of dedication and making merry together and rejoicing in prayers and litanies, we cry out in psalms and hymns.
Then begins the procession around the Church with the Icons. It is customary for each person to bring with him a small Icon which he or she will carry around with the procession.
At intervals at the four sides of the Church the priest will then say:
Those who know the difference in essences of the one and the same hypostasis of Christ attribute to it properties both created and uncreated, visible and invisible, capable of suffering and beyond suffering, circumscribed and uncircumscribed; they ascribe to the divine essence uncreatedness and the rest, while they acknowledge in the human nature the other qualities, including being circumscribed, and affirm all this both in word and in images: Everlasting be their memory.
Those who, believing and proclaiming, preach the words of the Gospel in writings, and the deeds in forms, to gather together in a single duty that includes both proclamation through words, and sure confirmation of the truth through icons: Everlasting be their memory.
As the Prophets saw, as the Apostles taught, as the Church has received, as the Teachers express in dogma, as the inhabited world understands together with them, as grace illumines, as the truth makes clear, as error has been banished, as wisdom makes bold to declare, as Christ has assured, so we think, so we speak, so we preach, honouring Christ our true God, and his Saints, in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in icons, worshipping and revering the One as God and Lord, and honouring them because of their common Lord as those who are close to him and serve him, and making to them relative veneration.
This is the faith of the Apostles; this is the faith of the Fathers; this is the faith of the Orthodox; this faith makes fast the inhabited world. These preachers of true religion, we praise as brothers and as those we long to have as our fathers, to the glory and honour of the true religion for which they struggled, and say:
Of the defenders of Orthodoxy, the pious Kings, holy Patriarchs, Archpriests, Teachers, Martyrs and Confessors, Everlasting be their memory.
The Holy Trinity has glorified them. By their contests and struggles and teachings for the sake of true religion to the point of death, we entreat God that we may be guided and strengthened and beg that we may be shown to be imitators of their inspired way of life until the end, by the pities and grace of the great and first high-priest Christ, our true God; at the intercessions of our most-glorious Lady, Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary, of the god-like Angels and all the Saints. Amen.