16 March 2003
Sunday of Orthodoxy (On Icons)
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
On March 11, 823, the first Sunday of Great Lent, the second wave of iconoclasm came to an official end. In the great church of Hagia Sophia, the necessity for the icon was made known to the Christian Church.
The question I want to raise today is why do we have icons? Keep in mind that week after week, service after service, we enter and leave the temple venerating the icons. We bow before icons, we light candles before them and we also carry them in procession. Why do we do this?
The icon exists first and foremost because of the incarnation. God became man; the invisible, incomprehensible, uncircumscribable God takes on our human nature, and as a result he is depictable, he is visible, he is circumscribable in time and space.
There were two waves of iconoclasm that affected the life of the Church. The first wave began in the 8th century and came to an end in 787, with the convening of the Second Ecumenical Council; the second wave began in the beginning of the 9th century and came to an end in 843. For about 100 years Iconoclasm literally made its mark on the Church with the removal, especially in Constantinople and the areas surrounding the great city, of the icons from the churches.
Because God has become a human being the Church has icons. Through the icon and its veneration the Church proclaims and reveals its fundamental faith in the Incarnation. Because of the Incarnation, matter plays a significant role in the salvation and transfiguration of the human person and therefore the entire universe. Listen to the words of St. John of Damascus. He wrote during the first wave of Iconoclasm from the monastery of Mar Saba in Palestine. And though he was not directly involved in the persecutions, he is considered one of the great defenders of the icon. He writes in his first Apology, “In former times, God, who was without form or body, could never be depicted. But now, when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter to work out my salvation through matter.”
The icon proclaims that God has become a man so that we, created in His image and likeness, might be saved and transformed. By taking on matter God puts an end to the tension and therefore the polarity between the created and uncreated. The termination of this polarity includes the restored harmony between the material and the spiritual. This is so because the depictable Son and Word of God has taken on the entirety of human nature - body, soul, mind and sprit. Consequently the harmony of opposites is restored in the very person of Jesus Christ. The uncreated and created, the immaterial and material form a theanthropic union in the person of the God Man. And in turn this union, perfected through the Lord's death, burial and resurrection, impacts the entire universe.
The icon stresses that we believe and confess Jesus Christ to be the Son of God who became incarnate for us so we might be saved. We confess this every time we chant or recite the Symbol of Faith. The icon witnesses to the dynamic between incarnation and salvation. But this dynamic can only be generated within the context of the ascetical life. As we enter Great Lent we are reminded that all that we do from an ascetical perspective - from an ascetical vantage point - is done neither to negate matter nor to stress the polarization between matter and spirit. Great Lent reminds us that the ascetical life never ceases if the material and spiritual components of the human person are to function as one. The tragedy of sin, the horror of sin, is that it divides the human person. Sin polarizes matter and spirit, which results in a psychosomatic schism that destines the human person to disintegration and ultimately death. God has taken upon Himself matter, which includes all of human psychology, to end this polarity and to heal the human person. Thus every icon, whether it be of a man or woman, is a depiction of an ascetic - a Christian athlete - who in Christ strives to restore personal wholeness and harmony. Every icon regardless of gender reflects the person of Jesus Christ through whom we come to know and do the will of the Father.
One of the great defenders of the icon during the second wave of Iconoclasm was Saint Nicephorus, Patriarch of Constantinople. He refers to those attacking the icon as those who seek to destroy the unity of the body of Christ. His words can apply to us in that if we are not seeking that unity of matter and spirit, the body of Christ becomes divided; the body of Christ ceases to be the temple of the Living God. Listen to his piercing words as he addresses the Iconoclasts: “By attacking the icon, the good will of the Father has remained without resolve, the cooperation of the Spirit has been ineffective, and the apostolic preaching has been quenched.” When we are unable to see that these images in lines and color reveal to us the restored human being, and when we are not moved to see that we - our flesh and spirit - are called to be the most brilliant and glorious reflection of the Triune and Tri-personal God, then everything that is given to us is squandered. The good will of the Father is without result, the cooperation of the Spirit is ineffective, the apostolic preaching - what we hear, what we see, what we are trying to proclaim - is quenched.
By celebrating this feast of the restoration of the icon we have the opportunity to see that while the icon has an essential role in proclaiming and revealing the Gospel there is another restoration that must also take place in the Church. There must be the restoration of the human person, which is an ongoing ascetical struggle. We can have the most beautiful images, but if we personally and corporately fail to seek and behold the beautiful face of the Savior, all that has been given to us is squashed and wasted. So as we celebrate the restoration of the icons, we as Orthodox Christians have to make that basic, fundamental commitment to walk on the path of righteousness, that ascetical path which puts an end to all divisions, all schisms, all polarities. By walking on this path, we become evermore whole, evermore righteous, permeated by the uncreated light of God Himself.
Copyright © 2003 by Father Robert M. Arida