The Sunday of Orthodoxy

February 19, 2010 Length: 23:36

As we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy and the victory over iconoclasm, Fr. Tom gives a personal reflection on icons and their use and misuse.





Every year at the beginning of Great Lent, we have of course what is called technically the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. This celebration on the first Sunday of Lent commemorates the return of the holy icons to the Church and to the churches after more than a century of blood in which the icons were either removed from the churches completely or were placed at a height where they could not be venerated but could be only looked at for the sake of some type of edification. I have already spoken on Ancient Faith Radio. I am sure that almost all of you are familiar with that terrible time in the eighth and ninth centuries, from the 720s to the 800s—843, actually—when the icons were out of the Church. I believe that probably most Christians familiar with ancient Christianity would know that it was officially decided by the seventh and the final of the so-called Ecumenical Councils that icons are to be made, they are to be painted—sometimes we say to be “written”: people say you “write” an icon. I honestly think that that’s not necessary to say because the word graphein in Greek or pisatz in Slavonic means both to write and to draw, or simply to paint or to make. I don’t think there’s any particular theological need to say “write icons.” But in any case, icons were affirmed.

The veneration of icons [was] affirmed. That we proclaim and confess our faith in words and works, as the Ecumenical Council said, which the kontakion of the feast repeated. That Jesus is not only the Word of God and the Son of God, he’s the Icon of God. St. Paul says,: The grace and light and glory of God that shone in Moses and so on in the Old Testament is now shining perpetually and eternally apo tou prosopou tou Kyriou, from the face of the Lord Jesus. And he says: Hos estein eikon tou Theou, who is the icon of God. So Jesus Christ is the icon of God.

In the letter to [the] Colossians, St. Paul said: Jesus is the icon of the invisible God, eikon tou Theou aoratou, the icon of the unseen and the unseeable God, invisible God. And in St. John’s Gospel, of course, Jesus said to Philip and to the disciples, “He who sees me sees the Father. How can you say: Show us the Father?” So we believe that Jesus Christ, the man Jesus, is an icon of God himself, and he is God himself in human flesh, and therefore the making of icons and frescoes and the veneration of them is a confession of faith. If you would deny it, you would be denying the Incarnation. St. John of Damascus said: If anyone wants to know what a Christian believes, show him the icon, because the icon shows that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and we have beheld his glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father.

So we could get into the technicalities of icon veneration and rebuking iconoclasts as iconodules. Iconodules are the ones who venerate the icon; iconoclasts are the ones who reject the icon or break the icons. We could do that, but that’s not what I want to do right now. What I want to do right now—and I’m kind of taking advantage of the fact that I’ve been given a microphone and I can speak on Ancient Faith Radio—I really want to share a very great concern that I have about the use of icons in our time, the veneration particularly of icons in our time, because I’m really very concerned that, as one archbishop put it a couple years ago in an article that I read—he said the irony now is that the iconodules are the new iconoclasts. That was the point of his article, his homily. He said right now the icons are being kind of misused, abused, treated with sacrileges ways and so on—by the very people who venerate them and by the very people who make them and hang them up in their homes and churches and all over everywhere else, and how they use them is a kind of desecration of the icon. I feel just so strongly about this that I want to reaffirm it this year.

Icons are holy. Icons are presences of God. Icons are full of grace. Icons, as the popular saying is, are windows into paradise. They take us beyond ourselves, beyond our world, into the realm of God. In a word, icons are holy. They’re the holy icons, and they have to be treated in a holy way. First of all, they have to be made beautiful. They have to be made properly. They have to follow the rules of icon-making, icon-writing, or icon-painting. They have to be done in such a way that they proclaim the Gospel, that they proclaim the faith once for all delivered to the saints. You can’t have any kind of drawing. You can’t have any kind of painting. You can’t even have a painting and distort the figures and make it look Byzantine and then call it an icon.

And not everybody has the gift of being an icon-painter, an icon-maker, an iconographer, no. I think that one of the things we really must do in our time is to be much more careful about making icons. People who don’t really have the gift for it shouldn’t do it. Oh, a person may love to try to paint an icon, make an icon, and they can do it and put it in their house privately or give it to a friend, but we should not be so—how can you say?—presumptuous, I think, that anyone who paints an icon should have that icon put into the church and consecrated or blessed or whatever and use it for veneration. It just may not be apt for that particular purpose. It just may not be well done.

So when we have icons that are not really good icons—they’re not well done, they’re not beautiful, they’re not proportional, they’re not harmonious… In fact, one great iconographer of our time once told me: Sometimes the most beautiful works of art are not real icons, because they make us stop with them. They don’t lead us beyond themselves into the realm of God. And you just are fascinated about how beautifully crafted and well-done and how gifted the artist is—but it’s not a real icon. So even not only ugly icons or poorly done icons, but sometimes even very wonderfully done artistic works and paintings still do not have the iconographic function, and therefore there is a kind of betrayal of the icon going on by the very people who are making them and using them, because they’re using things that are not real icons. You can’t be an icon-venerator but then have a thing that you call an icon that’s not really an icon.

Then, of course, lots of times in icons things are put that don’t belong there or they’re not—how can you say?—honest and truthful to what they’re trying to depict. Maybe even there’s some wrong things put into an icon and so on. So we have to be really very, very careful about that.

But, even more serious than that, in my opinion, because God is merciful… I mean, God can use a bad icon to save a soul. God could use a big work of art, that someone could be thrilled by it, even though it’s not technically a really liturgical, dogmatic Eastern Orthodox Christian icon. So that’s possible, no doubt about it. It happens.

But what is more serious is how we’re treating icons in many of our churches today: with incredible disrespect. First of all, hanging icons all over the place indiscriminately is not treating them respectfully. We don’t have to put an icon in every single inch of our church building, for example, especially if it’s a temporary quarters, we have a lot of paper icons pasted around. I think—my own opinion would be—people may disagree; I know people who do disagree—but I think a beautiful good reproduction can be used better than a poor original. Of course, the best-case scenario would be to have a good original, a real painted icon that’s a real icon and really can lead us to God and really is adequate to the theme that it is presenting. That would be the greatest; that would be the perfection itself. But a good copy is not to be scorned, and I think a good copy can even be venerated. It can be used in church, and it’s better probably to use a good copy than a poor original.

But we have to be careful how we hang these icons, where we put them, how we use them. They can’t just be decoration, for example, and they can’t be just things hung indiscriminately all over the place just because we have them. And then when they get old and when they become dirty, when they become darkened, when maybe they even be somehow hurt in some way—scratched or punctured or whatever—then we should burn them, unless they’re icons that have a powerful grace, maybe a wonder-working icon or something like that. Then of course we would put it in a case, and we would venerate it even more. But we should not simply have all kinds of holy pictures and icons hung over that are dirty, that are scratched, that are—I don’t know—moldy even or something. You see that; I’ve seen that around, I do, and I think to myself: the best way of venerating that particular icon is to make a nice fire and to burn it, because that nice icon that one day was beautiful and usable is now no longer so, and that has to be faced and that has to be admitted, just like if you had an old copy of the Bible.

Suppose you had an old copy of the Bible and it was all worn out and pages were ripped, and I don’t know maybe your children got at it and wrote all over it with crayon or something. Well, you would then burn it. You would burn it. You would treat it respectfully. If it were particularly holy and venerable and belonged to some saintly person, you might even keep it and put it in a case, but you would treat it with respect. You wouldn’t just let it hang around and be there and hang there without much attention given to it. You would give attention to it. You would care for it; you would treat it carefully, responsibly, respectfully. I think that we’re not doing that nowadays with icons. I honestly believe that that sin is being committed way, way, way too frequently, which leads to another thing, and that is just storing of icons.

Sometimes you go into churches, even, not to speak of people’s homes, and you go into churches and perhaps churches are more offending in this than people’s homes are—where you can go into the sanctuary of an altar in a church, and there’s icons on the floor. The icons are sitting on the floor, upside-down, backwards. I served in a church one time where the altar table had five pillars on it, so the bottom of the altar table was kind of open. Many altar tables, of course, are not open. They have cloth or wood or marble or whatever covering all four sides, but there are some altar tables that are open. In fact, the more old-fashioned type of altar tables, old Byzantine tables, are often on five legs, five pillars. Well, I was in a church once, serving, where that was the case, and on the floor under the altar, visible to everyone, were just some icons sitting on the floor. Every time I bent over to bow or to kiss the altar table or whatever, I would see these icons on the floor by my feet, because as the presbyter I was standing at the altar.

Well, icons should not be put on the floor. They should not be put on the floor. They should not simply be stacked indiscriminately. If they’re not being used, there should be a special, holy place… In fact, [in] the old days, they even had a name for it: skevophylactarion or something, they called it; skevophylaction or something, which meant the place where you keep the holy stuff. So you would put chalices that you’re not using there, crosses that you’re not using there. You’d have a special compartment for that, a special closet of some sort, a case. I think we have to be much, much more careful about doing that and not just putting icons any old place, and certainly not on the floor and certainly not upside-down and backwards behind a chair.

I was once sitting in a priest’s office on a couch, and I had to be careful when I leaned back, because there was an epitaphios, a plashchanitsa, a winding sheet that’s carried on Great and Holy Friday on a board so it was stiff, and it was stood up on its side in the office behind a couch. Well, you can’t do that. You either hang it up in a proper place or put it in a proper closet with all due respect and treatment. So I think that we must be concerned about this.

Another thing I think very important, for me, anyway, is I don’t think icons should be put on covers of books. There can be some other way of making a nice cover of a book. I have to actually say and tell whoever listens to this: When I was the dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, I begged the press not to put copies of real icons on the covers of books.. I wasn’t successful; it was done anyway, but books are thrown all over the place. They’re put in packing carts. People take books into the toilet. There’s book everywhere. You stack them up in a corner, they fall off the shelf and so on. You can’t have the Vladimir Mother of God or the Rublev Trinity just thrown around like that. I don’t think that we should put icons on church bulletins, because people take them, they throw them in their car, they step on the floor on them. Those are holy things, really holy things. We can’t be sacrilegious. We can’t be sacrilegious. We have to care for holy things and use holy things properly. You can’t kiss the cover of every church bulletin or every publication. It’s not meant for that purpose. Icons are not meant for that purpose.

Some people say the icon is as holy as the eucharistic elements. Other Fathers say icons are holy like holy water. You wouldn’t take holy water and just—I don’t know—use it in a bad manner. You’d be very careful with it. Anything that’s consecrated, that’s blessed, that stands for God, that is a presence of God, a presence of grace, you have to treat with great respect.

And then, for me, the worst of all is when icons are put on clothing. I don’t even think icons should be on [the] back of vestments, to tell the truth. A vestment is not an icon-holder. A vestment is a vestment; it’s a piece of clothing. Icons should be in places where they’re clearly to be venerated and respected and kissed, incensed, whatever. Now, of course, there’s piety, and you have to face that, but I think we should be more careful. But certainly we can’t have icon prints on the front of t-shirts when kids are playing volleyball at camp, some boys and girls running around with the Trinity on their chests.

I was recently at a meeting where a person, a grown person, a grown woman, was walking around with a shirt with an icon on the back of it, an icon of the face of Christ on the back of her shirt, and she was walking around. I didn’t know: should I cross myself and go up and kiss her back? Then of course she down and sat on a chair and went around and was doing various things, but I don’t think that holy icons should be imprinted on the back of clothing. Still less should holy icons be put on salt shakers and earrings and even bracelets. It’s nice to be pious and have a nice bracelet. Well, maybe you could wear a prayer rope around your wrist to remember to pray, but to have six or eight saints on icons on your wrist, walking around with them—I don’t know, we usually wear an icon, a medallion or a cross, around our neck and treat it very carefully in that way.

So I think that what we have in our time as the archbishop said are iconodules inadvertently and mindlessly being iconoclasts. Those of us who defend the veneration of icons, we use them in such a way that they’re no longer venerated. We use them in ways that they are not really treated properly. I think every one of us—I would almost beg and plead every one of us—to really make a vow to treat icons properly. I think we should make a vow not to put them on just… I’ve seen posters, for example, which is half of the face of Jesus, and the other half is lettering. I’ve seen posters with lettering right across the face of our Lord, announcing some kind of a retreat or something.

And then, of course, there’s the issue of the computer, where we put all these icons up on computers and people play games with them, and they come apart and they reassemble them, they send cards, greeting cards through the email by using an icon. I always feel very badly deleting an icon of the Lord and putting it in my “trash bin” in my computer. I don’t think that that’s a good use. You can greet somebody on a greeting without using a holy icon for that purpose. When we do use holy icons through the mail, for example, as nice cards, they should be given to people that they would keep them, that they would treat them reverently, and when they would discard them, they would burn them, but they wouldn’t leave them lying around. Or maybe they could put them in holy books or something, so that they would have some kind of safe treatment.

But I think we have to be much, much more careful with computers and printing and reproductions and clothing and articles of earrings, bracelets, things like that. I think that really the Lord God Almighty would really want us to be more respectful of the image of his Son and of his saints, and I think our Lord Jesus Christ would also ask us to be much more respectful about his icons, his holy icons. Being respectful would mean that we don’t put them on floors, we don’t stack them up, we don’t just indiscriminately use them for posters and bulletins, we don’t write across the front of the face of them; we treat them with care. And then the beautiful icons that we do have, that we would hang them on our walls or put them in our corners or put them where we pray or even put them in our automobile, hanging down as a presence of the Lord there, but treated with respect and prayer and veneration, because we want to be icon-venerators, not icon-desecrators.

We want really to have the icon always be used in a way that people would know that it’s really holy. We don’t want to trivialize our faith. We don’t want to vulgarize our faith. We don’t want to stick our holy things all over the place, think that we’re bearing witness or something. It’s not bearing witness; in fact, it’s doing just the opposite. It’s telling people: This can’t really be that important if you could just put it all over the place, stack it on the floor, and wear it on your chest when you’re playing volleyball. I think it gives the wrong message totally, even when the intention may be good-willed. I’m certain many people are good-willed in their intentions. I’m not so sure that people who sell things are always good-willed, because people who sell things want to make money, so they figure out what they can sell. So the more kind of holy objects they can dream up to sell and they’ll find pious people to buy them, and then of course they make money. Well, that’s not good, but in any case, the pious people shouldn’t be duped.

The pious people should say: If I’m going to buy something and use it in my house, I’m going to buy something that’s presented respectfully, properly, truthfully, and when I purchase it or somebody makes it for me, I’m going to use it as it’s supposed to be used: for the glory of God, for the hallowing of his name, for the proclamation of his Gospel, for the defense and glory of his beauty and his truth, and I’m not going to use it in any way that could trivialize the faith and vulgarize the faith and, even worse, be sacrilegious to God Almighty himself.

So, forgive me, but I do think that the veneration of the holy icons properly, godly, piously in the best sense of that term, reverently—we who venerate icons have to really think about this and ask ourselves what we are doing, and very particularly in our church buildings, in our classrooms there, in our storage rooms, in our offices, in our altar areas. What are we doing with the holy icons? Are we using them properly or improperly? Are we giving glory to God or are we just treating something holy in a sacrilegious way?

May God help us. May God help us to take upon ourselves this particular ascetical feat of working really hard to make sure that the holy icons are truly, properly, reverently, and in a godly way, venerated the way they are meant to be.