Christianity is unique amongst the world religions. This is mainly because of our experience of God as personal and, in the Incarnation, material. The symbol of our faith, the creed starts “I believe in God, the Father Almighty who created Heaven and earth and all things, visible and invisible.” Many outside the Church did and do accept the idea of a God; and even the idea of a God who created everything; although some religions have seen deities as merely supernatural beings who have particular influences or powers over certain aspects of life or activity; Poseidon god of the sea for instance. One God who made everything is an advance on that, and some Hindu traditions see their many gods as aspects of one God.
The God of other religions, except Judaism, tend to be somewhat remote, uncaring, or needing to be persuaded to take an interest in humanity by sacrifice. The Church makes a major claim which differs from this; we know that God is interested in human affairs and active in them. The claim is not that everyone who hears the message accepts it but rather great things happen to those who trust God. We see this in the history of the Jews and the Church. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, as we heard today speaks of the “great cloud of witnesses”. Amongst his examples are Moses and the prophets. They heard the call of God and obeyed. Sometimes there was a great personal cost to be paid. The saints before and after Christ bear witness to God’s power and action.
If many others have seen God as remote, in our faith there is the staggering claim that God was present physically on earth. Many outside the Church have tried to dismiss Christ as a messenger of God, as some sort of super angel, as a prophet. Jesus was a good man they say. Yes He was. Yes he was a prophet, in the sense he spoke the truth of God the Father. Yet He was and is more than any such human description can tell us. The Church teaches nothing less than that God Himself walked the Earth at a point in time; that He also experienced all human life is a wonder and that He faced all sorts of temptation. He also endured death and lived a perfect life because He was and is the God-Man.
In Him humanity is made holy and matter blessed. There is no separation between things that are physical and things that are spiritual.
Now if He walked upon Earth and was fully human as well as fully God it follows that it is perfectly possible to make a picture of Him. In modern terms it would have been possible to take a photograph of Him. Indeed if we are to believe the story of the icon not made with Human hands this is almost exactly what happened. It is certainly feasible to depict Christ. To deny the idea of Christ being pictured is to deny the Incarnation. Nonetheless there have been in Church history attempts to stamp out icons. The heretics, the iconoclasts, claimed that to have images of Christ is to fall into the trap of idolatry. In fact the true Orthodox position has always been that we venerate icons; that is we treat them with respect and honour them as means of loving the persons depicted.
(At this point a short discussion on treasuring pictures of family members with the children).
Just as we treasure pictures of people we love so we treat an icon with affection and respect. We do not worship icons in the sense of someone worshipping an image might have done in a pagan temple. Before the incarnation no one had seen God, when Christ came people did indeed see Him, and some touched Him. People saw God.
It has also been claimed by the iconoclasts that we might have a picture of Christ but we cannot show every aspect of Him. We can see His humanity as it were, not His Divinity. Since (they argue) we worship God not a man then it is wrong to have a picture of Christ. We can see one aspect of Him only, his humanity. But to say that is to try to separate Christ into two. Throughout He is one person, and it is the one person we love. It is one person we see in icons of Christ. There was many disputes and even persecution of right believing Orthodox people in all this. Upholding the truth was hard. The matter was settled by the Seventh Universal Council of the Church in 787. The Council made a general declaration about the holy images, not limited to Christ. Not just our Lord may be shown but various saints and events. They serve to bring the holy persons depicted to mind and to aid our prayer. What is done to the icon, the image, is also passed to the prototype, the original, the person depicted. In the words of the declaration of the Council:
“We define that the holy icons, whether in colour, mosaic, or some other material, should be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and liturgical vestments, on the walls, furnishings, and in houses and along the roads, namely the icons of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, that of our Lady the Theotokos, those of the venerable angels and those of all saintly people. Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to commemorate and love their prototype. We define also that they should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honour (timitiki proskynisis), but not of real worship (latreia), which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the divine nature, ... which is in effect transmitted to the prototype; he who venerates the icon, venerated in it the reality for which it stands.”
So it is we may prostrate before an icon, because in venerating, respecting, an icon we venerate the saint or Christ Himself who is shown in it. If you want to read more detail on this I suggest you read St John of Damascus who wrote the best explanation of the use of icons. It is also very easy to follow and can be found online.
Today we celebrate the “triumph of Orthodoxy”; the restoring of the icons to churches in 843, when the decisions of the Seventh Council had been finally accepted as correct. It is more than just icons of course that we celebrate. We remember the example of those who struggled to preserve the Faith against attack. We also rejoice that God took flesh and in so doing transformed the relationship between man and God. There is nothing that we go through which Christ did not share in some way. He shares our life and is with us in our temptations and struggles. If we are looking to Him and not being distracted by our temptations, be they ever so powerful, then we can receive great blessings.
As the Fast of great Lent leads us to the joy of the Resurrection at Pascha and as we face the temptations of the world and perhaps sometimes fall prey to despondency let us remember the words of today’s Epistle:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1)
May we indeed persevere in our faith in God who walked upon the earth for the life of the world.