Today we celebrate a wonderful achievement in the Orthodox Church, a victory even. Over 1200 years ago in 787, the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council met in the same city that their predecessors had met for the first Council. Nicaea. The issue for the seventh Council was actually connected to the first. In the first the issue had been the Incarnation. Against Arius the Fathers taught that Christ was true God and true Man. No one could be saved if God Himself had not come in the flesh to unravel the corruption of death and sin; if He had not in person come to bring new life to the world, in fact a New Creation.
In the eighth and the ninth centuries there was a new challenge to the Incarnation. This time curiously it was not Christ Himself that was the issue but how He (and by extension, His Mother and the saints) were presented and represented in the churches. You see the Church had never limited the doctrine of the Incarnation to the person of Christ Himself even if He and He alone had been and was the only Incarnation of the Word. No, the Incarnation had amazing implications about the material world. St. John of Damascus had written wonderfully about this in his defence of the use of icons in worship. Notice that he bases his argument on the Incarnation of Christ ...
“In former times God, who is 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; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honouring the matter which wrought my salvation! I honour it, but not as God. How could God be born out of things which have no existence in themselves? God’s body is God because it is joined to His person by a union which shall never pass away. The divine nature remains the same; the flesh created in time is quickened by a reason-endowed soul. Because of this I salute all remaining matter with reverence, because God has filled it with His grace and power.”
(From St. John of Damascus (On the Divine Images, First Apology no. 16)
This is the Orthodox Christian approach to the material world, veneration. When God came in the flesh he not only rescued humanity from sin and death but creation itself received new hope as its priest, “homo sapiens” recovered communion with God through repentance and faith and entered back into a right relationship with the material world. After the Incarnation, the Cosmos itself tasted liberation. Hear St. Paul (Romans 8)...
18 “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. 19 For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; 21 because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and labours with birth pangs together until now. 23 Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.”
However, Orthodox often find themselves in western post-Christian cultures where there is a very different approach to matter; or rather two approaches, both of them heretical, both of them iconoclastic.
The first we might characterise as matter stripped of spirit and spirit stripped of matter. In “matter stripped of spirit”, the material world loses its contact with the divine. It may safely be plundered and human bodies effectively treated as so much “meat” or even genomic bio-parts to be tinkered with at will. The reverse heresy, “spirit stripped of matter” is the religious counterpart of “matter stripped of spirit.” Salvation according to this heresy only concerns the soul and not the body. So, churches subscribing to this error deny the social, political and environmental implications of the gospel. For these heretics salvation is an escape from the world, not a transformation of the world. They believe not in the resurrection of the body, being of little account, but rather some sort of vague notion of spirit survival beyond death.
The second group of heresies concerns making things and the pursuit of things into God, or, the other way round, making God into things. The first concerns the idolatry of consumerism, of measuring oneself by one’s possessions rather than the dignity of being made in God’s image and likeness. The reverse heresy, making God into things, is the corresponding idolatry of false mysticism, most notably encountered nowadays in the resurgence of New Age paganism with its naturalisation of the divine in its curious earth-bound rites.
By contrast, Orthodox Christianity venerates the material world as grace-bearing; first and foremost in the sacred Person of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate (enfleshed) Word of God and by extension toward all disclosures of the divine energies under physical form ranging from the Holy Mysteries to the poor whom we serve and from the lowliest speck of dust to the whole Cosmos. This Creation, this handiwork of God which He called “good” is called to participate in the Kingdom of God, which in origin with the Blessed Trinity lies entirely beyond it. In the same manner, icons, sacraments, human persons, even inanimate creation itself points beyond to the reality of God who from within is making all things new.
This celebration of the restoration of the holy icons which we mark in October’s feast of the Father’s of the Seventh Ecumenical Council is then a great message of hope for our humanity and the Cosmos itself. It affirms that nothing that God has made will or should be wasted, despised or lost. We look upon the holy icons and we kiss them for in their prototypes we see a New Creation born out of the Resurrection of Christ, in Whom all things are made new and radiant in God.