Today we remember the Fathers of the Second Council of Nicaea, the 7th and last of the Ecumenical Councils, held in Nicaea, Turkey in 787. This was the council that decided unanimously that an icon is a sign of the presence of God. Now, the word “icon” is taken from the Greek word for “image”; and what the 350 bishops who attended this council were considering was a very important question: Who is Christ? Their answer still rings out to us today: Christ is both God and man. It is precisely because God became man that it is fit and proper that the image of Christ should be painted. The Council concluded that “the incarnation of the Word is genuine”. As Metropolitan Kallistos has written, “to refuse to depict Christ is somehow to doubt the fullness of His human nature… Standing before Christ’s icon, [we are each] brought face to face with God Himself.”
As children, teenagers, adults—all of us have an important privilege here at St Aidan’s, because each time we come into this church we can see the magnificent Icon of the Theotokos of the Sign written by Efrem Carrasco. Like all icons, its two dimensions draw us into a three-dimensional reality in which God communicates to each of us. As the Council pointed out, we do not worship an icon, but we venerate it as a matter of respect and honour; and our respect and honour for this icon and every other icon in this church and every Orthodox church passes on to the original model for the icon, Christ himself. Therefore, the Council called icons “opened books to remind us of God”; and the Council went further, because in reminding us of the presence of God in our lives, we receive grace. In the words of the Council: “When we honour and venerate an icon we receive sanctification”. Therefore, every icon is a mediator, a means of reconciling each of us to God. Every icon is an agent that connects us as human beings to Christ as a human being; and precisely because Christ as a human being is at the same time God, we have the opportunity to be drawn closer to God, to understand better the nature of God, to understand better the life of Christ, on earth and in heaven.
I find the description that Metropolitan Kallistos gives of icons quite inspiring: “By virtue of the icon,” he says, “we pass within the dimensions of sacred space and sacred time, entering into a living, effectual contact [that is, producing an effect, a result—an effectual contact] with the person or mystery depicted. The icon is a way in, a point of meeting, a place of encounter”. What then is this “sacred space” and “sacred time” into which we enter when we make the decision to place ourselves before an icon of Christ, or an icon of the Theotokos, or an icon of a saint or a holy event? How can we as limited human beings, whatever our age—young or old or somewhere in between—reach out and touch in some way in our own lives the presence of God Himself?
A sacred place or a sacred time might be drawing an icon as Ephrem does, or simply praying in front of an icon as many of us do. However, sacred places and sacred times are often unexpected. Sometimes, like Moses, in the third chapter of the book of Exodus we are confronted with a burning bush—a situation in our home or in our work that requires immediate investigation. Moses thought, “I must turn aside and see this marvellous sight, why the bush is not burned up”. We might think, more simply about something unexpected, “What is going on here? Why is this person behaving in this way? Why is this situation happening?” We too might become aware that this particular unexpected situation in our lives is being touched by God. We do not need to hear a voice, as Moses did, “…remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” However, we do need to say to the Lord, as Moses did, “Here I am”. We each need to recognize that God can guide us into situations and times that we had not anticipated, just as Moses was guided to confront Pharaoh. Chapters 3 and 4 of Exodus are worth reading carefully, because Moses gave God a lot of trouble. Moses asked God His name; and Moses protested he was not eloquent. So God dealt with the fears of Moses by sending his brother Aaron to Egypt with him; and God told Moses “I will teach you what you are to do.”
God treats us in exactly the same way. He draws us unexpectedly to confront “the Pharaohs” in our own lives and the lives of others, the situations in which God is not being respected, the places and the times that God wants to become sacred, in our own homes and in our own jobs. Like Moses, we have to take off our sandals; we have to remove our preconceptions and permit the Lord to teach us what we are to do. It is possible. Just as Moses, with all of his hesitations and insecurities, learned to listen to God and to follow Him, we can do the same. We can learn to see what places and times in our own lives should be treated as sacred. We can learn where the Lord wants us to focus our limited time and our limited energy.
To conclude, it is worth noting that the Gospel for today from the eighth chapter of the Gospel of St Luke about throwing out seeds and seeing where they land and how they grow is very relevant to the Fathers of this Seventh Ecumenical Council. In the year 787 they answered the question of “Who is Christ?” so well, that 1,125 years later their seed is still growing, their understanding of the person of Christ as God and as man, is so sound that no further ecumenical council has ever been held. That is amazing; they indeed planted well. What they were trying to do was to fashion a correct understanding of Christ, to trim the theological plant, to shape the doctrine. It is a beautiful tribute to those fathers that the seed they planted is still growing well in the Orthodox Church. May all of us continue to water that seed gently as we place ourselves before this icon of this sacred space and this sacred time of the Theotokos of the Sign—a sign for each of us that the presence of Christ can radiate into our lives. May our growing veneration and respect for icons empower each of us to identify and face the places and the times in our own lives that can become sacred.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto the ages of ages, Amen.