Today we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Church has been attacked by heresies through the ages and overcome them after a struggle. To some this idea of triumph seems offensive. It seems to smack of being self-righteous and arrogant. We are expected to compromise. This will not do in matters of the faith of the Church. I realise that in this society if we disagree with anyone we are seen as either hateful or as arrogant, or else we are accused of fear. In fact we can disagree with people and still respect them. What we ought not to do is compromise. We cannot do good by denying the faith in any way.
Belief is neither a mere private thing nor a choice of what we find comfortable. People died as martyrs in defence of icons, amongst other things, and we stand in a long line of witnesses to the faith, as St Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. He was talking about the righteous of the Old Testament, yet it is even truer of us who have seen martyrs for Christ through the ages. People have died for the sake of the faith. One such was St Euthymius who was subjected to cruel tortures. They stretched him on four poles and beat him with ox thongs. St Euthymius died in the Lord after the torture. This was because he defended the icons.
The particular commemoration today concerns the re-instatement of the holy icons after the heretics and impious had removed them, either totally from the churches or from any possibility of veneration. There were in fact two major Councils on the issue, one of which condemned icons and the second (which we call ecumenical as it was accepted by the Orthodox Church as binding) which we call the Second Council of Nicea. That council defended icon veneration. It is not just the debate that defined the faith, it was its acceptance by the Church. The Council did not stop outbreaks of iconoclasm subsequently for some years, but the position was established. There are people calling themselves Christians today who still reject the idea of venerating icons as being is some way superstitious or as idol worship. They reject Nicea as not ecumenical because (in effect) they do not agree with it. Their view is sorely mistaken on two points.
The first is the Orthodox Church does not see a schism as happening within the Church. A schism is a group leaving the Church. If the Church established something then one cannot disagree and remain part of the Church. If they reject any Ecumenical Council they reject membership of the Church. Now this is to not sit in judgement on anyone. It makes no claim about the salvation or otherwise of those outside Orthodoxy, it merely declares the truth. This does not go down well of course with those who claim to be Christians outside the Orthodox Church.
They also misunderstand the real meaning of icons.
Since Christ was God and walked upon earth, visible in the flesh, we may make a picture of Him; and so we show the whole person. To argue that we should not would be to claim that Christ has in some way a division within Himself between the human and the Divine. This was rejected by St John of Damascus in his famous defence of the holy icons.
“Shall I not make an image of Him who took the nature of flesh for me? Shall I not reverence and worship Him, through the honour and worship of His image? .... And shall not I make images of Christ’s friends? And shall I not worship them as the images of God’s friends, not as gods? Neither Josue nor Daniel worshipped the angels they saw as gods. Neither do I worship the image as God, but through the image of the saints too, show my worship to God, because I honour His friends, and do them reverence.”
Care needs to be taken over the phrase “the worship of images.” Some idly talk of worshipping or praying to icons, but this is wrong. The veneration shown to an icon passes to the prototype. When we kiss Christ’s icon, we kiss Him …. but in the reality of his Personhood, not the wood!. When we pray in front of an icon, we stand with Christ or the saint in prayer. We pray to Christ or ask the prayers of a saint shown in the image. We do not worship or pray to the image. The Council of Nicaea did not, argue for the worshipping icons. The wording needs to be understood. They followed (amongst others) St John of Damascus and clarified a distinction between worship, which is offered to God alone, and the respect or veneration afforded to Holy things and people. We venerate images; as we venerate Gospel books and other sacred articles. Rather we worship God. The Council said in fact:-
“We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people.
For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence (proskynesis), not indeed that true worship of faith (latreia) which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented. For thus the teaching of our holy Fathers, that is the tradition of the Catholic Church… is strengthened.”
Icons are not therefore merely nice pictures or decorative objects. They are the images of the saints or of Christ Himself and in honouring the images we honour the persons depicted. We see, in the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, the Church setting out doctrine, not as something new, but making it clear in response to a new debate and attack.
Now there are certain things which follow from all this, which are the hallmarks of the Orthodox faith. For instance we have a sense of the Holy and we treat images and the sacred vessels accordingly. We do not (as some do) convert old temples into flats, we do not use old communion vessels as mere drinking cups, we do not sell church fittings to be used as decorative elements in bars. The very layout and decoration of our temples shows something of the teaching of God, it is not just a simple meeting place. We have to remember that these things which have been handed on to us, the holy images among them, and including also the very way that we worship are all tried and tested vehicles for the grace of God working in our lives and in His world .
We are simply the Church which Christ founded. Others may have some of the truth, and a partial grasp of the realities of God, yet the Orthodox Church is simply the vessel of God’s revelation in all its fullness. Within her may be found all the truths of God. It is apparent that some of her members are more obedient than others, but the Church is simply THE Church for all that.
It follows that we must strive to be obedient to everything the Church teaches and sets forth. Our forebears argued and endured for the sake of truth, we must strive to do likewise, even to the point of death.
Fr. Christopher Neill