Icons: Aids in Spiritual Struggle by Fr. George Turpa

This lecture from the 1979 Orthodox Christian Youth Conference deals with those windows of Heaven, the holy and venerable icons.  Fr. George gives a historical context to the theology of the icon, and then uses the concept of a material icon that portrays unclouded reality as an introduction to the spiritual significance of everything material in Orthodoxy.  Ultimately, Christians themselves are icons, Fr. George writes, “for… we are all called to become, as far as possible for our nature, icons of the Most High.”  This is a highly educational lecture, and is well grounded in patristic references and spiritual experience.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

As you have heard from Vladika and the fathers gathered here, the life of the Orthodox Christian in these last times is indeed a very difficult one. An Orthodox Christian, as much as in our age as in the past, must make use of all spiritual aids in the struggle to find his salvation, just as a soldier makes use of every weapon at his disposal to achieve his objective. One of the most venerable and most beloved aids in this spiritual struggle is the ikon. To come to an understanding of how ikons help us, we first should take a very short look into history to see how they have helped others find their salvation.

If we go back to the Old Testament times, in fact, back to Genesis itself, we see that God said, “Let us make man according to Our image and likeness” (Gen. I. 26). We will deal with this passage later in this lecture. After the creation of man, and after his fall, we see that God reveals His Oeconomy for our salvation in prefigurations, in an enigmatic manner, so as to prepare fallen man for the advent of the Son of God Incarnate. A few examples which come to mind are, the slaying of Abel by Cain, the Ark of Noah, many events in the lives of the Patriarchs, Abraam, Isaac, and Jacob, the bush of Sabek, the rod of Moses, the Tablets of the Commandments, the Holy Manna, the Burning Bush, the Ephod, the Ark of the Testament, and literally thousands of other prefigurations. Those who are interested in the significance of such matters should read such Fathers as St. Justin the Martyr, St. John of Damascus, and St. Theodore the Studite. Direct mention of images can be found in Exodus (XXV. 19-), “And thou shalt make two Cherubim, graven in gold, and thou shalt put them on both sides of the Mercy-Seat. They shall be made, one cherub on this side, and another cherub on the other side of the Mercy-Seat; and thou shalt make two cherubim on the two sides.”  This seems to contradict an earlier passage in Exodus (XX. 3-6), where God gives the Ten Commandments saying, “Thou shalt have no other gods beside me. Thou shalt not make unto thyself an image (in Greek, [ikon]), or likeness of anything, whatever things are in the heaven above, and whatever are in the earth beneath, and whatever are in the waters under the earth.” The non-Orthodox make great use of the latter passage in their struggle against the worship of ikons, stating that the Orthodox are idol-worshippers. But as many Fathers of the Church show, God did not forbid the making of images used in the worship of the one true God, but rather, forbade the making of idols, and the worship of idols as gods, or as images of various Egyptian or Semite gods. The Cherubim of Moses were images, primitive ikons, representing the angelic Cherubim, who stand before the Throne of God, and are a very positive and definite testimony concerning the proper use of ikons. There are many such examples which the Fathers bring forth, but to deal with them would lead us away from the purpose of this lecture.

In the New Testament, in the Gospel of St. John, (Chap. XIV. 9), our Saviour says, “He that hath seen Me hat seen the Father.” Again, the teaching of the Orthodox Church is that the Only-begotten Son and Word of God, is the only perfect Ikon of the Father, and remained so, even after taking flesh and becoming perfect man. To deny that Christ is the perfect Ikon of the Father, is to deny that He is not only perfect man, but also perfect God. To put, as it were, a seal upon this teaching, our Saviour sent the Holy Napkin to Abgar, King of Edessa, as all who are familiar with the feast of the Holy Napkin are aware.

In Apostolic times, we find that the holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke and others painted ikons of the Mother of God and Her holy Child, as is witnessed to by Eusebios in his Church History, where he states that, “I have seen a great many portraits of the Saviour, of Peter and Paul, which have been preserved up to our time” (Eusebios, History of the Church, Book VIII. Ch. 18, pg. 20, Col 680).

Some of these ikons have survived until the present day, and are an affirmation that the tradition concerning the use of ikons in worship is unbroken from those most ancient times. Also, the Catacombs of Rome bear witness to the fact that ikons, as well as symbols, were used in the liturgical life of the Church. Besides wall paintings, we find mystical representations of Christ, such as the fish, the anchor, and the lamb (the last of which, by the way, was later banned by the Church at the Council in Trullo in 692. In Canon LXXXII, the Council stated that “that which is perfect” may be delineated to the eyes of all, at least in coloured expression, we decree that the figure in human form of the Lamb who taketh away the sin of the world, Christ our God, be henceforth exhibited in icons, instead of the ancient lamb, so that all may understand by means of it the depths of the humiliation of the Word of God, and that we may recall to our memory His conversation in the flesh, His Passion and salutary death, and His redemption which was wrought for the whole world.”) The themes of the wall paintings were such as, Daniel in the lion’s den, the Martyr Thekla, and also Our Saviour, St. Peter, and St. Paul, all dressed in the garb of the philosophers. As Uspensky states, “The fundamental principles of this art is a pictoral expression of the teaching of the Church, be representing concrete events of sacred History, and indicating their inner meaning. This art is intended not to reflect the problems of life, but to answer them, and thus, from its very inception, is a vehicle of the Gospel teaching” the Artist lived and thought in images, and reduced form to the limit of simplicity, the depth of whose inner content is accessible only to the spiritual eye. He cleansed his work of everything personal and remained anonymous, his essential concern was to transmit tradition. He understood on the one hand, the necessity of being cut off from sensory enjoyment, and on the other, the need to use all visible nature in order to express the world of the spirit; for to transmit the invisible world to sensory vision demands not hazy fog, but, on the contrary, peculiar clarity and precision of expression, just as to express apprehension of the heavenly world, the fathers use particularly clear and exact formulation.” (Uspensky & Lossky, The Meaning of Ikons, pg. 29) Examples of such art can be found in the Catacombs of Priscilla, Domitilla, St. Sebastian, and St. Callixus. A continuation and refinement of such art can be seen in the little Church at Dura Europos, dated about 256 A.D. The Frescoes here deal with events in our Saviour’s life, such as the raising of the paralytic, Christ walking on the waters, the Samaritan woman at the well and the Old Testament battle of David and Goliath. With the freedom given the Church by St. Constantine the Great, we see that ikons, in all forms, portable, fresco, mosaic, enameled, and carved, begin to appear in the newly-built churches, and in the houses of the faithful. A few examples of this art are: St. George in Thessalonica, where 36 million pieces of glass and stones were used in the mosaics, the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Baptistry of the Orthodox in Ravenna, the frescoes of the tomb at Nish in Yugoslavia, the Wax-painted (encaustic) panel ikons of St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai, and a host of others. This expansion continued until the time of the Ikonoclasts in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Ikonoclasts, who were followers of a strange form of semi-monophysitism, and who were influenced by the Islamic strictures against religious portrayal of the human form, came from the areas of the Empire where these influences were the strongest; Isauria, Armenia, and Amorion. These spiritually deluded men considered that the worship of the ikons of Our Saviour, His Mother, and the saints was an act of idolatry. For more than a hundred years, the Church fought an unceasing battle against these heretical emperors, a battle which included the calling of the 7th Ecumenical Council, and ended in the Triumph of Orthodoxy, which we still celebrate on the first Sunday of Great and Holy Lent. During this period, ikons were burned, chopped into little pieces, cast into the sea, scraped from the walls of the churches; while their worshippers were beaten, tortured, imprisoned, maimed, exiled, and even martyred for their faith. After the Triumph of Orhtodoxy, ikons reappeared everywhere, and reached a peak of spiritual beauty, due not so much to techinique, but to the high spiritual state of the iconographers as a whole. From this period are some of the mosaics of St. Sophia in Constantinople, St. Demetrios in Thessalonica, Hosios Loukas, Daphne, Nea Moni, and some of the earlier frescoes at Ochrid and Nerezi, as well as many illustrated manuscripts, ivory diptychs and triptychs, and other such works.

In the 14th century, “The Church was forced to set down as a dogmatic definition its teaching on the deification of man” (Uspensky, pg. 45), and in iconographic response to this definition, “This period saw the final shaping of the iconographic language which became classical, and which entirely corresponds to the content of the icon” (Uspensky, pg. 45). We see that this holds Georgian, Russian, and Moldavian art. Even after the Turks, and in spite of the problems that the Russians had with the Tatars and their various latin-European neighbors, the Orthodox kept their iconographic art at a high spiritual state, again due to the piety of the various iconographers of that time. Examples of such art can be seen in various ancient churches in Northern Greece and southern Serbia, as well as in Russia, Bulgaria, Wallacia, Moldavia, and of course, the monasteries of the Holy Mountain of Athos.

“In the XVII century, the decline of Church art sets in. This decline was the result of a deep spiritual crisis, a secularization of religious consciousness, thanks to which, despite the vigorous opposition of the Church, there began the penetration, not merely of separate elements, but of the very principles of Western religious art, which are alien to Orthodoxy. The dogmatic content of the icon vanishes from the consciousness of men, and symbolical realism becomes an incomprehensible language for iconographers fallen under the influence of the West. The link with tradition is broken. Church art becomes secularized under the influence of nascent secular realistic art” This secularization is a reflection in the domain of art of the general secularization of the life of the Church. The result is a mixing of Church image and worldly image, of Church and World. Symbolical realism, based on spiritual experience and vision, disappears through the absence of the latter, and through loosing its link with Tradition” (Uspensky, pg. 48). Examples of such decadent works can be found in churches in every Orthodox country, and are, for the most part, clumsy and fawning imitations of the fleshy works of such passion-ridden men as Michaelangelo, DaVinci and El Greco. This trend continued, in general, until this century, at which time in Greece Photios Kontoglou and his disciples, in in the Diaspora Archimandrite Kyprian of the Russian Synod Outside of Russia, and Leonid Uspensky did much, not only to restore the true ikon to its place in the Church, but to reaffirm the teaching concerning ikons to twentieth-century Orthodox Christians. Unfortunately, many of these same Christians, trusting in the flesh rather than the spirit, refuse to accept the solid patristic and traditional basis of their teachings, and have thus retarded the complete restoration of traditional iconography. Examples of present-day iconography can be found especially in Greece, where work was done by Kontoglou and his followers, and in America, where work was done by Fr. Kyprian and the now Bishop Alypy. The main-church of Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville springs to mind as the most complete example of such art in North America. Also worthy of note is work done on the Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral in San Francisco. Both Holy Trinity Monastery and Holy Transfiguration Monastery of Brookline, Mass. Provide a wealth of mounted paper, and photographically reproduced ikons, as well as hand-painted ikons.

Part Two

Now that we have seen a bit of the historical background of the ikon, we should discuss the actual teaching concerning holy ikons.

Many questions arise among not only the non-Orthodox, but even among our own people, as Vladika and the fathers present here can attest, concerning the worship of ikons. The questions usually are as follows:

1 Is not the worship of ikons a form of idolatry?
2 If such worship is not idolatry, then why do we worship ikons; what is their purpose?
3 Does not the worship of the ikons of the Mother of God and of the saints detract from the worship of our God in Trinity?
4 Is not the worship of the ikons an anachronism in this age of technology and of photographic and moving images such as the cinema and television?

To those who say that when we worship ikons, we become idolators, for we worship matter, let them hear the words of St. John of Damascus: “I do not worship material, rather I worship the Creator of material, Who became material for my sake, and Who by means of material worked my salvation; and for which reason, I will not cease to rever that material through which my salvation was worked. I rever this material not as if it were God, far be it!” Is not the thrice-praised and thrice-blessed wood of the Cross material? Is not the place of the Skull, venerable and holy, material? Is not that life-containing and life-bringing rock and holy Tomb, the well-spring of our resurrection material? Before all things, is not the Body and Blood of our Lord material? Either we do away with reverence for all these things, or we give place to Ecclesiastical Tradition, and to the worship of ikons of God, and of those who were sanctified by the name of God, and for which reason are overshadowed by the Grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not revile material, it is not dishonorable; nothing made by God is dishonorable” (St. John of Dam. First Logos on Ikons, Pegai, pg. 246-7). The divine Stephen Bostrenos, who is quoted elsewhere by St. John of Damascus says, “Concerning ikons, we state that whatever is done in the name of God is good and holy. Concerning idols and statues, we say that they, as well as those who worship them, are evil and alien. The ikon of a holy Prophet is one thing, while the statue or relief of Kronos and Aphrodite, sun and moon are quite another (Stephen Bostrenos, Against the Jews, qv. St. John Damascus in Third Logos Concerning Ikons. Pegai, pg. 298). St. Leontios of Neapolis, in his work addressed to the Jews, writes that as for the idols, “they are manufactured unto the glory and memory of the devil, “while the holy ikons, “unto the glory of Christ and His Apostles, and martyrs, and saints” (St. Leontios of Neapolis, To the Jews, qv. St. John of Dam. Third Logos, Pagai, pg. 308). A contemporary church writer, Dr. Alexander Kalomiros states, “Idolatry is the worship of a false god; for God Himself is in no wise material, and, when you form a material image of the unmaterial God, you have formed an idol in your mind. It is not idolatry to worship a sacred object, such as an ikon, the Gospel, or the Cross, nor (toward) a false god, but to the True God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jakob, who sanctifies the object. It is not idolatry to venerate a creature when the veneration and worship redound to the Creator Who sanctifies it” (Kalomiros, Synaxis, pg. 67). So much for the charge of idolatry!

Since it is not idolatry, then why do we worship ikons; what is their purpose? As Uspensky says, “the icon is regarded as one of the ways by means of which it is possible and necessary to achieve the task set before mankind, to achieve likeness to the prototype, to embody what was manifested and transmitted by the God-man” (Uspensky, pg. 44).

All Orthodox Christians should be aware that the honor and worship bestowed upon the ikon ascends to the prototype in whose image it was made. “By the Grace of God,” as Dr. Kalomiros says, “the ikon participates in the holiness of the prototype. Through the ikon, we participate in that holiness according to the measure of the purity of our hearts; we receive the Grace which flows forth from the material of the ikon. We are mystically sanctified by the operation of the Holy Spirit” (Kalomiros, Synaxis, pg. 68). Even so, “The ikon never strives to stir the emotions of the faithful” (Uspensky, pg. 40); for our religion is not one of emotionalism, or sentimentality; “its task is not to provoke in them one or another natural human emotions, but to guide every emotion, as well as the reason and all the other faculties of human nature on the way towards transfiguration” (Uspensky, pg. 40). As Dr. Cavarnos notes, “It does not serve human passions, but God. It is not individual, but universal. It is guided not by individual, subjective preferences, or by the sercular taste of the age, but by Tradition” (Cavarnos, Byz. Sac. Art, pg. 12). The Seventh ecumenical Council in its Decree, in speaking of ikons of our Saviour, the Mother of God, and the saints, states that, “For by so much more frequently as they are portrayed in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing (epipothesis) after them, and to these should be given due salutation and honorable worship (aspasmos kai titiki proskinisis), not indeed that true adoration of faith which pertains alone to the divine nature, but to these in the manner in which honor is given to the honorable and life-giving Cross, and to the Holy Gospels, and the other holy objects, by incense and lights, according to the custom of the ancients. For the honor which is paid passes on to that which the icon represents, and he who worships the icon worships in it the person of the subject represented (proskene en auth to eggramens ten epostasin).”

Some say that Orthodox ikons are abstract, and that they arte cubistic, or Picasso-like, but while decadent artists use their art to construct demented dream worlds, “The icon does not cut itself off from the world, does not lock itself up within itself. The fact that it addresses itself to the world is also emphasized by the fact that the saints are usually represented turned towards the congregation, either full-face or three-quarters” (Uspensky, pg. 40). “With rare exceptions,” continues Uspensky, “the human figure is always constructed correctly, everything is in the right place. The same applies to clothes: their details, the folds, etc. are perfectly logical. But architecture, both in form and grouping is often contrary to human logic, and in separate details is emphatically illogical. Doors and windows are often pierced in the wrong places, their size does not correspond to their function” the meaning of this phenomenon is that architecture is the only element in the icon with the help of which it is possible to show clearly that the action taking place before our eyes is outside the laws of human logic, outside the laws of earthly existence” (Uspensky, pg. 41, emphasis mine). “The icon is opposed to illusion. When we look at it, we not only know, but also see, that we stand not before the person or event itself, but before its image, that is, before an object which by its very nature is fundamentally different from its prototype” the preservation of the reality of the plane is greatly assisted by so-called inverse perspectives, the point of departure of which lies not in the depth of the image, but in front of the image, as it were, in the spectator himself” Inverse perspective does not draw in the eye of the spectator, on the contrary, it holds it back, precluding the possibility of penetrating and entering the image in depth,” as is done in Western art, “and it concentrates the attention on the image itself” (Uspensky, pg. 42). “The holy image, just like the Holy Scriptures, transmits not human ideas and conceptions of truth, but truth itself; the divine Revelation – therefore – the art of the Church is realistic in the strictest sense of the word, both in its iconography and in its symbolism” the current opinion that Church art, and in particular, the icon, are idealistic, that the icon conveys a certain higher idea, is an opinion based on the fact that the realism of this art is unlike anything usually understood by this word, is pure misunderstanding. In actual fact, it is just the reverse: as soon as idealization appears in an image, it ceases to be an icon” (Uspensky, pg. 42).

One might now say, – well, you’ve convinced me that ikons are a valuable part of worship, but doesn’t the worship of the ikons of our Saviour, the Mother of God, and the Saints detract from the worship of our God in Trinity?” Dr. Kalomiros again has a good and very patristic answer, “We venerate and worship the ikon, but we do not render it the adoration and service due to God alone. It is God alone Whom we adore and serve. It is because we adore God, that we venerate and worship His ikon, and the ikons of those in whom He has taken up His dwelling” (Kalomiros, Synaxis, pg. 67).

Rather than detracting from worship of God, we find that worship of God Incarnate becomes more pure, since we behold our pure Saviour, One of the Holy Trinity, in His ikon. “When we represent the person of Christ in an ikon, – says Kalomiros, – we describe neither His Divine nor His human nature, for neither can be depicted. In the ikon, we portray the person of Christ, i.e., the Holy Trinity, in Whom the Divine and human nature is united without confusion or division, in a manner surpassing comprehension” (Kalomiros, Synaxis, pg. 66). Furthermore, “The icon testifies to the immutability and fullness of His Incarnation” by the icon we confess that the ‘Son of Man’ depicted in it is truly God’ revealed Truth’ (Uspensky, pg. 37), and that ‘Having become perfect man,’ as St. Photios says, ‘Christ allows himself to be represented by an image, like the rest of us, in order that He may not be anything other than we are.’ In the ikon, ‘The image of Christ is Christ, and the image of the saint is that saint. The power is not split asunder, the glory is not divided, but the glory becomes the attribute of Him Who is depicted’ (Uspensky, footnote quoting St. John of Dam.). St. Theodore the Studite says, ‘The ikon is not foreign to Christ as regrds worship, but rather is due the same worship, as bearing Him and as being His very likeness’ (St. Theodore Studite, Antirretic III, Pegai, Pg. 379). St. Photios the Great, when describing the enormities of the iconoclasts says, ‘the impious ones gathered in a circle; spitting upon the ikon of Christ, and dragging the ikon of Christ, and thus dragging Christ Himself’ (St. Photios, Second Epistle to Nicholas, Pope of Rome. Christou, Vol II., pg. 189). There can be no doubt that when we worship the ikon of Christ we worship that very Christ.

As for the worship of the Mother of God, and of the Saints, let us first hear the words of St. John of Damascus, ‘But, (the iconoclast) says, ‘Make an ikon of Christ, or of His Mother the Theotokos, and it is sufficient.’ Oh the impropriety of such a statement! You have confessed yourself to be a denier of the saints; for if you make an ikon of Christ, but not of the saints, you show that you do not forbid the ikon, but rather, you forbid honor to the saints. The saints when alive, were filled with the Holy Spirit, and after their repose, the Grace of God remained present in permanent dwelling in their souls and their bodies, in their tombs and their features, and in their holy ikons, not in essence, but in grace and energy’ (St. John Dam. Concerning Ikons, Logos I, Pegai, pg. 249). The true meaning of sanctity unfortunately is not understood by most people. ‘The World does not see the saints, just as the blind do not see the light,’ says Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow (Philaret of Moscow and Kolumma Vol III. Discourse #57, On the Annunciation). But while remaining invisible to the unilluminated eye, holiness is evident to the eye of the spirit. Recognizing a man as a saint and glorifying him, the Church indicates his holiness by visible means in icons’ (Uspensky, pg. 39). The saints, as John of Damascus, himself a saint, says, ‘Are worshipped, therefore, as being glorified by God, as becoming through God, fearsome to the adversaries, and as benefactors to those who approach them with faith; not as if they are gods and benefactors by nature, but as being worshippers and ministers of God, and as having, due to their love for Him, been granted boldness before Him’ (St. John Dam. Logos I, Pegai, Pg. 286). St. Theodore the Studite in his letter to his uncle, the holy Plato, states more clearly that, ‘we worship the saints, but we do not adore them, and the rulers, according to the law of God, we also worship, but neither do we adore them’ (St. Theodore Studite, To Plato, Pegai, pg. 399(. St. John of Damascus again says, ‘To the saints honor must be rendered as friends of Christ, as sons and heirs of God; in the words of John the Theologian and Evangelist, ‘As many as received Him, to them gave He power to become sons of God’ (Jn. I, 12). ‘So that they are no longer servants but sons; and if sons, also heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ’ (Gal IV, 7). And further, if the Creator and Lord of all things is called also King of kings and Lord of lords, and God of gods, surely also the saints are gods, and lords, and kings’ Now I mean gods and kings and lords not in nature, but as rulers and masters of their passions, and as preserving a truthful likeness to the divine Image according to Which they were made (for the image of a king is also called king) and as being united to God of their own free-will and receiving Him as an indweller and becoming by grace through participation with Him, what he is himself by nature. Surely then, the worshippers and friends of God are to be held in honor. For the honor shewn to the most thoughtful of fellow-servants is a proof of good feeling toward the common Master,’ that is to say, our God (St. John Dam. Post Nic.. pg. 86). In more modern times, the Confession of the Faith of the Catholic and Apostolic Church of the East states, ‘We do not honor the saints as though adoring (sic. text-worshipping) them, but we call uipon them as our brothers, and as friends of God, and therefore we seek the divine assistance through these, our bretheren’ (Percival, Post Nic. Series II, Vol. XIV, pg. 553). As Kalomiros says, ‘Beneath the humble material of the ikons, there is concealed the power of God, which has sanctified the saints, and through them, has worked miracles. It is this power which we adore when we kiss an ikon with our lips; when we worship it, we are adoring the one God in Trinity’ (Kalomiros, pr. 74). And since we adore the one God in Trinity only, we can say that we have safely laid to rest any thought that the ikons detract from the adoration of God; on the contrary, they are most necessary for such adoration. To those modernists, to those hierophants of secularism who say that the worship of ikons in light of photography, the cinema, and television, is an anachronism, let them hear one of their contemporaries, ‘There is no greater error than to believe that a photograph can represent a man’ A photograph brings out the appearance, the external characteristics of man, but it cannot represent the interior reality: man in his fullness. Photography pictures man as he appears, but not as he is in reality’ Only the ikon can depict a being, and at the same time, express the truth of his countenance; Divine Light, the radiance of Divine Love, the charity, the humility, the contrition, and the piety that is hidden mysteriously in the facial expression of the saints. Only it can show to those who have spiritual eyes, the new creation inaugurated by the incarnation of God: the deification of Man’ (Kalomiros, Synaxis, pg. 71). Another contemporary of these same modernists says, ‘Simple folk understand and appreciate Byzantine Art, whereas the pseudo-cultured, who have lost their healthy simplicity and piety do not; they despise it, or at the most, regard it condescendingly, as merely fine archaeology’ (Cavarnos, Byz. Sac. Art, pg. 14). The question of modernism is being dealt with in depth in other lectures, so let us leave the modernist-secularists to stew in their own impious juices, and proceed to deal with the subject of this lecture.

To deal properly with our subject, it might first be helpful to come to an understanding of those ikons which most of us do not even realize are icons. Such are the holy temple in which the Church gathers, the clergy, the Divine Liturgy itself – as wella s the other services – the Christian family, and man himself. As we all know from our experiences in catechism class, the church building is usually divided into three sections. The first section we enter is the narthex, which we have come to think of as a place to buy candles, prosphora, and unfortunately, to gossip with the seller of such needs. In ancient times, the narthex was that special area of the Church where the catechumens, and those under canon of repentance were made to stand. The narthex is an ikon, as the Blessed Symeon of Thessalonica states, of the non-Orthodox world, and is also a reminder of the forefather’s place of exile. The nave is an ikon of the whole Church of God, while the sanctuary, that Holy Tribunal, is an ikon of those Heavenly things which are above the comprehension of unregenerate man, but which are revealed unto the faithful as much as each one can endure. The priests, deacons, and lower clergy are ikons of various angelic orders, but the Bishop is, as the Blessed Symeon says, ‘he from whom every gift and enlightenment springs, and is sent out from, for he is the foundation and beginning, and well-spring, and root of piety, ‘ and this, as the Blessed Archbishop of Thessalonica continues, is because ‘he is the ikon and bearer of Christ’ (Symeon, pg. 172). We are not speaking here of the personal sanctity of each bishop, for we have had, in the history of the Church, some few bishops who, while remaining perfectly Orthodox in their teaching, lived very unorthodox lives. But rather, we are speaking of the bishop as the most perfect ikon of Christ that we have in this world; for all grace in the Church springs from the Bishop, the hierarch, the ikon of ikons.

“The family,” as St. John Chrsyostom says, “is a small Church, and in such wise, it is possible for husbands and wives, if they but become good, to surpass all people” (St. John Chrysostom in Gamos Kai Syzgia, text and notes by Panagiotes Stamou). The husband is called to be an ikon of Christ in his family; to show love, and to chastise; to be long-suffering, and yet quick to correct; while the mother is called upon to be as the Mother of God; stern, but loving; obedient, but straightforward. The children are called upon to be as the saints of Christ; obedient, loving, and selfless.

As we observed at the beginning of this lecture, man was created “according to the image and likeness of God,” thus, an Orthodox Christian, that is to say a man who has been remade, regenerated, reborn, resurrected from out of the grave of sin, is called upon to become by grace more and more God-like, a process which has no end. We should dwell on this matter of man, so as to correct any idea that only the saints can truly be ikons of Christ God; for as we shall see, we are all called to become, as far as possible for our nature, ikons of the Most High. St. Makarios the Great says, “Adam on transgressing the ccommandment, suffered a two-fold disaster. He lost the pure and lovely possession of his nature, which was after the image and likeness of God; and he lost also that very image in which was laid up for him according to promise all the heavenly inheritance. Supoose there were a coin, bearing the image of the king, and it were stamped afresh with the wrong stamp, the gold is lost, and the image is of no value. Such was the disaster which befell man” (St. Makarios, trans Aarion, pg. 89, Homily XII, 1&2). But as St. Theodore the Studite says, “the faithful, each one of the faithful, through the laver of regeneration and renewal, conforms to the ikon of Christ God, as was spoken by the Apostles” (St. Theodore Studite, Seven Chapters Against the Ikonoclasts, Chap. V. Pegai, pg. 395). This, as St. John of Damascus again states, is comprehensible when we realize that “the expression, “according to the image,” indicates capacity of mind and freedom; man enters into the design of the Holy Trinity concerning him, and creates his likeness to God, insofar as is possible for him, for the expression, “according to the likeness,” means likeness to God in perfection (virtues), in this way, participating in the work of Divine Creation (Uspensky, quoting St. John Dam. Exposition, Book II. Ch. 12 – On Man, pg. 64, Col. 920B.). The blessed Nicholas Cabasilas in his Life in Christ, shows us as far as is possible for a human to describe, the process of perfection. “Thus we have been born [through Baptism], we have been stamped with some figure and shape. To prevent us from introducing any alien figure, He [that is, Christ] Himself occupies the entrances of life. He appropriates the organs by which we introduce food to aid the life of the body, and through them, He enters our souls; through the former, He comes as a Chrism, and a sweet odour, through the latter as food. We breathe Him; He becomes food for us. Thus as He blends and mingles Himself with us throughout, He makes us His own Body, and He becomes to us what a head is for the members of a body. Since then, He is the Head, we share all good things with Him, for that which belongs to the head must needs pass into the body” (Cabasilas, Life, pg. 62). It is this process, or rather, this mystery of perfection that is so bound up with the worship of ikons, for as Dr. Kalomiros observes, “the ikons show us poor men the Kingdom of God coming with power, according to the measure of man’s capacity and receptivity” (Kalomiros, Synaxis, pg. 71). We have discussed the theory and the teaching concerning the holy ikons, but the time has come to discuss the practical worship of ikons in the life of a true Orthodox Christian. In church, we all know how to venerate ikons, we light candles before them, we cross ourselves, and we kiss them; Our Saviour on His right hand, the ikon of the Mother of God first kissing the Christ-Child on His hand or foot, and then the hand of the Theotokos; for the hierarchs, either on their right hand, or upon the gospel which they hold; the martyrs upon the corsses which they hold in their hands, and so on. At home, the question as to where to place icons is one which we priests in Toronto have come up against many times. Some people refuse to have ikons in certain rooms, or as they say, “it doesn’t do.” Depending on living conditions and national traditions, a family should have an ikon-corner or a (proskenetarion), which I suppose can be called a mini-chapel. One should have the ikon of our saviour on the right, and that of the Theotokos with Child on His right: the placing of the rest of the ikons, such as patron saints, and for the Serbians the family saint, is really up to the family, but there should be some order resembling that order found in the Church, for there is no disorder in the Kingdom of God. An oil lamp should be lit twenty-four hours a day befor ethese ikons, and incense should be burned before them during family worship, and according to one local Greek tradition, also at sunrise and sunset. Some might ask as to why we light lamps and offer incense before the ikons. St. Germanos, Patriarch of Constantinople says, “even this should not scandalize people; that we bring lights and fragrant incense before the ikons of the saints. This is done symbolically, in honor of them, who have their rest with Christ, and their honor arises to Him, and as the wise Basil [the Great] says, ‘that the honor given the good servants by their fellows is proof of good will towards our common Master.” The tangible lights are asymbol of the immaterial and Divine gift of Light, while the censing with fragrances is a symbol of the most-pure and all-encompassing fufillment by the Holy Spirit” (Dogmatic Epistle, Pegai, pg. 237). Also, according to other Fathers, the oil represents the mercy of God, and the flame, the light of our soul, floating about and supported by that mercy. Since we are speaking about ikons, it would not be out of place to mention the Hieromartyr Cosmos the Aitolian’s teaching concerning the censer; “The censer signifies the Lady Theotokos; the charcoals rest within the cener, but do not burn it” in a like manner, the Lady Theotokos received Christ, and was not burned by Him, but rather was illuminated. The incense signifies the All-Holy Spirit; the censer’s cover is a sign of the protection of the Holy Spirit; the three chains are a sign of the Holy Trinity; the [12] little bells represent the teaching of the Holy Apostles (St. Kosmas, my trans., pg. 241). Ikons may be kept in other rooms of the house, but not as ornaments, not as being complementary to the color of the furniture, or the walls, or the carpets; but rather as reminders to us that we are Orthodox Christians, and that we should act as such. I know of one soul who used to look at nasty books while sitting on the couch in his home, but one day, he realized that the ikon of the Mother of God was on the wall begind him, so he went into another room. As he sat down, he realized that escaping from the presence of the ikon still did not remove him from the eyes of God; he then threw away his books, and since then hasn’t looked at another. Not only did the ikon serve as a reminder of his faith, but without doubt, grtace flowed forth from the ikon, and helped to enlighten his soul concerning this matter. The dining area would be a good place for an ikon of the Mystical Supper, while the kitchen could have an ikon of St. Euphrosynos, or of Ss. Spyridon and Nikodim, the prosphor-makers of the Kievan Caves Monastery. Even in the car, one can have a medallion ikon of our Saviour, or the Theotokos, or perhaps one’s patron saint, or St. Nicholas.

Orhtodox Christians at all costs should keep their children and themselves as free as possible from the evil that flows from the anti-ikons; such as non-Orthodox religious pictures and the various pornographic magazines, films and newspapers; they should avoid violent or passion filled television programs. Parents should make sure that their children are not allowed to have posters in their rooms depicting decadent movie and rock stars such as Alice Cooper, the Rolling Stones, or the most hideous of all: Kiss. I have been to homes where I was called to perform Holy Water services only because the children of the house were beset by evil dreams and unclean passions; in every case, those children, rather than having holy ikons on their bedroom walls, had these anti-ikons of the demonic, of the obscene, of the prurient. If an Orthodox Christian constantly beholds the holy ikons, he will see their prototypes face to face in the Kingdom of the Heavens, and he will rejoice with them in unending ascent toward God. If on the other hand, his eyes are filled with visions of these anti-icons, he will see their prototypes in the kingdom of the Devil, and will gnash and gnaw his teeth with them in an unending fall away from God, from Light, from Life. “Who ever,” says Dr. Cavarnos, “is fortunate to have his eyes opened, and see something of the mystical depth contained in our religious art becomes a man with new eyes, with a new soul, thirsting insatiably for the “living water” which wells up to eternal life; he no longer wants to look at what he used to consider (to be) everything; he is astonished at his former blindness” (Cavarnos, Byz. Sac. Art., pg. 104). Conversely, all those who cannot accept what has been said, “All those who are vexed and hindered by the ikons while in prayer, are in reality,” as Kalomiros observes, “vexed by the Incarnate God. It is as if they were saying that Christ had done badly in taking human form and nature” (Kalomiros, pg. 65-6). They have become iconoclasts, and worshipers of the anti-icon.

In closing, we must realize that ikons will not by themselves help us to find our salvation; we must use all the weapons of our Faith: fasting, prayer, almsgiving, contrition, Holy Communion, and all the rest of the Christian Mysteries and virtues, so that we may become as it were, ikons of the saints, who themselves are ikons of Christ, who is the only Perfect Ikon of the Father. In concluding, let us hear the exhortation of St. John of Damascus, and let us follow it, each according to his own ability: “Let us the faithful worship the saints,a s in them, God is also most worshipped. Let us raise monuments to them, and ikons, and let us ourselves become through imitation of their virtues, living monuments and ikons of them. Let us give honor to Her who bore God as being especially and truly the Mother of God. Let us honor also the prophet John as forerunner and Baptist, as apostle and martyr” Let us honor the apostles as the Lord’s brothers, who saw Him face to face and ministered to His Passion” Let us also honor the martyrs of Christ, who have drunk His cup, and were then baptized with the baptism of His life-bringing death, to be partakers of His Passion and glory; of whom the leader is Stephen, the first deacon of Christ and apostle, and first martyr. Also let us honor our Holy Fathers, the Godbearing ascetics, whose struggle was the longer and more toilsome one of the conscience” Let us honor those who were prophets before grace; the patriarchs and righteous men who foretold the Lord’s coming. Let us carefully review the life of these men, and let us emulate their faith and love, and hope and zeal, and way of life and endurance of sufferings, and patience, even unto blood, in order that we may be sharers with them in their crowns of glory. Amen” (St. John Dam. Exposition, Book IV, pg. 87, corrected by me according to Gk. Text., Post Nic, Fa. Sec. Ser. Vol IX).


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