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On the Holy Icons

On February 25, 2007, His Grace Bishop Joseph gave the Sunday of Orthodoxy Address in Worcester, MA.

Very Reverend and Reverend Fathers, Reverend Deacons, and brethren in Christ:

On this first Sunday of the Holy Fast, we commemorate our Holy Fathers who struggled, suffered and, in some cases, perished for the sake of the Holy Icons. Since 843 AD, the Church has celebrated this day in honor of those martyrs and confessors whose faithfulness to the theology of icons was upheld at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and the holy Empress Theodora, who ended decades of persecuting the Church, and restored the Icons.

The question many ask is why would a man or woman suffer and choose death for the sake of mere works of art? The truth is that icons are not simply works of art, but they are something more.

The icon is a type and an image of spiritual reality which constitutes the highest truth. It is a testimony of what exists, showing in itself what it depicts. The icon is a depiction of real people transformed by real grace. The icon bears testimony to the existence of both holy people and the Living God who has true relationships with these people. Icons express the hope for us all, that God has not abandoned mankind.

In the icon, we see that God is not some abstract concept. He is real because we can see His marvelous works in the faces of the saints depicted in iconography. Icons bring all of the truth of God and the saints into us as we gaze upon them, kiss them, and venerate them.

The second council of Nicea (7th Ecumenical council) clearly states: “I venerate the icons and the relics with honor (τιμητικῶς), hoping to have a share in their holiness.”

The Holy Scriptures tell us that mankind is made in the Image and Likeness of God. We are all living icons of the Divine. Just as the icon bears witness to a person transformed by God’s holiness, we are all to be icons of the Living God in whose image we are created. In our baptism, the Holy Spirit makes us into new men, and His image in us is transformed, by our synergy, into His likeness.

In my diocese, the Getty Museum of Los Angeles is hosting an exhibit of icons from St. Katherine’s Monastery of Mount Sinai. People from all over the regions are coming to see these magnificent icons, and for many different reasons. Some come to see the icons because of their historical relevance. Others still come to admire their artistic qualities. Then there are those who come because it is something interesting to do. Each person comes with his own reasons. Some go away unchanged, while others leave the exhibit touched by the holiness of the icons.

As Orthodox Christians, we are called to be living icons of the Lord. Just as people look upon icons for a variety of reasons, so many people look to us for a wide range of reasons. To some, Orthodoxy is an interesting anachronism, a fascinating example of ancient religion and Eastern mysticism. Then, there are those who see Orthodox Christians in terms of exotic rites and rituals. There are others who will see us as wood-worshipers. The seventh Ecumenical Council clearly condemned those who accuse us of worshipping idols, saying: “Anathema to those who apply the words of Holy Scripture which were spoken against idols, to the venerable icons.”

If we are true to our faith and desire to draw close to God, then His Divine Grace will pour out of us. Though not all people will see it in us, it will be there, just as this same grace comes from the holy icons. Some will perceive this shining grace within us.

The icons are also a reminder to us of our purpose in the spiritual life.

First, we must remember that icons are unchanging, although they express the Mystery of spiritual renewal and transformation. The lesson to us is that our faith must remain unchanging in the face of the world. In the presence of earthly cares, our faith must be unchanged by the world around us. We must be faithful to God’s image in us, not as a mere picture of some past events, but as a living connection to the eternal Body of Christ.

On the other hand, we must not live our lives to please those who look upon us, but rather to be transformed into the likeness of God. St. Basil the Great says: “The mere memory of just deeds is a source of spiritual joy to the whole world; people are moved to imitate the holiness of which they hear. The life of holy men is as a light illuminating the way for those who would see it. And again, when we recount the story of holy lives we glorify in the first place the Lord of those servants, and we give praise to the servants on account of their testimony, which is known to us. We rejoice the world through good report.” (St. Basil's Sermon on St. Gordion)

Second, we must never forget the beauty of Christ and His saints. Christ is hymned by the Church as the one of perfect beauty surpassing that of all mortals. Having the divine and ineffable beauty in us, our spiritual life must be surrounded with divine grace and shining with holiness. This liturgical art does not reflect a carnal beauty, but a spiritual beauty, through which man tastes the essence of the liturgy, and becomes like unto the Heavenly Hosts and perceives immortal life.

In his book “the structure of man,” St Gregory of Nyssa emphasizes that Iconographers “transfer human forms to canvas through certain colors, laying on suitable and harmonious tints to the picture, so as to transfer the beauty of the original to the likeness.” (St Gregory of Nyssa, from the "Structure of Man" Fifth Chapter.)

By ascetical struggles such as fasting and confession, we keep the image of God which we reflect cleansed from impurity, and the Holy Spirit removes the veil from our heart. Through purification we see light, without which there can be no beauty, but only darkness and emptiness.

Just as people who have no faith are yet drawn to the beauty of icons, so we must remember that unbelievers will be drawn to the beauty of our spiritual lives, should we embark on this process of restoring the image and likeness of God in each of us. Spiritual beauty is manifested in the virtues brought forth through us by the Holy Spirit. A peaceful heart and mind firmly established upon total Faith in God, is magnificent and glorious to behold. Through our spiritual path, we fulfill our iconic calling, manifesting the beauty of God in our persons. By bringing God’s beauty and light into the world, we offer hope to a world filled with ugliness and darkness.

Third, we must never forget that just as the icon does not exist for its own sake, so we must not live only for our own desires and passions. Our Lord became man for our salvation, so that we may love one another by acting as iconic revelations of the Incarnate God.

For this reason, the Seventh Ecumenical Council proclaims that we should venerate, the Icons “of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the humanity He assumed for our salvation; and of our spotless Lady, the holy Theotokos; and of the angels like unto God; and of the holy Apostles, Prophets, Martyrs, and of all the Saints.”

We have an obligation to live lives of purity and holiness so that we can fulfill our calling to be living icons of God. This is our evangelical calling, what the Holy Apostle Paul meant when he calls us ‘ambassadors of Christ.’ Certainly, missionary ministries and evangelical outreach are commendable and necessary, but they are pointless if we do not Imitate Christ and His Saints.

Underlying the centrality of the Incarnation, St. John of Damascus says: “When God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, (Bar. 3.38) I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God.” (Apologia Of St John Damascene Against Those Who Decry Holy Images. Part I).

Fourth, The icons represent the communion of the Saints and the Angels. In his book on the Holy Spirit, Saint Basil the Great emphasizes that “the honor paid to the image passes on to the prototype.” (XVIII 45). Liturgically, we represent the angels, in order to receive the king of all in our community life. The communion of the saints brings about Orthodox unity in an unshaken way without the danger of artificial and man-made structures. There is no Orthodox unity outside the communion of the saints. This communion deflects our differences and turns then into a glorified act of the Holy Spirit. In spite of our diversity, none of us can exist in himself and for himself. The key is God and the communion of the saints. When Christ becomes the archetype of our lives, then we become eikonically united.

Fifth, By living as icons, we become conduits of God’s grace. As God ministers to others through us, we benefit. We get to participate in God’s good works through us. As we witness God’s mercy in our own lives, we then get to see God’s grace at work in the lives of many Americans who are thirsty to drink from the living water springing up to eternal life. The love that God has for others becomes our love. His infinite mercies become ours.

In the end, though the world may assail us, we must remember that the image in which we are made cannot be destroyed. Just as the destruction of the icon does not affect the prototype after which it was patterned, so we are not destroyed even with the destruction of our earthly lives. Though the world may threaten us with pain and suffering, if we truly learn the lesson of the icons, we shall not have fear. We shall not back down in the face of threats and blasphemies. Though the world will tempt us with luxuries and sensual pleasures, we will remain living icons, just as the saints have reflected the glory of God through the centuries.

Now we understand why the saints suffered and died for the sake of preserving our theology of the icons. Now we know how important the icons are, and how we are called to be living icons of the Living God.

Beloved in Christ, I came to you this first weekend of the fast to represent His Eminence, Metropolitan PHILIP, who asked me to convey to all of you his love, prayers, and best wishes for a blessed Lenten Season. His Eminence has a profound conviction that Christ and His Church will be known when we are vested by the beauty of Christ.

Brethren, let us venerate and embrace the Holy icons with deep faith and prostrations, let us all resolve, as one family in Christ, One Body, to be better icons of our Lord Jesus Christ.