Sunday, October 11, 2009

Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today the Orthodox Church commemorates the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, who met together in the year 787 to defend and describe the proper use and veneration of the Holy Icons (Images).

Icons have been a part of the Christian experience since apostolic times. St. Luke is in fact credited with being Christendom’s very first iconographer. According to ancient tradition, he crafted an image of the Theotokos and Christ-child that was blessed by her, and later used as the basis for the “Vladimir Mother of God” icon which is still very popular today. Images and various Christian symbols adorned the catacombs of the first centuries, and later the churches of the Constantine-period and far beyond.

Yet despite such early and widespread use and endorsement, there has always been a small percentage of people in every generation who stubbornly opposed the use of holy images within the Church. There are many such people even today in the Christian traditions outside of Orthodoxy. Such people invariably resort to the Old Testament to argue that Christian icons are a form of “graven image” expressly forbidden by the Second Commandment. Despite the fact that the Old Testament lawfully included profuse imagery--including the brass serpent Moses held aloft to symbolize Christ crucified, the architecture of the earthly Temple which was modeled after its antitype in heaven, and the golden cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant--for some reason Christian icons are singled out by some as “violations of scriptural commandments” and those of us who use them are uncharitably branded as “foolish idolators” who blindly follow “the teachings of men” rather than the pure word of God. I’m sure we have all heard such accusations.

While being in full agreement that icons should never be worshipped, the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council defended the proper use of them within the Church on the basis that through the incarnation of the Son of God, the invisible and immaterial God added to His existence a visible and material human nature which could now rightfully be depicted by human art. In short, Christian Iconography exists solely because of the incarnation of Christ! This is why attempts to use the impartial revelation of the Old Testament to argue against the fuller revelation demonstrated in New Testament iconography is mistaken and invalid.

Icons prove that God became man, bringing glorification to humanity. The Christ-figure portrayed in the icons is not a ghost or an illusion, nor merely an ordinary man. He is the God-man Jesus Christ, the Blessed Second Person of the Holy Trinity, truly incarnate and divinely glorified in the flesh for our sakes and for our salvation.

The Holy Fathers taught that icons are not merely useful to the Church, but in fact essential to preserving the full understanding of the incarnation and our glorious salvation against the many heresies that continually assail these beliefs. The icons not only depict God incarnate, but they also show the saints deified by their union with Christ as partakers of the divine nature, which indeed is both the promise and potential shared by all of us who are joined to the glorified humanity of Christ through the new birth of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism.

The spirit of error denies the essential importance of iconography, claiming that Christian truth can be preserved by words alone. That’s simply false. The Holy Images convey truth on a different level than written or spoken words, and at the same time combine with them to present truth in a more full and complete way. Interestingly enough, most heretics who deny the deity of Christ are perfectly content to use the Church’s bible to teach their falsehoods. But they do not use the Church’s icons. There is something a bit too “divine” in the portrayal of the Theotokos and her Child, in the image of Christ glorified, or in the images of the saints filled with God. Such an unmistakable sense of divine presence and holiness which the icons convey does not lend itself well to the empty teachings of those who deny the deity of Jesus Christ, and for this reason the heretics condemn icons and refuse to have them in their buildings. The paint and wood of icons do “make real” the incarnation in a way that the paper and ink of books alone cannot.

The Holy Fathers defined exactly how icons should be used by the faithful. Forbidding the worship of them, the Fathers taught that honor or veneration should be offered through them to the saints they depict, and by this action, adoration and worship offered to God alone, who by His divine condescension took our flesh to make sainthood possible. I have heard people say that it is wrong to venerate the saints because such practice supposedly detracts from the glory that should be given to God. This makes no sense. If you praise a piece of art for its beauty, are you not giving honor to the artist who created it? When we give honor to the saints who were pleasing to God, we give glory and worship to the very God whose transforming grace made them saints. Those who portray God as envious of the honor given to His saints are misguided and have an incomplete and distorted view of God. “I am the LORD, and My glory I shall not share with another!” thunders their God from the pages of the Old Testament [Isaiah 42:8]. In contrast, Jesus prayed to His Father concerning His saints, “And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them, that they may be one, even as we are one” [John 17:22, emphasis added].

To refuse honor to the saints is to deny the incarnation of the Son of God and our blessed union with Him, by which He is pleased to share His glory with men. It is a denial of the very means of our salvation and the humility of God in the sharing of His life and glory with us. It is an action not rooted in love, but in the vain imaginings of men who esteem their opinions as possessing greater weight than the teachings of the Church. As we heard in our epistle lesson this morning from Titus 3, such men are sinful, subverted, and self-condemned and are sternly admonished by the Church to repent.

To Orthodox Christians, a church building adorned with icons is as meet and right as the walls of a healthy, happy home adorned with the photographs of many loved ones. The icons remind us of our larger family, and of the common inheritance we share with them all. They make this a warm home, bright and welcoming to all who enter under its roof. Though we were once strangers to God, we have been made a family with all the saints in every generation and with one another by the love of our heavenly Father and His kindness toward us. It is of the greatest importance therefore that we show this same love and kindness toward others, and especially toward those who are so convinced that we are wrong.

The Holy Icons vividly demonstrate the love of God. They leave no question that God has done everything divinely possible to raise man up to a position of great dignity and holiness. Perhaps the best thing we an do for modern day critics of the Holy Icons is to become ourselves living icons of God’s love and kindness. As they harshly demand of us biblical justification for our practices, and in many cases shut their minds to our answers, what more can we do but to show them the love of our Father and be kind to them as He Himself is kind to all? It is not our obligation to convince people, but to love them as God does, and thus become true and living icons of our Lord Jesus Christ. May this be the path we choose.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 10/25/2014 12:29 AM , Anonymous Father John Tokarick said...

Thank you,Father for this beautiful insight!May the effort you have put forth here,be unto the salvation of souls seeking His Kingdom!

Father John+


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