Σάββατο, 2 Νοεμβρίου 2013

Icons: Our Windows to Heaven

In 987.A.D., Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus sent envoys throughout the Near East to study their respective religions so he could determine which was the best for his people. Whether he did this sincerely, to unify his people or for purely political reasons, God only knows. But the chronicles recorded the reaction of he and his emissaries to the major religions of the neighboring nations of that time. The Muslim Bulgarians were quickly dismissed due to their ban on the consumption of alcoholic beverages and eating of pork. The Jews quickly fell out of favor because their loss of Jerusalem to the Ottoman Empire was interpreted as evidence that their religion had been abandoned by God. And his emissaries saw no beauty in the Catholic churches of the Germans. The representatives of Vladimir, however, famously described their attendance in Constantinople at the Divine Liturgy at The Hagia Sophia: "We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth; nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it." Vladimir was baptized the following year and is credited with the Christianization of Kievan Rus or the Conversion of the Slavs. He established many churches and monasteries, including some on Mt. Athos. 

Interestingly, St. Vladimir's envoys felt as if they were in heaven on earth or if they had been carried off to the heavenly realm. It is for this reason that Orthodox Christians refer to icons as "Windows to Heaven." Sure, they make us mindful that we are in God's house and help us direct our minds and hearts to prayer. But they are much more than reminders of the spiritual world, visual aids and historical images of Christ and his followers. They provide entry to our hearts and minds into the Kingdom of Heaven. Icons provide believers with the living witness of Christ and our heroes and role models in the Faith who now live with him in eternity in Heaven. Do we not believe that when we celebrate the Divine Liturgy, it is being celebrated in Heaven along with us? It is this "cloud of witnesses" who cheer us on as we strive to run and finish "the race that is set before us." (Hebrews 12:1). This, then, is how icons and our Orthodox worship enable us to take part in the "Communion of the Saints."

There have been some throughout the course of history and yet today who, through ignorance and prejudice, criticize the existence and use of icons. They allege that we "worship" icons. Orthodox Christians are taught from the earliest age that worship is reserved for God alone, but we honor the Theotokos and Saints. We do not, however, worship the painted piece of wood or canvas. Rather, we venerate them as an act of devotion, intending that this honor passes on to the person or act represented by the image. How many of us carry photos of of loved ones in our wallets or have framed photos of them at home that we have kissed to show our love and devotion to them? Likewise, we do not worship the wooden or metal cross that hangs around our necks or on our walls, but the One who was crucified upon it.

Such criticism may be attributable to a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the Second Commandment's admonition against making graven images. It reads: 

"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me: And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments." Ex. 20:4-6.

First, Orthodox icons are not three-dimensional, like statues. But, more importantly, this commandment read in it's entirety clearly contains the joint instruction to not image things which are: 1) limited to Heaven and unseen; and, 2) representations of earthly things (e.g., the golden calf) for the purpose of worshipping them (Exodus 20:5). The first condition explains why the image of God the Father is properly not seen in Orthodox iconography. Chopping off text, and taking passages out of context and juxtaposing them with unrelated passages have historically not only been the basis of false teaching, but also the creation of many new denominations and churches.

Fr. Peter E. Gillquist, in his wonderful booklet which defends major points of Orthodox Christian Faith, Making America Orthodox, goes on to argue that there is an Old testament basis for Holy images:

"In Exodus 25, God gives His divine blueprint, if you will, for the tabernacle. Specifically in verses 19 and 20, he commands images of Cherubim above the mercy seat. Also, God commanded and enforced, a strong veneration of the Ark of the Covenant.

In Exodus 26:1, Israel was commanded in no uncertain terms to sew 'artistic designs of cherubim' in the tabernacle curtains. Are these images? Absolutely! But they are images God commanded."

Our Holy Tradition holds that St. Luke was an iconographer and, in fact, wrote the first icon. It was of the Most Holy Theotokos Directress or Hodigitria, and it is referred to in the Paraklesis to the Theotokos:

"Speechless be the lips of impious ones,

Those who do not reverence
Your great icon, the sacred one.
Which is called Directress
And was depicted for us
By one of the apostles,
Luke the Evangelist."

Icons depict, first, Christ and his mother, the Most-Holy Theotokos. Next, the Old Testament Prophets and events occurring before the birth of Christ (Readers are invited to visit the icon gallery to see the beautiful icons of The Creation in our baptismal chapel). New Testament and contemporary saints and martyrs, along with angels, are frequently depicted in Orthodox iconography. Finally, icons represent Christ's miracles and events described in the New Testament. In the early centuries, much of the populace throughout the Holy Land was uneducated and even illiterate. It cost money to pay for an education, and few could afford it. Icons, then, served to teach people who could not read about Jesus Christ and his teachings, the Mother of God, the apostles, saints and events in their lives. Thus, icons are theology — the study of God — because they taught and continue to teach theology, which literally means the word of God.

The Seventh Ecumenical council was held in 787 A.D. in Nicea, which is present-day Iznik, Turkey. It resulted in the restoration of icons, but not before it debated several deep theological issues. Most of the credit is attributed to St. John of Damascus, who said, in part: 

"Concerning he charge of idolatry: icons are not idols, but symbols. Therefore, when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honor is shown to material objects, but worship is due God alone. We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross... When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them."

For the full text of St. John of Damascus' classic writing In Defense of Icons, please visit this link: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/johndam-icons.html

The following is the final declaration of faith by the council concerning the veneration of the holy images:

It was determined that "As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent adoration, not, however, the veritable worship which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone — for the honor accorded to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever adores the image adores in it the reality of what is there represented."

Orthodox Christianity is fond of saying that it has "the fullness of the faith." Icons, then, are a vital part of this rich treasury of doctrine, worship and belief. They truly glorify God, to whom is due ALL glory, worship, thanksgiving and honor!

source : the website of the Dormition of the Theotokos Greek Orthodox Church of Oakmont , Pensylvania


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