Sunday, the 25th of February, 2007, is known amongst us Eastern Christians as the Sunday of the "Triumph of Orthodoxy." This remembrance, always commemorated on the first Sunday of Lent, calls to mind the re-establishment of the use of icons in both personal and corporate worship. The West must consider it at best an oddity that we refer to the reintegration of icons into the public life of the Church as the defining moment in our history, that instant at which our longevity was confirmed as inevitable, and, had the opposite occurred, would have surely meant our Church's ultimate and soon-realized doom.
So why the big deal? Why is it that we Orthodox place so much emphasis on the pictures we hang on our walls? Why do we venerate and kiss and bow before them? Why is the icon so important? For the very reason that it eradicates any opportunity within us to embrace dualism as a valid philosophical viewpoint. The rejection of icons promotes a view of reality which places the spiritual realm in a position superior to the physical. Icons force us rather to accept this truth first revealed in Genesis: God created matter, and God is pleased with this creation.
One would do well to understand the historical aspects of this day. We accept that there was a time when the icons were absent from corporate worship. A longstanding iconoclasm--not just a passive, intellectual, somewhat ambivalent rejection of the icons, but a violent effort to eradicate them--at the highest levels of the Byzantine empire's government resulted in an enforced acquiescence of the Church to the imperial whims. Yet still there were those who privately kept collections of the images for veneration and remembrance.
The reasons for the iconoclasm were two-fold. From the political standpoint, the impending military advance of Islam forced the cultures surrounding the Ottomans to recognize the Muslim's insistence that depictions of God were a repulsive attempt to manifest that which was impossible even to imagine, much less to realize. On the other hand, the movement saw itself as spiritually purifying: the Second Commandment prohibited any graven images. (It is an intriguing historical oddity that remarkably similar attitudes would lead to an eventual similarly violent repudiation of art in Zurich and Geneva.) Thus, the iconoclasts saw themselves as justified in removing the images, and in persecuting--even unto death--those who disagreed with them.
The soul, so said the iconoclasts, was the ground in which God accomplished his work. The flesh was something not merely to be denied and repressed, but something to be marginalized and categorized as uninteresting to God. A classical duality after the father of duality, Plato, was being reestablished. Platonism was replacing the view the Church had always had, that the incarnation was a defining moment in understanding God's desire to reorder the physical reality.
On the opposite extreme, the iconodules--those who supported the images--saw themselves as preservationists. The adoration to the icons was never an act of worship to the object, but to its Creator. It was an admission that God created matter, and that God said in Genesis that matter was good. God was pleased with creation. In time, after the Fall, it was not just the abstract created order, but the very matter itself that needed to be redeemed, reshaped, and refashioned back into the originally-intended pattern. "God so loved the κοσμον..." the created "stuff."
Let us make one thing here perfectly and absolutely clear, and I hope everyone reading this can agree: adherence to the Ten Commandments has never meant altering the practice of the Faith that goes along with it, the Faith handed down to us by God at Pentecost. Distort the Decalogue, and our Faith mutates. Allow the Faith to deform, and the Law becomes an archaic and lifeless memory lacking in authority. Belief and practice have always gone hand-in-hand for the Church. We are neither a moral force lacking in spiritual component, nor an ephemeral and esoteric mere personal philosophy lacking in responsibility to the needs of our neighbors. We are both, and the preservation of both is essential if we are to carry out the work of God on earth.
Iconoclasm predominated for the better part of two centuries, an on-again/off-again lover of a confused, fickle Church. Exiles, heroes, saints and villains were made as the ecclesiastical ping-pong ensued and lingered. Eventually, the Emperor Theophilus made the last attempt to fasten iconoclasm as the norm, ordering the final eradication of the image of Christ from the Hagia Sophia on the grounds that the Moslem would never be brought to Christianity so long as Christians insisted on the presence of images. Thus it was that a politician--ignoring the warning given by the example of King Saul--made a decision to adjust the ancient and established practice of the Church in an unsuccessful bid to hope for the offchance that an infidel might wander in. (No wonder it is, one realizes looking at our history, that we Orthodox have such a keen adherence to the separation of Church and State and a tuned eye to the rise of fundamentalism.)
In due time, then Empress Theodora--the iconodule wife of an iconoclast emperor--found herself with the opportunity to rule as regent after the passing of Emperor Theophilus. Theophilus had actively sought the demise of those who promoted the re-establishment of the use of icons without ever suspecting his wife to be one of them. History records for us that she would have her servants inform him that she was playing with her jewelry when he called for her, and furthermore records that her hidden icons were easily disguised as jewelry boxes.
Theodora was adamant--albeit in secret--about the use of the icons because she understood the implications to the theology of the Church of how we recognize the interaction between God and creation. "I do not worship matter," wrote Saint John the Damascene. "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 honouring that matter which works my salvation." The icon certified that we would always remember that Christ accomplished the very act of salvation not merely as God, but also as matter, as flesh, as Man. Matter could change the universe. Matter mattered, to God, and to us.
Thus it was that, on February 19, 843, the ruling Empress delivered in the Hagia Sophia the edict that restored the icon to its proper place. Once again, and forevermore, the icon of Christ was established to be venerated. Orthodoxy was triumphant because the icon was triumphant, and therefore we could be triumphant. From that moment on, we were sure that God accomplished his work by intervening in the physical realm.
Any argument that God cannot be depicted is in any case silenced by the fact of the Incarnation itself. Our Creed reiterates time and time again (that is, as often as we repeat it) that God depicts Himself by the very act of taking on flesh, not merely appearing to be flesh, and neither diminishing Himself in the process, but actually becoming flesh. God proves that flesh can be transformed by Him, for the very reason that flesh did not transform Him into something less than Himself. By His taking on of flesh--iconifying Himself--we have hope. Christ is our certification that flesh can be godly!
Without the icon our identity as Orthodox is lost. We forget who we are and become merely flesh and spirit striving against one another until one or the other prevails. If the flesh cannot be transformed, then it must be excised and rejected, tossed away. Or it must be satiated, given ultimate control at the expense of the spirit; hedonism must be allowed to rule. We cannot have it both ways. But the icon reassures us that the created matter is a vessel for the spirit, and the spirit works a transformation in it as in the pattern of the transformed Christ on Mount Tabor. The icon is a depiction of the capability of God to work transformation on His creation.
It is for this very reason that one particular moment in the liturgy I at first found disturbing I now consider to be one of the most profoundly joyful, overwhelmingly undeserved blessings I ever experience. And I get this one every week!
It is one thing to witness the priest censing the icons, reverently and seriously. The visitor may observe this activity with wonder, curiosity, and bewilderment, and perhaps even a degree of latent iconoclastic confusion, revulsion, contempt. But it is quite another thing entirely when the leap is made and one can internalize that moment immediately afterwards when the same priest turns and, just as seriously and reverently, censes us, the congregants. Deserved or not, we receive the same treatment as the icons.
In this moment, we realize that we too--we, who are made of stuff--are icons of God, images of the Creator and the Redeemer, called to embody some of God's very characteristics and actualize them in ourselves. God desires that we be like Him, and we know He is saddened that we are not. He wishes, implores and beckons us to be like Him, and He empowers us to be like Him. The hope unrealized and the joy present are mixed in one moment, and we both realize with humility and grief just how far we have to go, how unworthy we are to receive this honor, and also receive with joy the news of who we are. We are icons of the Christ, censed and respected with honor and dignity just as are the depictions of our predecessors on the walls around us, worthy vehicles for containing the presence of God, fingers to touch the world with love. Our transformation is in process to be sure, a slow explosion working itself from the inside out, due any moment to erupt in a euphoric euphony of Godly agape, but it is in process. We are the people of God. Amen. So may it be.