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"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

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Monday, 18 July 2011

THE IMPORTANCE OF ICONS


Is it not an extraordinary fact that, after a series of ecumenical councils that dealt with the central and basic theme of Jesus Christ and his Incarnation, the Orthodox Church singles out the 2nd Council of Nicaea for annual commemoration  in the liturgical year?   On the 1st Sunday of Lent every year, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Sunday of Orthodoxy.   It seems to be telling us that the council that condemned iconoclasm and proclaimed the importance of icons was defending and, perhaps implicitly defining, the very essence of Orthodoxy.   If that be so, then, implicit in the conciliar definition on icons, is found an important statement about the nature of the Catholic Church, one that must be taken into account when we interpret any subsequent definition of Catholicism  as well as a clue to interpreting patristic texts about, for instance, the See of Peter.   Let us first look at what an icon is.


The best definition of an icon I found, not from the lips of an Orthodox theologian, but from a highly intelligent but almost illiterate Peruvian peasant.    I was puzzled by the importance and reverence given in Peruvian villages to their images.  They hold fiestas in their honour and talk of them as though they are real people.   I asked him what role the images have in religiosidad popular.   He thought for a minute, and then said in his precise way, "After an image has been blessed by the Church, it becomes a point of contact between God and the people."   Hence, after the blessing, the image becomes, not just a reminder of Christ, Our Lady or the saints: it becomes a means by which whoever is portrayed in it is in contact with the those who use it, and they are in contact with the person or persons portrayed.   As all saints are full of the Divine Life, there is always contact between the angels and saints in heaven and the faithful of the Church on earth, and the icon becomes a means of communication.   I knew that the peasant had not received this teaching from the parish priest, nor was it something taught in seminaries and theological faculties. 
            Met. Hilarion Alfeyev honouring the Shroud in Turin

 Since the time that the teaching of the 2nd Council of Nicaea was rejected by the Franks and, later, by the University of Paris, we must admit that it has not been "received" in western theological circles in all its fullness, in spite of the efforts of the popes at the time who were well aware of its status as an ecumenical council and how it was deeply ingrained in popular Catholic culture.   The main reason for its rejection by the West was due to a mis-translation when the conciliar document was put into Latin.   The Greek word proskynesis (veneration) had been translated by the word adoratio in Latin; and it seemed to the westerners to be granting divine honour to icons.   Also, the Franks suspected anything that came out of Byzantium, even if it did bear the signatures of the papal legates.   This was a tragedy.    It could be argued that this rejection led to the separation of liturgy from popular piety in the West and that one of the factors that has contributed to the poor voting with their feet in the post-Vatican II Church has been the wholesale replacement of 'unliturgical' popular devotions in Europe and America by a liturgy from which they had grown apart. Thank God this has not happened in Latin America!!   


The present Pope has said that the doctrine taught by 2nd Nicaea should be received by the West; and,if my insight about the definition is correct, that it was as much about the nature of Church as it was about icons, even though only implicitly,  the sooner this takes place, the better.   I do not believe there will be any hope of reunion between the two "lungs" of the Church until we accept, lock, stock and barrel, the Orthodox teaching on icons and both sides see the implications of this teaching for the nature of the Church.

The arguments against the iconoclasts are of three kinds:  arguments about the relationship between the Incarnation and images; arguments about the Incarnation and nature, about what kind of world makes the Incarnation possible, and what impact the Incarnation has made on the material world; and, finally but implicitly, what do the answers to these questions tell us about the Church.

Those for and against icons used arguments based on the definitions of previous councils.   John Meyendorff writes:
It is remarkable that Constantine, in order to justify his  position, formally referred to the authority of the first six councils; for him iconoclasm was not a new doctrine, but the logical outcome of the Christological debates of the previous centuries.   The painter, the Council of Hieria affirmed, when he makes an image of Christ can paint either his humanity alone, thus separating it from his divinity, or both his humanity and his divinity.   In the first case he is a Nestorian; in  the second case he assumes that divinity is circumscribed by humanity, which is absurd; or that both are confused, in which case, he is a Monophysite.

Those in favour of icons argued that the iconoclasts, in their case against icons, also made impossible the Incarnation which is the union in one divine person between a humanity which is visible,  describable and,therefore, capable for being portrayed, with a divinity which is above all portrayal, being invisible, infinite,  ineffable and indescribable.   The human which is apt for art and the divine which cannot be portrayed are distinct but inseparable in Christ.    Hence, in the Incarnation, the human is a theophany of the divine without reducing God to fit into what can be seen.   Thus, St John of Damascus wrote this oft quoted passage:
In former times, God, without body or form, could in no way be represented.   But today, since God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I can represent what is visible in God.   I do not venerate matter, but I venerate the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake, who assumed life in the flesh, and who, through matter, accomplished my salvation.

The Incarnation involved having a universe that is so designed by God that it can be a an instrument of his saving will, an instrument of theophany; and human nature must be such that can belong to a Divine Person without losing its.   Thus, Karl Rahner defined the human being in the light of the Incarnation as capax Dei.


      This idea that an icon is a window into eternity and a means by which eternity enters into contact with us in time is bound up with the the basic Christian idea that creation has its true nature restored to it in Christ.   I picked this Orthodox quotation from somewhere:
the Orthodox experience a sacrament as primarily a revelation of the sacramentality of creation itself, for the world was created and given to man for conversion of creaturely life into participation in divine life. If in baptism water can become a “laver of regeneration,” if our earthly food—bread and wine—can be transformed into partaking of the body and blood of Christ, if, to put it briefly, everything in the world can be identified, manifested and understood as a gift of God and participation in the new life, it is because all of creation was originally summoned and destined for the fulfilment of the divine economy—”then God will be all in all.

If everything in the world becomes a gift of God "for the conversion of creaturely life into a participation in the new divine life", once it comes into the context brought about by Christ's death and resurrection - and blessing is the normal way that a creature enters into the orbit of the Church - then an image that has been blessed by the Church is not merely a teaching tool or a holy reminder: it becomes a means by which we partake in the divine life.   As the Orthodox would say, in being blessed by the Church, an icon assumes the proper function of Nature which was lost by sin: it becomes a gift of God, a means by which God makes us ever more profoundly sharers in his own life.   This process they call theosis.   It remains for us to examine in what way it becomes a true instrument in our sanctification.


The first thing I want to say about the icon is that it is an image that is manifesting a presence, the presence of Our Lord, Our Lady or of saints.  The next thing is that it is an active, rather than a passive presence, in that the saints in heaven have a far more intense love for God and for us than we have and are eager to help contribute to our salvation.   Indeed, their human love has so deepened and widened that it has become an instrument of the Holy Spirit that infuses and transforms it


.   Like the windows of the Sainte Chapelle that head this blog, those who paint icons do not put their signature to them because, in comparison with glory of God that shines through them, the love and concern of Christ, Our Lady and the saints that use them as instruments, the salvation of those who are helped through them, the name of the artist is of no importance.




 Beauty manifests the presence of the Holy Spirit in creation, says Sergei Bulgakov.  This is only a pace away from the understanding of icon.  The iconographer sees that it is his vocation to use his   skill as a painter to manifest the presence of Christ, the Mother of God or the saint in the power of the S


The third characteristic is that it is liturgical.    Jean Corbon says that the liturgy is the product of the synergy of the Holy Spirit and the Church.   Vatican II, in its Constitution on the Liturgy, says that the liturgy is the source and goal of all the Church's activity.  The Church's blessing of an icon with water and chrism makes the icon belong to the Church and an instrument of the Holy Spirit, the Church and the Holy Spirit acting in harmony: it becomes an instrument of liturgy.   They are used during the liturgy, heralding the presence of Our Lord, Our Lady, the angels and saints in the celebration on earth; and, when they are used outside the liturgical celebration, they extend its activity into everyday life.
As liturgical art, those who use it participate  in the icon.   The lines of perspective normally meet behind what is depicted; but, in an icon,they meet in the heart of the person looking at it; which accounts for the seeming distortion in icon painting.   The  Hospitality of Abraham by Andrei Rublev, which depicts the angel visitors to Abraham which are spoken of in Genesis, sometimes in the singular as one angel and sometimes as three, is a type of the Holy Trinity.   They are sitting at a table on which there is food, this standing for the Eucharist in which we share the life of the Holy Trinity.   In the front there is an empty place, which is for the person who is using the icon in prayer.


Because the icon is liturgical art, painted for the liturgy and blessed in the liturgy for ecclesial use, the icon is also traditional as the liturgy is traditional; not just traditional in the ordinary sense of the word, like kilts are traditional in Scotland, but in a much more profound sense, as expressions of Christian Tradition.   Indeed, icons are very special only because they are expressions of Tradition.   Without Tradition they would just be pictures, mere works of art, and not manifestations of the active PRESENCE of Christ, Our Lady and the saints.  Moreover, precisely because they are traditional in this sense, they can tell us something of the nature of the Church on earth.


I have been told that Pope Benedict XVI admires certain aspects aspects of Anglicanism and that he has the Preces Privatae of Bishop Lancelot Andrews on his bedside table.   One thing that he admires is the Anglican criterion for reaching Christian understanding.   For Anglicanism, the means of reaching a Christian understanding is to balance Scripture, Tradition and reason.    Anglicans will use Tradition to interpret Scripture and Scripture to question the certainties of Tradition; while reason sometimes opens up new avenues of enquiry and calls in question the conclusions of the other two criteria. 


Whether this is true or not, it is clear from the woman priest controversy that, once these three criteria are accepted by Pope Benedict, they are transformed by their Catholic context.   Tradition is not just one authority among three,to be modified by the other two: it is the very context in which Scripture was written and is read and understood and in which reason is asked to operate and which it is asked to support.   This is because Tradition is the experience of the Church as body of Christ from the time of the Apostles to the present day and onwards to the Second Coming.   Centred on the Eucharist in which the Church is taken up into the fullness of Christ in heaven and expressed principally in the liturgy, it passes Christian Truth from one generation to the next, down the ages, but it has its roots in eternity.  To accept Catholic Tradition in any century is to accept the fullness of Catholicism of all centuries which is Christ in heaven, "of whose fullness we have all received"
Thus Fr George Florovsky wrote:
The Church thinks of the past not of something that is no more, but as of something that has been accomplished, as something existing in the Catholic fullness of the one body of Christ.....Loyalty to Tradition does not mean loyalty to bygone times and to outward authority: it is a living connection with the fullness of Christian experience.    Reference to Tradition is no historical enquiry  Tradition is not limited to Church archaeology.  Tradition is no outward testimony which can be accepted by an outsider.   The Church alone is the living witness of Tradition, and then only from the inside,from within the Church, can Tradition be felt and accepted as a certainty.   Tradition is the witness of the Spirit; the Spirit's unceasing revelation and preaching of good tidings.   For the living members of the Church, it is no outward historical authority, but the eternal, continual voice of God.

Icons do not express the feelings or attitudes of the artist but, rather, the Tradition of the Church; and,like the liturgy of which they are part, they belong to an activity that has been passed down from one generation to the next; and,for all the differences of style, there are constant characteristics that remain the same.  In part this is due to their other dimension as windows looking into eternity and the fullness of Christ.  t What is true of icons is also true of the Church.


In the Gospel and epistles of St John Revelation is not just something we hear but something addressed to all our senses. The Gospel begins with "The Word was made flesh" and, near the ending, with Jesus telling Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands.   Reach out your hand and put it into my side.   Do not doubt but believe;" and Thomas saying in awed tones, "My Lord and my God."   After Jesus has spoken to the Samaritan woman, she goes to tell her friends; but it is only  after they see and hear Jesus for themselves that they believe: the truth which becomes self-evident for them so that they no longer need her witness.   In Christ, even the Father is visible!   "He who sees me sees the One who has sent me."  However, the theophany above all theophanies, the one in which both Jesus and his Father are glorified, is the Cross.   As for the crucifixion so with the folded clothes in the tomb, when they are viewed with an open, humble love by the disciple, their truth becomes self-evident.


It can be argued that, while hearing the Word is dominant in the Old Testament, "Hear, Oh Israel...", after the "Word was made flesh"   and became visible, the Gospel came to be about a very concrete revelation indeed, "We declare to you...  what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life..." (1 John 1)   Paul Evdokimov writes:

Now, the command is  no longer "Hear" but "Lift up your eyes, and behold!"  The Gospel, in the same way, allows us to hear the word of Jesus, but, as soon as history is transcended, "the pure of heart shall see God."   At the time of his martyrdom, St Stephen the deacon sees the heavens open and "The Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."   G. Kittel understands the fact that the Resurrection of the Lord ushers in the vision of the light of the Parousia and marks the entry into the eschatological era.   But already the bright cloud accompanying the exodus, is covering the Tabernacle, filling the temple, and revealing the abode of the Shekinah, the place of Theophany.


The same author says that the altar table at the Eucharist represents the heavenly altar.   In the Eucharist we ascend into the Presence of the Father with Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, passing through the veil which is the flesh of Christ.  The Eastern tradition links communion and contemplation, as we link baptism and conversion.   Mystical prayer is the only really adequate way to experience eucharistic communion, but is not .   necessarily experienced at the time of reception.   Nevertheless,, it is a "seeing in a glass darkly" that becomes possible, when God wills it, by the action of the Holy Spirit for those who receive Christ in communion with a pure heart.
From that time onwards (the time of Christ's Resurrection= Ascension) the Temple, as a place of theophany, has gone beyond its geographical location, beyond any limitations of form. From the symbol we pass to reality, , to the Presence of Christ not only in every temple, but also in His Word, in the Eucharist, in every man in whom He is an Icon of God\; "to see your brother is to see God", according to the agraphon quoted by Clement of Alexandria

This is the world of the icon and the Church, a world in which Christ addresses our faith, not only with words, but through what is visual . Even in the West where Catholic understanding of icons was not accepted in its fullness, the Blessed Sacrament has filled the need; and through eucharistic adoration people have been transformed in holiness.  

An icon is a painting with words.   If there are words without a depiction, there is no icon: if there is a painting without words or, at least, initials that stand for words, there is no icon.   Jesus told Philip that God is visible in him because he lives in the Father and the Father in him.   The Church lives in Christ and Christ in it, and the Church is the body of Christ because it partakes of the Eucharist.   As body,its function is to make Christ visible; and then, when it speaks, the truth of its words will be self-evident to those who hear them with humble love.   How do we make Christ visible so that the world will know that the Father has sent Christ?   By our unity, "that they may be one", by the quality of our love for one another and for the world.   The Church is meant to be an icon of Christ by its love and by its words.   The icon is a good paradigm by which we understand the Church.





St Ignatius of Antioch wrote, "Where there is the bishop, let there be the whole multitude; just as where Jesus Christ is, there too is the Catholic Church."   How can the whole Catholic Church be in each local church, seeing that the Catholic Church embraces heaven and earth and unites all space and time in Christ?    Well, clearly the unity of each local church  is rooted in Christ who cannot be divided and is within himself the fullness of Catholicism.  Clearly he is in heaven in the presence of the Father, the angels and saints, even as he manifests his presence in the local eucharistic community by word and sacrament and to the world by the quality of the community's love.   Clearly too, the local church celebrates its Catholic fullness in a liturgy that first took its basic shape in apostolic times.   The local church is an icon of the universal Church in so far as it makes it visible and is the means by which we participate in its fullness.


What about dogmatic definitions, whether they are those of councils or popes.   Certainly, there have been meetings of bishops that have considered themselves to be ecumenical and their definitions to be binding on the faithful, yet they have been rejected by the Church.   Yet, by their actions, the valid ecumenical councils have considered their definitions to be binding without any subsequent acceptance by the churches.  Also, the papal definition of infallibility stated that papal definitions are "of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable."   How can this be if infallibility was given, in the first place, to the Church by Christ?


If we tackle this question as canon lawyers and expect canon law to give the answer, then we shall be faced with several irreconcilable answers.   What happened at Chalcedon when the papal legates  delivered to the council fathers the papal tomb  defining the Incarnation and the bishops exclaimed, "Peter has spoken through the mouth of Leo!!"   If we argue in terms of law, we will never get an agreement.   What happens if we learn from the icon?   We know from icons that the saints communicate, not in a miraculous way usually, but from the normal workings of grace, through the icon.   We know Leo claimed to be successor of St Peter.   They heard the definition and, just as the Samaritans saw the truth of Christ when they met him, just as people are gobsmacked by Rublev's Trinity and are brought into a sharing of the divine, Trinitarian life, so they marvelled at the definition of their faith by Leo - it wasn't imposed on them - they saw the TRUTH of it.   The legal consequences were a simple recognition of the truth.   Christian Truth for St John is self-evident for those who approach with faith informed with love.  For papal or conciliar infallibility to work there has to be that love.   History shows that where that love is absent, on either side, then things fall apart because it is love that gives the Church its iconic quality.




Aidan Hart on Diversity Within Iconography - An Artistic Pentecost


POUSTINIA: A PERSONAL RETREAT according to the teaching of Catherine de Hueck Doherty



















































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