Restoring the Image of Christ

Today marked the Sunday of Orthodoxy, a day on which the Orthodox celebrate the return of the images to the Church’s during the time of the Empress Theodora. It is also a day on which the Orthodox faith in its fullness is reaffirmed by the people and the clergy. This year I spoke at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Parma, Ohio, for the gathering sponsored by the Greater Cleveland Council of Orthodox Clergy (as well as concelebrating and preaching at St. Innocent’s in Olmstead Falls on Sunday morning). They were joyful occasions. These are some thoughts on the holy icons:

My first thought is about a natural human impulse to make icons. Created in God’s image, we are created as iconodules (those who honor icons – images). The distortions within us mean that we often crave images that are not the Truth (see my article, The Icon We Love the Most). Sitting in airports, as I have been this weekend, I have seen a huge range of “image seekers.” We decorate ourselves, adopt fashions, etc., all in an effort to create an image and to give ourselves a defining image. I’m wearing a cassock (as I usually do when I travel) so I have to include myself in this number. It makes for frequent and interesting conversations and opportunities to share the Christian faith.

My second thought is about  another impulse – a drive towards iconoclasm (image smashing) – that is as much in evidence in our daily lives as anything in our modern world. Indeed, modernity can almost be defined as the age of Iconoclasm. We sweep away the past as if it were only so much clutter standing in the way of progress to a world we always assume will be better. Some of our most powerful technology is aimed specifically at re-designing the human. We will be new and improved (we imagine) if only some research has its way.

Other forces are working rapidly to redefine things that already exist, so that things that might have once been considered wrong or dysfunctional are now considered desirable and good. There is almost a sense that we can redefine the world into a state of goodness (though nothing will have changed in such schemes) and thereby bring ourselves closer to God’s kingdom.

Some of our iconoclasm is dangerous, indeed. Changing the image of an unborn child into a “foetus,” and thus rendering the child somehow more clinical, and less human, allows us to destroy the image with less guilt and concern. Redefining life can also allow us to euthanize the weak and the elderly without remorse. Stanley Hauerwas has frequently noted that “compassion” in ethics is almost always a prelude to murder.

Thus when we celebrate the return of icons to the Churches, we also have to look at ourselves. The icon, the image of God, must be restored to the Temple of our self. We must renounce false images and embrace what God has revealed of Himself. The Holy Icons of Christ are precisely part of that revelation. We honor Him in His icon lest we fail to honor Him in the Truth.

At the same time we have to renounce iconoclasm. In so doing, we inherently set ourselves against certain forces within modernity. The truth is indeed eschatological, that is, it lies in the future, but we also believe that this eschatological reality was incarnate in Christ, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. We do not oppose the future in embracing the Tradition we have received. We embrace the future that is coming in Truth, rather than the false utopias of modern man’s imagination.

May the Holy Icons truly be honored and may we all be restored to the image in which we were created. Thy Kingdom Come, O Lord!

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22 Responses to “Restoring the Image of Christ”

  1. Susan Cushman Says:

    What a glorious Sunday!
    This is the Faith of the Apostles.
    This is the Faith of the Fathers.
    This is the Faith of the Orthodox.
    This is the Faith which has established the Universe.

  2. Jeremiah Says:

    As a catechumen I have been learning a lot about Orthodoxy over the past several months. This time last year I would have never thought I’d be saying this, but I am truly grateful for the iconography of the Church. It not only points us to the Incarnation, but, as you said, the Eschaton. I think you even stated in another article or podcast, that the Eschaton is not only future, but it is now, in the Church. Fr Thomas Hopko has a great podcasts that is an exhortation to proper veneration of icons. In my Protestant I would have said he was “Preaching it!”
    Between his exhortation, and your reflection, I find myself encouraged on this Sunday of Orthodoxy even though I am on duty, and unable to attend Liturgy.
    Thank You.

  3. davdp Says:

    Just to side-step abit. I am reading a very interesting article by Dr Alexandre Kalomiros, Part II, Man…Christ, as the second Adam…read it and digest it slowly. At: http://www.zephyr.gr/STJOHN/sixdawn2.htm

  4. justin Says:

    It’s not just a “feotus”, it’s also called simply “POC” which means “product of conception.”

  5. Sarah Says:

    I’m even more sorry that I was not able to attend Vespers at Holy Trinity yesterday. I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and would have liked to meet you in person. I go to Saint Vladimir’s in Parma.

    God Bless

  6. mary Says:

    what is the differance in a postcard of an icon of Christ,and a postcard of hoover dam in nev.? it’s a mystrical meeting of the presence of God.we have in our mission an icon of Christ as high priest.for me this is a very powerful icon.sometimes i just stand in front of it,i don’t think of nothing,it’s just me and Christ.this world has all sorts of icons,a good paying job,3 cars,a beautiful home,a ski boat.here in the states we make movie stars icons.but these things can never bring us into the presence of God.my little icon corner in my apartment,where some of my icons are just postcards that have been blessed.they mean more to me then anything this world has to offer. mary

  7. Karl Says:

    Father, I was reading about The Assyrian Church of the East yesterday, because I noticed one near where my wife works, and I read that they do not accept the use of icons. They only use crosses in worship, similar to many Protestant groups because of the second commandment. I was wondering If you had any knowledge of this and how such an ancient church is without icons?

    Another great post by the way. Thank you.

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    I am not familiar with them. Certainly not enough to comment with understanding.

  9. handmaid leah Says:

    This is just an educated guess – but the Assyrians are living amongst some of the most fierce iconoclasts – Islam in Syria. My mom works with a gal from Syria but if you call it that she will correct you and say: Assyria.
    Perhaps this is just a survival technique an, accommodation to the hostility, that has become- after centuries- their tradition?
    If anyone knows for sure I would love to hear…
    Leah

  10. Collator Says:

    The Assyrian Church or Church of the East (as they prefer) or Nestorian Church (as we have historically called them) has not always been devoid of icons. I’m not sure why they don’t use them now. The Jacobite Church (on the other side of the Christological spectrum) also traditionally did not use images, or used them very little, but have embraced them more in the past century, possibly because of influence from Orthodox or Roman Catholic circles. According to Sebastian Brock, one of the eminent scholars of Syriac Christianity, their past lack of icons was due more to neglect than opposition — they just did not consider them very important, rather than actively opposing them.

  11. Jeremiah Says:

    I was surprised to find a whole website from the Assyrian Church of the East by searching Google. They say Nestorius was in line with the doctrine they already held to, and therefore did not excommunicate him. A lot of interesting historical material. I think as a catechumen though, I should keep my focus on the life of the Church, and not it’s theological debates (important though they are and were).

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    Jeremiah,
    One of the difficulties in historical points in theology (such as the Nestorian controversy) is the temptation to consider them in a purely philosophical manner. The condemnation of Nestorius, in one measure or another, represents, over time, the refusal to accept the communion and language of the Church. It can be argued, of course, that they retained the language of an earlier period, but the point was not language but a theological reality. Over time the Nestorians have become marginalized in the extreme. In the late 19th or early 20th century (I do not remember the date) a large number of Assyrian Christians were received into the Russian Orthodox Church – the remainder becoming yet more marginalized. In general, the approach of the Orthodox Church to various such groups has been generous (at least in the modern period) and willing to work beyond historical impasses – though the Orthodox faith cannot be changed in order to accommodate history.

    There was doubtless much more to be said in many of the doctrinal struggles within the early Church. Communication was stretched and interventions by Emperors and the like frequently made matters worse rather than better. There is some useful re-evaluation of the historical record today – which at least helps the conversation to move forward. But beneath everything remains the question of what is true. It is to this truth that Orthodoxy struggles to remain faithful – despite the enormous pressures of the modern world.

  13. Jeremiah Says:

    Fr Stephen,
    Thank you. That helps put things into perspective a bit better. I get what you’re saying about being tempted to look at things purely philosophically. I think this might be why Pope John Paul II told them that their Nestorian view is really the same as the Roman Catholic Church believes, but with different language (at least that is the claim of the Church of the East). You are right about it coming down to what is true. I must admit it all gets a bit confusing (that’s understated) and as a former Protestant I am tempted to dive headlong into those things. I am trying to take in as much of the teaching of the Church as I can, and let this time of catechesis be as much about purification as about information and instruction. Ancient Faith Radio podcasts and Church services have provided me with so much information it has been overwhelming at times. I have come across some of those very philosophical debates you spoke of that have nearly derailed my journey towards the Church. But each time God provides the answer, and I am able to move forward. Having said that, I feel like the Disciples in John 6 who stayed with Jesus after the others departed at His “hard saying”. Just as Peter said, “Lord to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of Life.” I sense that the Church alone is the pillar and ground of truth, and there is simply no turning back to Protestantism, and Rome is out of the question as well.
    Forgive me for saying so, but your podcasts have been a part of that journey. The short devotional, theological thoughts on the given topics are profound and deep, yet simple. I have often listened to several in a row, but lately have stopped to take in what I have just listened to a bit more deeply before I “move on”. I have begun the move from my former 2-story universe, to take up residence in the 1-story. Even though it’s a bigger move than I thought, it surprisingly feels more like home than my “home” of more than 30 years. As I move deeper, I am finding the necessity to “keep it simple”. Not that, as you have said, that the ineffable God or His Truth are simple, but my focus has to be, or else I can easily be led astray. Which is why I am keeping myself under the spiritual direction of my parish priest.
    I would ask for your prayers, as well as the prayers of any brothers and sisters who read this, that my family (wife and 3 daughters) would join me on this journey. My girls are willing, but my wife is a lot more cautious.
    Thank You Father Stephen for what you share here, and on the podcast. Also, thank you for your reply.

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Jeremiah,
    The riches of Orthodox theology easily become a temptation for the intellect. Perhaps the greatest danger is that we come to understand doctrine intellectually, but not ever appropriate it on the level of the heart. Indeed, learning doctrine by the heart (but not without the intellect) is not well understood by many. The catechumenate (and all our life in Christ) is about union with Christ (everything in the Church is about union with Christ). If we keep this as our focus, even the doctrine begins to make sense in its deepest level – but this part of our life in Christ takes years. Frankly, people often study the doctrine, master it intellectually, and then engage in fruitless arguments, demonstrating their intellectual mastery, but also demonstrating that their hearts remain unchanged.

    I have a friend whose Orthodoxy is very much a matter of the heart. She rarely engages in argument of any sort, but can be deeply pained by heresy (and such) – with true grief for the error and with true prayer for the salvation of the lost. It is the measure of a great heart.

    May God pour out His great mercy and grace on your wife and children.

  15. James the Brother Says:

    Jeremiah,

    As a life-long protestant and a convert since June I have no regrets. Father Stephen just nailed it, and I would encourage you to absorb his words. Keep it simple and the faith will enfold you and fill you. I will pray for you and your family.

    God bless you and

  16. David Dickens Says:

    This reminds me how terribly important names are. There is an iconic quality to a true name, bringing the presence of a thing. A misnamed thing seems to be unraveled. Which tells me how carefully we should use words.

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    David,
    Indeed. It is worth reflecting on how many times the NT mentions “speaking the truth.” Normally, telling the truth would seem to be such an obvious moral matter that it hardly needs mentioning. But when icons are properly understood, the importance of speaking the truth takes on a much deeper – even ontological character. Lies have the character of evil, precisely because they lack existence.

  18. Saint Symeon the New Theologian Says:

    Saint Symeon the New Theologian says that it is not what man does which counts in eternal life but what he is, whether he is like Jesus Christ our Lord, or whether he is different and unlike Him. He says, “In the future life the Christian is not examined if he has renounced the whole world for Christ’s love, or if he has distributed his riches to the poor or if he fasted or kept vigil or prayed, or if he wept and lamented for his sins, or if he has done any other good in this life, but he is examined attentively if he has any similitude with Christ, as a son does with his father.”

    Quoted from Chapter XV, The River of Fire by Dr. Kalomiros

  19. Joe the Simple Says:

    What did previous generations of Christians know that we don’t?

    Quoted from The Illumined Heart by Frederica Mathewes-Green

  20. Cheryl Says:

    Jeremiah, I will pray for you and your family.

  21. Darlene Says:

    Jeremiah,

    My background is that of an Evangelical Protestant, so I understand various obstacles that must be removed in coming to Orthodoxy. I, too, am a Catechuman, and look forward to being chrismated on Lazarus Saturday of this year.

    Like your spouse, my husband is also cautious. He attended a Divine Liturgy for the first time last Wed., the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts. It was awkward and uncomfortable for him for many reasons of which I will not elaborate upon just now. What I have found to be most effective is quietly living the Orthodox faith, for it is as we often hear, “a way of life.” Debating, especially with emotional excitement and fervor, is not conducive to drawing our spouses toward Orthodoxy, especially when they already have unresolved fears/concerns.

    For me, coming out of PE (Prot. Evan) was an arduous process at times. There were so many avenues to which my studies would lead. At one point I realized I was attempting to understand Orthodoxy with my intellect and reason, and it just didn’t work. I was approaching Orthodoxy mostly from an academic mindset, without ever having attended a Divine Liturgy or speaking with a priest. Finally, when I took the leap of entering an Orthodox worship service, it was then that my heart (emphasis on HEART) was taken in and I knew I need search no further.

    There are constructs upon which we must build when discussing the faith with our Protestant spouses and friends. Often, I liken it to a time when I was teaching 12th grade English. The short novel “Animal Farm” was the assigned reading. However, the students had no frame of reference when it came to the Russian Revolution. (go figure) At first, they thought I was speaking of John Lennon rather than Vladimir Lenin. They knew nothing about the Romanov Dynasty. They had never heard of the Bolsheviks. You get the picture. So, I had to lay all the groundwork before we could even begin to read “Animal Farm.” And, even after we began, there were allusions being made by the author to which the students were clueless. So, again I had to explain to what particular realities these allusions were being made. Once, while reading various British poets from the 16th to 19th centuries, I recall the professor saying, that unless one was familiar with Christianity and the Bible, they would not understand British poetry from this era. Who could appreciate John Donne’s classic Holy Sonnet XIV, when he says, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” unless they knew to which God he was referring?

    I make these references to point to the difficulties in witnessing and explaining the Orthodox faith to non-Orthodox. The groundwork must be laid and done so in a loving way, and particularly, at the right time. This is where we need to take cues and implement our communication skills, else we will fall into the trap of trying to force something on another that will not result in bearing fruit for God. This is why I believe, that especially in the cases of spouses and family members, the best way to point others to Orthodoxy is to LIVE it. “When necessary, use words,” as St. Francis said.

    My husband has just entered a stage where he is asking questions. This is after four yrs. since my journey away from PE began. We met with the priest last Friday and had a very lively discussion amongst the three of us. We hope to meet with him this week (weather permitting) again. Father has answers that I am unable to give to my husband, and I am blessed to have found a priest that is so patient.

    Speaking of which…be patient, Jeremiah. Patience will win out over and over again, for this journey toward Orthodoxy does take time. 🙂

  22. Jeremiah Says:

    Darlene,
    Thank you for sharing your journey and insight. I am less than a year on my way, and have only been a catechumen for a month or so. I have found the use of info and arguments fruitless. I have tried my best to leave it with, “come and see.” in the sense of letting her see my life change. My wife has been to a couple of Vespers and one Divine Liturgy. She came to the service for the First Blessing of the Waters. She was a trooper. In my zeal to not have our kids be a distraction, I have tried too hard to get the kids to follow along. A mistake I have since repented of to my family. Even with that, she says that she gets nothing out of it, and doesn’t seem to like the answers my priests gives her, when we have met. He has been very kind and gracious with her, but she is still very resistant. All I can do is pray and live the life.
    I appreciate your prayers. I will pray for you as well.

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