Posts Tagged ‘Lent’

Smashing Icons

March 12, 2011

The first Sunday of Great Lent, on the Orthodox calendar, is set aside to remember the restoration of icons to the Churches during the reign of the holy Empress Theodora (9th century). It commemorates as well the gift of the entirety of the Orthodox faith.

I reprint these thoughts in honor of the day. The opening quote is from an earlier posting.

We have to renounce iconoclasm. In so doing, we inherently set ourselves against certain forces within modernity. The truth is 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.

There is a strange spirit of iconoclasm (the Greek for “icon smashing”) and it breaks out now and again across human history. It is not just a short period in Byzantine history successfully resisted by the Orthodox but a strange manifestation of human sin that has as its driving force and hence allurement, the claim that it is defending the honor of God.

The icon smashers are as varied as certain forms of Islam or certain forms of Puritanism (and some of its Protestant successors). Some icon smashers direct their attention to pictures or statues, per se, while others turn their attention to even ideological icons such as honoring certain days and holidays. Those Christians who rail against the date of Christmas belong to this latter group of iconoclasts.

What is striking to me is that iconoclasm has almost always accompanied revolutions. I suppose those who are destroying the old and replacing with the new have a certain drive to “cleanse” things. Thus during China’s Cultural Revolution, books, pictures, older faculty members, indeed a deeply terrifying array of unpredictable things and people became the objects of the movement’s iconoclasm. As in all of these revolutions – iconoclasm kills.

In Christian history the first recorded outbreak of iconoclasm was the period that gave the phenomenon the name – during the mid-Byzantine Empire. Like later incarnations of this spirit of destruction, the icons themselves were only one thing to be destroyed – those who sought to explain and defend them became objects of destruction as well. Thus we have the martyrs of the Iconoclast Heresy.

During the Protestant Reformation iconoclasm was a frequent traveler with the general theological reform itself. Thus statues, relics, furniture – all became objects of destruction (as well as people). Some of this was state sponsored (as was the original iconoclastic period). The logic of iconoclasm, however, cannot always be confined. Thus in the Reformation the logic of reform moved from destruction of images to destruction of the state (which was itself an icon of sorts). In Germany the result was the Peasants’ Revolt, which became so dangerous to the powers that be that even Martin Luther had to denounce it and bless the state’s bloody intervention.

In England the Reform that was first put in place by the state remained unsteady for over a hundred years. Eventually, the Puritan Reform (that only took the logic of Reform to its next step) began to smash images, behead kings, outlaw bishops, outlaw holidays, outlaw dancing (they were a fun lot). For ten years England was ruled by a bloody dictatorship that was as ruthless in its iconoclasm as any regime in history.

One of the difficulties of iconoclasm is its appeal to the idea of God. Images are smashed because they are considered an affront to God. And not just images, but certain ideas are smashed (burn the books and those who wrote them). There is a “righteousness” to the cause which refuses to accept anything other than complete obedience.

I do not write about iconoclasm entirely from the outside. I’ve been there – done that. The verse of Scripture that seemed most “iconoclastic” to me was in 2 Cor. (10:3-6):

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; And having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled.

Of course, the verse is referring to sinful thoughts and uses (as is not unusual in St. Paul) martial imagery. That same imagery applied to the governing of a state (or a Church) can be quite dangerous. It is useful in the spiritual life, provided it is well-directed by a mature and generous guide.

The plain truth of the matter is that God is an icon-maker. He first made man “in His own image.” And in becoming man, the man he became is described as the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). The same God who gave the commandment to make no graven images, also commanded the making of the Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant, as well as the images of angels woven in the curtain of the Tabernacle. He commanded the making of the image of the serpent, lifted on a staff, that brought healing to all who looked on it (an Old Testament prefigurement of the crucified Christ).

In the better than 16 years or more that I have known Archbishop DMITRI of Dallas (my retired Archbishop), I have heard him warn repeatedly that the greatest danger in the modern world is the attack on man as the image of God. That God became man in order to unite man to God is the only sure Divine underwriting of human worth. We have value because of the image we bear.

There is a restraint that is inherently involved in offering honor. Orthodox Christian living requires that we know how to worship God with what is due to Him alone, but at the same time to know how to honor those things that are honorable without giving them what belong to God alone. It is easy to say “give honor to God alone,” but this is contrary to the Scriptures in which we are told to “give honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13:7 and also see Romans 12:10). We cannot honor God by destroying the very images He has created (and here I include the saints who could not be what they are but by God’s grace).

There is within iconoclasm, a spirit of hate and anger. Without them destruction would not be so easy. But it is also the case that such spirits are not of God – though they are easily attributed to zeal or excused as exuberance. Iconoclasm is not the narrow way, but the wide path of destruction. It is easy to declare that all days are the same and that no days should be considered holier than others. It is easy to check out the historical pedigree of every feast of the Church and declare that some had pagan predecessors. Of course some had pagan predecessors – as did every last human being. If the Church has blessed a day and made it to be a day on which an action of Christ or an event in His life, or a saint of the Church is to be honored and remembered, then it is acting well within the Divine authority given it in Scripture (Matt. 18:18).

More importantly, we will grow more surely into the image of Christ by imitating his actions and learning to build up rather than to smash. Giving place to anger and the spirit of iconoclasm, in all its various guises, has never produced saints – but only destruction that has to eventually give way to something more sane. It is interesting that the Puritan reign in New England (as a matter of historical fact) was, by its third generation, weakening and looking for something different. The “Great Revivals” that swept through those places did not leave a lasting religious legacy other than the cults that sprang out of the “burnt-over district” in Upstate New York, and a growing secularization that sought freedom from the iconoclastic regime of its ancestors. Our modern American world is an inheritor of that secularization.

The only image that needs to be discarded is the one we have of ourselves as God. We are not Him. Worship God. Give honor to whom honor is due.

The Great Fast

February 15, 2010

Monday (tomorrow) marks the beginning of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church (which liturgically begins at Forgiveness Vespers on Sunday). Though Great Lent is kept with rigor in Orthodox Tradition, there is nothing unusual asked of believers – nothing that we do not do on many days throughout the rest of the year. We fast; we pray; we give alms; we attend services, etc. But we do these with greater intensity and frequency during the Great Fast (the more universal name of the season). As preparation for the feast of Pascha, the “feast of feasts,” all of these disciplines drive the point of the Christian faith further and deeper.

Much of modern Christianity lives as a stranger to ascetical discipline. Few Christians fast, and the fasting of many others has forgotten the traditions of earlier generations. Various historical factors have turned the Christian life into a set of beliefs rather than a way of life. Monasticism seems exotic to many.

There is nothing exotic about asceticism. The New Testament assumes fasting and similar activities as normative for the Christian life. The Pharisees observed that the disciples of Jesus did not fast. When Christ was asked about this omission (something that seemed entirely unusual in the Judaism of the time), He responded:

Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast (Matt. 9:15).

The days in which “the bridegroom is taken away” are the days in which we live. Fasting is normative. Fasting is part of the practice of continual repentance – the proper attitude of the Christian heart. Repentance is not a single action taken in response to having done something wrong – repentance is a state of the heart – the state of brokenness and contrition:

A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise (Psalm 51).

To a large extent – this is the goal of the Christian way of life – to cultivate a heart of repentance. King David is called “a man after God’s own heart,” not because he was without sin (he was an adulterer and a murderer). He was a man after God’s own heart because when confronted with his sin – his heart is broken. He makes no defense and offers no excuse.

St. Paul offers this admonition:

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him (Romans 12:1-3).

No other single passage, it seems to me, manages to gather as many aspects of the Lenten life (and thus daily life at all times). Our bodies become “a living sacrifice.” I can only wonder which sacrifice St. Paul had in mind (there were many different ones in the Old Testament). Or it may be that the sacrifice of Christ is now the dominant image for him. But our bodies, now “crucified” with Christ are offered up in what St. Paul calls our  “spiritual worship” logike latrein.

To offer our bodies as a sacrifice, through fasting and prayer, is itself lifted up to the level of worship, and interestingly our logike worship (“spiritual” is perhaps a more accurate translation than “reasonable” as some render it – though it would also be quite accurate to translate it as “natural” or “the worship that is proper to us as human beings”). It is a struggle to fast, to present our bodies as a “living” sacrifice. This is so much more than a “one time” offering: it stretches through the days and nights of this great season.

St. Paul then admonishes us not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewal of our mind (nous) which could easily be rendered “heart.” Fr. John Behr describes the passions, in his The Mystery of Christ, as “false perceptions,” our own misunderstanding of the body and its natural desires. Thus renewing our minds is an inner change in the perception of our selves and our desires, or in the words of St. Irenaeus (quoted frequently by Behr) “the true understanding of things as they are, that is, of God and of human beings.”

I find it of great importance, that St. Paul concludes this small admonition by pointing us towards humility (as he does as well in Philippians 2). It is in embracing the cross of Christ, in emptying ourselves towards God and towards others that our true self is to be found and that our minds are renewed. We cannot look within ourselves to find our true selves. “For he who seeks to save his life will lose it.” Rather the true self is found when we turn to the other and pour ourselves out towards them. We find ourselves by losing ourselves in the beloved. This is the love that makes all things possible for us.

The Fast, like all things in the gospel, is ultimately an act of love. It is an act of love for it is a training in the sacrifice of self. Having denied ourselves in such small things (such as abstaining from various foods and drink), we learn to deny ourselves in much larger things – such as pride and anger, self-love and envy. By God’s grace such efforts are molded into the image of Christ – who Himself began His ministry with a fast of 40 days – and this for love.