Recent questions have been raised about the difference between icons and sacraments in the Orthodox Church. It is an easy place for confusion to occur – particularly when seen from the outside.
The Church in the West, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, developed a carefully-worded and defined understanding of sacrament during the Middle Ages. This definition depended on matters such as the authority of its institution, the intention of its performance, and the use of proper material (such as bread, wine, oil, etc.). Typical of Western Scholasticism, the definition took on something of a legal cast. During the debates of the Reformation, both the nature of the sacraments as well as their number became a topic for disagreement. Classically, Rome said their were seven sacraments. The majority of reformers argued that only Eucharist and Baptism were sacraments and offered varying accounts as to what actually constituted a sacrament. Underneath this Western understanding of sacrament (and not intentionally related) was a growing world-view which would eventually become secularism. Sacraments increasingly became defined as unique and special moments within the otherwise secular world where the presence and authority of God were made available to mankind.
The various Protestant movements sped quickly towards a secularized world-view such that in most Protestant Churches today, the sacraments have all but disappeared as interventions of God and have become “ordinances” or simple acts of obedience to Christ. Even in those places where some lingering sense of “sacrament” remains – what remains is unclear.
The place of these same sacraments has a very differing history within the Eastern Church. Among the Orthodox, those actions which the West defined as sacraments, were more commonly referred to as mysteries. This name (from the Greek word translated variously as secret or unknowable) seems particularly to have come into usage from the fact that these mysteries were not part of the public life of the Church in its earliest years, but part of its hidden, inner life. Thus to this day in St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy, at the end of the liturgy of the word, the Deacon exclaims, “Let all catechumens depart!” etc. The liturgy of the faithful (the blessing of the bread and wine and the communion of the Church) begins with the exlamation, “Let us the faithful, again and again in peace pray unto the Lord!” Catechumens (unbaptized) were required to leave the service. Only the faithful (the Baptized) were allowed to be present for the Mystery.
In early practice, the mystery of the Holy Eucharist was only observed by those who had been Baptized and Chrismated. Baptism itself was also not observed by non-initiates in the mysteries. But these “mysteries” were not taught as speculations about the nature and character of a sacrament. The clear teaching and consensus of the early fathers was that in the Eucharist, the bread and wine, truly becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. No particular effort was made to ask how such a thing was so (indeed, I have often wondered if it is not somehow “impious” to ask such a question). By the same token Holy Baptism was understood to be a union with the death and resurrection of Christ, a Baptism into the Body of Christ, the remission of sins, the cleansing from all unrighteousness, etc. Its treatment was similar to that of the Holy Eucharist. The reality of Baptism and what it accomplished were simply part of the teaching of the Church: the how was not a particularly interesting question.
One short aside: nowhere do we find in the early fathers a teaching of a merely “symbolic” or “memorial” treatment of the holy mysteries. Indeed, mere symbolism would have to await the development of nominalist philosophy before the idea could have been expressed – the idea had no place within the canon of ancient thought.
The relation between sacrament and icon first arose as a question during the debates of the 8th century in the East that eventually resulted in the 7th Ecumenical Council. Those who opposed the making and veneration of icons (which was already a settled practice of the Church) put forward the argument that the “Holy Eucharist was the only true icon” and only the Eucharist could be venerated (some iconoclasts also held the Holy Cross to be a venerable icon). The response of the Orthodox (those who venerated icons) was that the Holy Eucharist was not an icon (image) but the actual and true Body of Christ. Thus a distinction was articulated. Icons are representations – though they are not themselves that-which-is-represented. And icon of Christ is not Christ-Himself (certainly not in the manner in which the Church holds the Eucharist to be the Body and Blood of Christ).
St. Theodore the Studite is the father most associated with the language that spoke definitively about the representation found in icons. In this case the how of representation seemed important. The Christological and Trinitarian language of Person (or hypostasis) and Essence (ousia) were a commonplace within the Church’s theological language and understanding – having become settled in meaning during the 4th through the 6th centuries. St. Theodore said of icons that they were representations of the person of Christ (or a saint) but not of His essence. Indeed, by definition, an essence cannot have a representation. There is no such thing as the picture of man, only of a man. Thus an icon of Christ affirmed that He had become a man, and not simply man in some generalized form. Christ truly took upon Himself human nature (ousia) – but that nature must be encountered in the person of Christ. St. Theodore’s teaching on the holy icons was thus an affirmation of the earlier councils of the Church and affirmed the veneration of icons as an expression of the fullness of the Orthodox teaching.
An icon “makes present that to which it refers” is also a statement of the 7th Council. But the presence encountered in an icon is a “representation of the person” (hypostatic representation in the language of St. Theodore) and not the same as the reality itself of the Holy Eucharist.
To move away from the language of the councils – it is possible to say that in the Mysteries of the Church – we participate in the Divine Life itself (in Eucharist, Baptism, etc.). In conversations with the West, the Orthodox Church sometimes affirmed seven mysteries as did the Roman Church. Sometimes there were more mysteries affirmed (monastic tonsure was a common addition). The primary affirmation of the Orthodox was that they certainly did not have anything less than Rome. Some have said that there is no limit to the number of Mysteries – this might be so – but is not a matter of dogma. Rather, it is accurate to say that the Church understands that God has united Himself to us and us to Himself and does so particularly in the Holy Mysteries of the Church (not to say that He does not do so in any other manner).
Additionally it is true that the world has an iconic character to its existence. Things not only are what they are – but they also point beyond themselves. The secularized view of the world sees things as simply things – relations existing only as mental constructs. Such a colorless view of the world has become one of the hallmarks of modern thought – and – I believe – a powerful element within the sadness of contemporary man.
The Church taught in the 7th Council that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words,” thus likening Scripture and icon rather than Scripture and sacrament. We encounter Christ iconically in Scripture – His presence is made known to us. Truth is given to us – but as representation and encounter. This is a very different way to think about Scripture – certainly not the same as the propositional truth of many Reform thinkers. Propositional truth works well and instinctively within a secularized world of just things. Truth becomes an idea rather than an encounter.
We can and do know Truth – but propositions are truth in a diminished form. The words about icons, for instance, are true (so I believe). But the words about icons are not the same thing as standing before an icon with wonder and veneration and encountering Christ personally. The Scriptures, read rightly, are an encounter with the living Lord. But frequently that encounter has no words that can express it.
At Vespers, the Church traditionally sings Psalm 104(3): “How manifold are Thy works, O Lord: in wisdom hast Thou made them all!” This veneration of the works of God (for such is the meaning of veneration in its Orthodox sense) is a recognition of what, and Who, we encounter in the works of God. Icons are called “windows to heaven.” One of their chiefest purposes in the modern Church is to teach modern man that windows exist. We do not live as a thing among things – but as fearful and wonderful creations in the midst of a manifold creation itself made in wisdom.
Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory – these are the words of angels who see what we refuse to see and what the icon of creation constantly reveals to us – if we but had eyes to see.
There is a traditional distinction between icon and sacrament (or mystery) – but both hold in common the good news of the Gospel of God’s love. Both open heaven and earth to us as encounter and participation (though in manners that differ). Learning to live in such a world (and with such a God) can be a difficult journey for modern man. We are, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “men without chests,” we have lost the knowledge of the heart. Icon and Sacrament are a restoration of that knowledge – salvation for chestless men.