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!