The Matter of our Salvation


Perhaps the most obvious thing for a visitor to an Orthodox Church are the presence and place of icons. They are literally everywhere. Some Churches are covered completely with iconography and no Orthodox Church is ever without them. That Churches are so decorated might not strike someone as unusual. After all, many Catholic Churches, particularly in Europe are highly decorated (think of the Sistine Chapel). But the difference is that a visitor will quickly notice that the icons are more than decorations, for the faithful seem to have a relationship with them. Icons not only illustrate various things. They themselves are clearly participating in the service. And it is this, the veneration of icons, that tends to trouble the non-Orthodox. Being troubled about icons is nothing new. In the 8th and 9th centuries, a period of iconoclasm (“icon-smashing”) broke out under Imperial sponsorship in the Byzantine world. Understanding the Orthodox response to this controversy takes us to the heart of the ancient Christian faith.

Those who opposed the icons, during the period of the Iconoclast Controversy, did so in the name of the prohibition against images in the Ten Commandments. They also added the theological claim that the “Divine cannot be pictured.” However, they themselves continued to venerate the image of the Cross.

They did not oppose art in and of itself. They continued to decorate buildings with nature scenes and the like. Their enmity was directed against the cult of images (their making and veneration). It was argued then, and is to this day by most Protestant Christians, that the making and veneration of icons shares too much in common with the worship of idols in the pagan world.

The theological response of Orthodoxy to this attack eventually resulted in the 7th Ecumenical Council and to the return of icons to the Churches in the next century in an event that is named “the Triumph of Orthodoxy.” It is not an exaggeration to say that for the Orthodox, the making and veneration of icons represented, in liturgical form, the complete summary and affirmation of all the Church had taught over the centuries. Icons were not seen as a peripheral matter, but as something that expressed the very heart of the Christian faith. Their loss would be seen as a distortion of the Apostolic deposit.

I will not dwell on the simple mistakes of the iconoclasts. Their application of the prohibition against images would have argued with God Himself, who also clearly directed the making of certain images within the very Temple (particularly of angelic beings). Synagogues at the time of Christ have been documented to have been highly decorated with iconic images. Iconoclasm was merely an aping of the errors of Islam which was enjoying military victories against the Byzantine Empire at the time (and seems to have been the primary motive behind the Emperor’s new-found mandates against Christian images). I want to draw attention to what the making and veneration of icons say about the world itself and how we see it and understand it.

In our contemporary age, it has become a commonplace to think of our encounter with the world as a series of ideas and impressions in our minds. We have become utterly fascinated with this abstracted notion of reality, even going so far as to suggest that how someone perceives reality is, in fact, the version of reality that must be accepted. We have become alienated from the thing itself (re ispsum), locked in a reality that exists only in our own minds (as well as an ongoing battle to insist that what we think our minds perceive be accepted by other minds).

The Fathers of Orthodoxy teach a far more realistic view of the world. We are not separated from the world in which we live as some sort of abstracted observers. Rather, we know things through participation. The relationship between person and representation, for example, is not primarily mental, i.e. an abstracted impression of what a painter thinks. They taught that “the icon makes present that which it represents” (St. Basil). This fundamental realism was grounded in the Incarnation itself, God’s becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Matter, they taught, has an inherent worth and dignity and is itself the means by which God has worked our salvation. St. John of Damascus stated this in eloquent form:

Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God….

I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the thrice-happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.

This relationship between God and matter assumes a particular kind of relationship between human beings and matter as well. For in none of these examples cited by St. John are the thoughts about these various material objects the point. Jesus did not become a thought. The Word became flesh. We are not enjoined to think about His Body and Blood, but to eat it and to drink it.

In the same manner, we do not simply look at icons and think about them. Interestingly, the West, under Charlemagne, took this to be the right use of images. The Libri Carolini, written at the command of Charlemagne, offered refutations of the Seventh Council’s defense of images, in what has long been understood as a work occasioned by a complete misunderstanding. But the work offered its own defense of images. In doing so, it revealed the deep rifts that were already beginning to separate East and West. For the author of the Libri Carolini, the appearance of images are only the occasion for thought. It is the image “in the mind’s eye” that matters. Unwittingly, the writer was engaging in his own form of iconoclasm.

Of course, this subtle form of iconoclasm, so prevalent in our modern age, does not attack the making of images. It does not necessarily attack their veneration, “If you’re into that sort of thing.” Its attack is found in its denial that there is anything “there” more than the image and your thoughts.

And this is where the Orthodox understanding of icons is most essential, raising the veneration of icons to the level of primary dogma. The universe exists as an act of communion. Communion is the proper form of true existence. The veneration of icons, rightly understood, draws us back to the true understanding of our place within creation. Indeed, an icon can only be seen if it is venerated. Creation is not an abstraction. It is real and true and can be known in its very materiality. Modern man is often called a materialist. He is nothing of the sort. He is a hedonist. The material world is merely an occasion for seeking pleasure, but the pleasure is an abstraction, not an act of communion. The idea is the thing.

Orthodox Christians are the true materialists, for we proclaim and honor the glorious wonder of matter and the promise of the life of communion. Spirit is not the opposite of matter, and material is not the opposite of spiritual. Creation is not the mere arena of our salvation – it is an eager participant, groaning for its fulfillment (Romans 8:21-23). Icons are a means of communion with Christ and the saints who have gone before. But their veneration also teaches us the truth of our existence and how to rightly live in the world. For creation itself is icon and sacrament, God’s gift in a good world.


  1. So, not meaning to be simplistic or anything, but an icon of, say, St. Justin the martyr is really St. Justin in the flesh, so to speak? At least that’s the way we should look at St. Justin’s icon, that it is really him standing there before us? Is that what you’re saying? If not, then I have no clue what you’re getting at. Thanks for any further clarification father.

  2. DMA,
    Good question. But this is the point of describing an icon as a “hypostatic representation.” This is very difficult to understand at first. “Hypostasis” is the technical Greek term for Person, as in the Persons of the Holy Trinity, or when speaking of a single human being, “John,” or “Peter.” Like the Trinity, we say that we are Persons and Essence. The Essence is our humanity itself, the Person is what is unique us.

    What becomes difficult in this is St. Theodore taught that in the icon, the Person is made present (not the essence). Thus, St. Justin is not there “in the flesh.” But, yes, he is personally present. I say it’s hard, because this is a way of thinking and understanding that is very foreign to our contemporary thought.

    St. Basil said, “The icon makes present what it represents.” It represents St. Justin, or Christ, etc. and they are present in a hypostatic manner. They are not present in an essential manner (or else the icon wouldn’t be an icon but St. Justin, or Christ, Himself).

    Frankly, we often fail to truly encounter the Person (hypostasis), even when we meet and speak to another human being. The reason is two-fold (maybe three-fold). We ourselves (and the other) do not yet truly exist in a fully hypostatic manner – we’re moving towards that in Christ – becoming what we were truly created to be. And secondly (or thirdly), we fail to venerate the other when we see them, and they become reduced to thing, individual, etc. Icons, rightly seen and known, point towards a pathway of rightly seeing and knowing the whole world.

    I think this is extremely hard for us to understand – particularly converts like myself. We automatically think in terms of “thinking” about the person depicted, but do not see them in the icon. I noticed Russian believers standing stock-still and staring quite intently at the icons when they come into Church. Curious about it, I asked a Russian friend. “Why do you do this?” He answered, “When you Americans look at icons, you see icons. When I look at an icon, say, of Christ, I see Christ.” It has made me slow down a lot – and not just in Church but everywhere.

  3. Thanks father for the reply, but I have to follow-up with some thoughts.

    You said it’s very hard to understand, that it’s the person of St. Justin and not his humanity that is before us. Well, I certainly didn’t mean that he would be standing there in the flesh literally. I meant that as simply his presence via the icon. That when we see an icon of St. Justin that it really is him, not just some picture of him. Your Russian friend seems to have the same point of view. That when he stands before the icon of Christ or the Theotokos that he is literally standing before their presence in the icon, that they are really standing there before him. But what you said about them not being there in an essential manner (i.e. the icon is not Christ or the Theotokos or Justin, etc.) would seem to run counter to your Russian friend’s understanding. Now of course, an icon is paint on wood, so yeah, I get it, it’s not really them. But then again the Eucharist is bread and wine, so it’s not really flesh and blood either, right? I’m speaking earthly. But it is. The bread and wine are really the flesh and blood of Christ in a mystery. And so maybe it’s the exact same thing with the icon. Maybe the icon is really St. Justin standing there before us in a mystery just as the Eucharist is really Christ’s body and blood in a mystery? Wouldn’t it be the same thing? And if it is the same thing, then when you stand before the icon of Christ you are really and truly standing in the presence of Christ Himself. Now that is a sobering thought indeed!

  4. Thanks father Stephen for discussing this topic that is totally new and eye opening to me.
    I will be chewing on this article for a while
    I have a question though, why are all the icons of Christ and saints show them with serious looking or sad/firm faces…they are never represented as happy or cheerful or smiling/welcoming..?
    I have always wondered about this when seeing orthodox compared to protestant drawings of Christ where they draw Him as all smiling and happy

  5. Anna,

    I thought this for a long time myself. But then I noticed that it was primarily the mustache portion of the beard that usually causes them to look like they’re frowning. When I looked closer they appeared to have a neutral expression most of the time.

  6. DMA
    I’m glad someone else shares my thoughts.
    Yes they have a neutral expression at best.even icons of the Theotokos share the same serious /neutral expression
    which makes me wonder if there is anything against a smiling saint 🙂 ?

  7. I like icons and I think they are beautiful, holy artwork. I went to see the Kursk Root icon several years ago, and many were doing full prostrations to the icon. It seemed some were literally throwing themselves on the ground to venerate. It just didn’t seem right to me.

  8. DMA,
    Interestingly this question, comparing an icon to the Eucharist came up during the Iconoclast debate. And this is what was said. The Iconoclasts said that the Eucharist is the only icon of Christ. The Orthodox responded that the Eucharist is not an icon, “but the thing itself.” The Eucharist is really and truly the Body and Blood of Christ, regardless of what we might perceive.

    An icon differs from this. An icon of Christ is a hypostatic presence, but not the thing itself. We offer veneration. We do not eat it. The communion we have with the icon is hypostatic, i.e. personal.

    I will say that this point was a major question of research and writing that I did years ago in doctoral work at Duke. I “understood” it in an intellectual manner, though the experience itself seemed out of reach (I was still some 7 years away from becoming Orthodox). But, some 18 years down the line of my conversion, some 25 years since that research, I think I know and have experienced what St. Theodore was saying. My Russian friend does, too, though he has no dogmatic understanding of the matter.

    I think that during my work, the notion that you could speak about a hypostatic presence (personal presence) that was somehow not “essentially” there was new to me. However, I came to the conclusion, following the Fathers, that this is, in fact, what is also true about the Scriptures. The Fathers said, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” And Fr. Georges Florovsky declared doctrine to be a “verbal icon of Christ.”

    What this means has been a fundamental background to my writings on Scripture and interpretation (lots of articles on that). It can be called the “iconicity” of language. It is, I think, also a way of understanding the world, creation itself.

    The Patriarch of Constantinople calls creation a “sacrament.” It would be more accurate to call it an icon. We can, in fact, know God through creation, He makes Himself known to us in the iconicity of creation. Sacrament is something greater, more complete. But iconicity is a way of understanding how something is one thing (wood and paint) and yet another (the person depicted). The same is true of creation. It is the stuff that it is, but it also reveals and makes known (even present) the will of God.

    Recently, I wrote about “knowing saints.” I described a knowledge of them as “personal” in a more profound sense of fullness. Think of CS Lewis’ writing, describing meeting the Adam character and the Eve character on the planet, Perelandra. He describes not just meeting a woman, but The Woman. She (for that planet) is the Mother of all Living.

    When we see an icon of the Mother of God, we not only see Mary, the “individual” Jewish girl, but Mary, the Mother of All Living, the Mother of God, the Gate of Heaven, the Ark, the Jar of Mannah, the Lampstand, etc. If you met her face-to-face, (and were able to write like Lewis), I imagine we would read about the rush of all these things filling your awareness at once, and a sense of great antiquity, of fullness, of greatness, and even an urge not to worship, but to fall down before her and pledge her your loyalty and the best of everything you would ever have or ever be. Every longing that a man ever had for a woman would be in that experience, but pure, without lust or anything of the sort. You would encounter the Bride and be aware of a self-emptying that did not impose itself but made room for the whole of the universe, and you would know that She was your Mother.

    Forgive my efforts to write like Lewis. 🙂

    In truth, what I have just described can be seen in an icon of Mary if you are given the grace to truly see her. But what is made real is nothing less than what I’ve just described. And not just that, but with such grace, the face of every woman would be changed. You would recognize, but not be able to express it, that she somehow favored Mary, that you could see the face of Mary there as well.

    I’m describing something of which I know but a little, but enough to say what I’ve said with complete confidence. A priest friend of mine belongs to the family that sheltered the Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God that was safely rescued from the Bolsheviks and smuggled to America. It was returned in the early 2000’s. He described its homecoming (there are youtubes of it). The lines in Moscow continued for 3 days as countless thousands came to welcome her home. Everywhere they traveled with the icon, similar crowds gathered, even standing by the railroad tracks to cheer her along.

    He said, “I thought I understood the veneration of icons. I had no idea…”

    Our conversion in this country has barely begun. If it is ever complete, modernity will have been swept away and replaced by communion.

  9. Anna,
    The icons of Christ and the saints are theological depictions, not portraits. What appears to be sadness is, in fact, the passionless face of heaven, directed towards God and towards the heart. We see faces and portraits that instead of revealing persons, actually stand as masks that hide them. Byzantine icons are a very careful language of the theology of the Church. Very stylized.

  10. Thank you, Father, for this wonderful essay!

    It is a very timely piece of writing as our own iconographic field in the US begins to suffer another round of crypto-iconoclasm, and it is not coming from non-Orthodox, but is brewing within. There is a strange teaching being taught in various icon-painting workshops that sees icons as a complex system of symbols, an attempt to paint the invisible, to create a representation of the transcendental reality – but all it does is to pull us away into an abstract, theoretical, and scholastic discussion of what a true icon is. Somehow, those who are engaged in propagating this teaching, do not understand the most important part: the whole purpose of the icon is to initiate, support, and focus the prayer – and beyond that, to participate in worship.

    I am very glad to read your essay as it emphasizes the need to look back to what icons are in worship and how they were understood by the Church Fathers. The Fathers said little about icons, but enough for us not to concoct theological airs around them.

    Thank you again!

  11. As always, Father, you expand my understanding of our Faith. I was brought into the Orthodox church in 1971. My husband is a priest, and this Sunday at the Vespers I will have a richer belief in the reality of icons. But my understanding of our icons is far from complete. Your words will have to be reread, chewed upon and digested further. Thank you!

  12. jay,
    Forgive me, but you are probably from an Anglo culture (like me). Most Americans are. The cultural expressions of veneration, kissing, prostrations, etc., seem excessive to Anglo’s. Even with the Queen, only a minor curtsy is offered. But that’s just our Anglo sensitivities.

    I’ve suggested before that if Icons had originated in England, there would still be veneration, but instead of kissing and prostrations, we would simply feel awkward and apologize (the usual English reaction to almost everything).

    In Orthodoxy, you’re seeing the culture of Jesus, of Peter and Paul. They weren’t English, but embarrassingly Mediterranean.

  13. Paul,
    I’ve not see what you’re describing, but there are always temptations that surround anything. I’ve included far more theological content in this article and the comments than I normally do in my parish – but it’s simply from the Fathers – particularly St. Theodore the Studite.

    In general, we should honor the icons in a traditional manner, pray, fast, give alms, and attend the services. Along with keeping the commandments, this will save us. I occasionally think that in the US, Orthodoxy is like a new toy for some. After a while, it just comes down to prayer and repentance.

  14. Thank you Father Stephen for your clarification.
    Would you please expand on the “passionless face of heaven” and how it helps “revealing Persons”

  15. If hypostatic presence is a fundamental reality, could a photograph be in hypostasis with the person, saint, or loved one depicted, or is it only through color and paint?

    Also, many icons are actually mass produced prints but they are considered to be hypostatic presence of the saint depicted.

    Lastly, some years ago, a Vietnamese woman who practiced anamism took an icon painting class with the church and began painting icons of various nature spirits and beloved teachers of her religion. Are those also in hypostasis?

  16. Father Stephen,

    I think part of the second quote got mixed up somehow. I believe that:

    “Through it, filled, as it were, me. Was not the with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to thrice happy and thrice blessed wood of the Cross matter?”

    should read:

    “Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was not the thrice happy and thrice blessed wood of the Cross matter?”

  17. Anna,
    It can be a large subject…but. Icons depict the saints as they are (theologically), not as they were. They are not photographic. Their ears (for example) are often quite small, representing inner hearing rather than the outward senses of this life. The mouth is often very small, denoting quiet and stillness. Indeed, the rather solemn look should convey a stillness. The nose is usually thinned – again emphasizing inner senses rather than outward.

    They are called “windows to heaven.” Photographs, if you will, are “windows to the past.” Icons are windows to the present (heaven) and the age to come.

  18. Joann,
    Every picture of a person has something of that hypostatic reality about it. If someone broke into your home, and the only thing they did was to take the photographs of your family and deface them, you would feel it very deeply (and personally). My parents house was burglarized once, probably from neighborhood kids. Some things were missing (guns). But my father had left his hearing aids by the bed. They were smashed. That was a personal act, quite painful. It had much to do with them leaving that neighborhood.

    And yes, the Vietnamese woman might very well have something of a “hypostatic” relationship with various things. Not all things are the sort of stuff you should want to have such relationships with (nature spirits, etc.). Not everything in creation is good or useful.

  19. Thank you, Fr. Stephen for sharing your knowledge and wisdom. Question: would you say that venerating an icon – or another person – is akin to seeing them with our hearts? Seeing them as God sees them?

  20. Okay father, I have to admit, I’m somewhat confused by your answer. Don’t get me wrong, I do really appreciate your responses, but I still need help here.

    When I stand in front of the icon of St. Justin the martyr, for example, is St. Justin present there through the icon, albeit in a mystery? Or does the icon of St. Justin merely represent him, but he is not really present? Or perhaps there is another way to understand it that I’m not catching?

    Your talk about hypostasis doesn’t really make sense to me. You said it connotes both person and essence as in the Trinity. You said that icons are hypostatic, but they do not convey the essence, only the person? By essence you mean their humanity. By humanity do you mean their flesh and blood? Or something else?

    Is the Eucharist hypostatic? It would seem so since it is really Christ’s body and blood, both His person and essence. Is that right? I know that the Roman Catholics refer to the Eucharist as the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. This would seem to fit with the hypostatic idea of the Eucharist. It seems the Orthodox avoid this wording when referring to the Eucharist. Makes me wonder if Roman Catholics are wrong to refer to it like that. If the Eucharist is indeed hypostatic, then how would that be any different than icons which are also hypostatic? Does the bread and wine make present Christ’s body and blood to us? It would seem so. After all, if the bread and wine were not present, would we have access to His body and blood? It doesn’t seem we would. And if an icon makes present to us the reality of what it represents, then how is this any different in the Eucharist which makes present to us Christ for which the bread and wine represent?

    But I guess the real question I have is the one I asked before: When I stand before St. Justin’s icon, is he there standing there as well in a mysterious way? Is he really present there with me via his icon?

    Sorry for all the questions. I hope it wasn’t too much. God bless!

  21. DMA,
    One of the problems, it seems, is with the term hypostatic. It’s very difficult to understand in our modern context. We translate it “Person,” but that’s very misleading because we have our own modern meaning of the word and they are not at all equivalent. The Elder Sophrony chose to only used the word hypostatic because person is so misleading. I think that it wasn’t until I began the study on icons, and specifically St. Theodore, that I began to see something of a distinction.

    To have someone completely present with you, they would be both person and essence. The essence is what they are (human). Their person is who they are (Peter or John). Am I my blood, veins, etc.? My body is certainly part of the equation, and yet not all of the equation. It’s not the same thing.

    For starters, just understand that there is a reality, called the hypostasis, sometimes translated “person,” that is made truly present in an icon. The icon re – presents them. It’s not a mere representation. They are truly present, in a certain aspect, that is not the same thing as being there – body, soul, etc. In the Eucharist, the elements are Christ.

    If you want to say that being present hypostatically is a mystical thing – that’s true. This is one that is quite difficult to understand. I’ll grant that.

  22. Okay father, just as Mary pondered things in her heart, I think I’ll do the same with hypostasis. Thanks for taking the time with me☺

  23. Thank you, Father. I enjoyed your article. I do have a question if you are willing and have time to answer.

    I recently read an article discussing marriage and children. The author argued that biological children of a married couple have a moral knowledge that children adopted or conceived out of wedlock do not possess. The author appropriated religious iconography in his argument, and called biological children of married couples “icons” of that marriage. I have problems with this comparison. 1. I always thought icons were supposed to be a reflection or window to the Devine, and marriage is an earthly institution that does not exist in heaven (full disclosure; I’m Lutheran). 2. God is the creator. Such comparisons over-sentimentalize the activities of earthly creatures, and confuses healthy boundaries between humans and God. In short, I believe it’s a form of idolatry. 3. It humiliates innocent children as if they were guilty of the poor or unfortunate choices of their parents.

    I’d like to know your thoughts. Thanks again.

  24. Thank you, Fr. Stephen.

    Your effort to write like Lewis in your answer to DMA was almost sublime. Oftentimes your responses to commentators goe a long way towards filling in the blanks I sometimes come across in the original article. In doing so you really help me a great deal. Thanks!

    Early on after my reception into the Church I asked my priest why neither he nor any other priests or bishops or deacons ever smiled during the services. He said that the dispassion of the images in our icons was their example–that the liturgy was not about them (those serving). “Any way, wait till Pascha” he said. “You can’t stop them from smiling.”
    Having spent most of my life as a professional servant in the homes of the wealthy I remembered that during formal occasions I didn’t smile either. Strange as it may sound smiling calls attention to yourself. The party or dinner isn’t being given for you and you are not a guest.
    A few days ago I came across an old article in an Episcopalian magazine about the presentation to Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of an old “cope” which a late Orthodox bishop here in America had worn. The author of the article noted that, whereas +Hilarion’s facial demeanor had previously been unemotional (which they took to mean he was unhappy), he smiled like a delighted boy when presented with the vestment. They were mystified as to why he had previously looked like he was in a bad mood then changed to a happy “boy”. I have encountered a similar attitude in friends who have visited my Church: “Why don’t they smile?” Sure enough they observed the same thing about the icons: “Why aren’t they smiling?” Ditto the congregation. Even though they were warmly received by many of the congregation after the service, they couldn’t resolve the (apparent) contradiction between the faces during the liturgy and afterwards. They were unanimous in their conviction that “church” should always be a happy experience.

  25. Tara,
    I would not have used the term “icon” in that context. Biological children certainly have aspects of relationship (genetic) that adopted children will not. That fact should not be used to shame adopted children. The biological inheritance of children is as much a burden as it is anything. However, our present culture does seem to be driven to give short shrift to biology, insisting that choice and desire are somehow more valid. A problematic topic, to be sure.

  26. Gregory,
    American culture is uniquely smiley. People elsewhere in the world are often put off by our smiles. Russians in particular. Children in school are often corrected for smiling (I’ve been told). It has a more specific and intimate cultural meaning there.

    One Russian in my Church, new to America, asked: “Why do Americans smile all the time?” I said, “It means, ‘I’m unarmed.'”

    Your comparison to those in service is quite apt. Smiling is distracting. It makes you want to say, “What’s so funny?” or something like that. It is a statement. In American culture, often the statement is nothing more than “I’m happy.” And Americans have a cult about being “happy” that is really quite delusional.

    I am a “jokester” a “class clown.” Someone who used humor growing up to cover many other things (and to disarm bigger, meaner kids, etc.). I spoke at a Church in Mississippi a few years back. The people were used to reading my blogs that are, more or less, quite sober. The priest said later, “I had no idea you were funny!” It’s actually a trait I have to work hard at controlling. Since I have ADD, I relate deeply to the late Robin Williams. It’s why I keep a manuscript in front of me when I’m doing a presentation (though I generally do not when I preach).

    Actually, pictures of “smiling” Jesus look silly. At its worst it can look like Americans posing to have their pictures taken. In early years, you can see that in photographs people never smiled. The smiling photo is a 20th century invention – probably a product of Hollywood.

    Strangely, lovers do not necessarily smile. Love is more serious. Scientists do not smile in their research. Readers of serious material do not smile. Concentration does not smile.

    Why does Jesus not smile in the icon? “Because He takes you seriously.”

  27. Father,

    You said “The icon re – presents them [the saints, Christ]. It’s not a mere representation.” What would be an example of a mere representation of Christ or a saint, as opposed to the “re-presentation,” or hypostatic presence that we have in the case of an icon?

  28. Benjamin,
    It’s a problematic question, in that “mere” representation is similar to “mere symbol” of which there is no such thing, except in Nominalist philosophy.

    To a degree, every representation is a re-presentation, some more effective and better suited. St Basil, for example, said, “Honor given to the image is transferred to the prototype.” The example he actually used was the image of the Emperor, a secular example. So, in effect, every image operates on the level of a hypostatic representation. What is different about the icons is who is pictured. We honor icons, not because they are icons, but because those depicted are the saints, the Theotokos, or Christ, etc.

    I have seen “icons” (Byzantine-style renderings) of very secular subjects. One of Rachmaninov that appeared in the New Yorker comes to mind (it was in an article on his Vespers service music).

    As I noted in the article, how icons work, in the understanding of the Fathers, is not just a comment on icons, but on how the world works, how language works, etc. Icons are not a special category. The saints are a special category…

  29. Hi Father,
    Forgive me, I’m still trying to wrap my around hypostasis. So if I’m understanding correctly, an icon is a representation of the person; but “representation” should not be understood as a substitute. The person in the icon is truly present, in some sense, correct? This is what I’ve taken from the window to heaven metaphor. And all of creation is “iconographic” in the sense that it can reveal (or act as a window) to a heavenly reality. Is this correct?

  30. Father,

    Are you familiar with Dia De Los Muertos and the customs surrounding it? It seems to me to capture the appropriate attitude toward icons and corresponds really well with what you have laid out in this beautiful piece.

    The alter is made, pictures of the beloved are placed on the alter, items, food, drinks beloved by the departed are placed before the pictures. Of course it is just a picture, but the personhood of that individual feels very present. Cemeteries fill up with families having bbqs, playing love songs to their esposas. Its a very one story worldview. I don’t know to what degree its roots are Catholic or Pagan, but its always struck me as a very Orthodox holiday.

  31. Father Freeman
    Thank-you for helping to clarify something I have stumbled over for some time.

    I think there is another word in Greek that can be translated “image”. It transliterates “character”. To us, it means aspect of our unseen “nature” or being. Is this more on the order of hypostasis? If so, then I think the fog surrounding what an icon depicts is clearing some.

    I’ve often asked what “holiness” would look like. Predictably, there isn’t an answer, usually not even a guess. I’ve stumbled over the fact that so many of the icons seem dour in their expressions and often gaunt and unappealing.

    I once had some Evangelical friends who made a documentary for PBS that compared pre-renaissance art to that of the post-renaissance after the “discovery” of linear perspective. (BTW, it was entitled “Masters of Illusion”). They made the mistake (as did I) of thinking that the later art was more realistic because of its use of perspective, light and shadow. Now I’m beginning to see that what icons are depicting is not outward and pleasing to the aesthetic senses, but inward.

    I must admit though that while I think I have seen an icon that depicted serenity (mostly the Theotokos), I haven’t yet seen one depicting the joy of the Lord.

  32. Mark,
    It is indeed ironic that the so-called Renaissance discovery of perspective, as well as its realism, was not a discovery at all. It was simply the result of Byzantine artists who took refuge in Italy after the Turkish invasions of Byzantium. They taught the West how to paint, how to build, etc. Icons are not primitive, their use of inverse perspective is deeply intentional for theological reasons. Many so-called art historians in the West are ignorant of so much. I am appalled at the false history we were taught repeatedly in schools.

    But hypostasis is very difficult to translate, much less to understand in its theological meaning. It is, in a fashion, a way of organizing and presenting that which we call essence or being. We can never encounter being or essence as such. It must always be hypostasized. And we ultimately encounter hypostasis as “person.” But, theologically, this is so much more than what we encounter at present in each other. The reason being that we are net yet truly personal. We’re moving towards that, in Christ.

    All of creation can be said to be moving in the same direction (in a manner in which “movement” would make sense). The New Heaven and the New Earth have a relationship to what we know now, but they are the true “hypostatic” reality of creation. The Fathers said that the OT is “shadow,” the NT is “icon,” and the Eschaton (the End of all things) is the Truth. Thus icons of the saints are depictions of the eschatological reality of their Persons.

  33. Thank-you, Father. I’m hoping my ignorance is still curable!

    It’s curious that we often refer to the creation as “nature”. Have you ever seen a nature that wasn’t attached to some one?

    “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.”

  34. Thank you and bless you Father Stephen, from a Methodist pastor in SC. Your posts are always enlightening, love the message on smiling, it does make sense

  35. Mark, I will venture a comment on icons depicting the joy of the Lord.

    God’s joy is sober this side of the eschaton. Since there are those not yet participating (most I think).

    That being said, surely His joy is shown in the icon of the Resurrection and ascension.

  36. I may be way off base here, but I’m trying to grasp the meaning of ‘hypostasis’ and hypostatic life.

    A whole human person includes the body. And yet in our current state on we are burdened by “the body of this death.” This burden includes our genetic inheritance, the impact of the environment in which we were reared and are now immersed – all of what we might otherwise consider to constitutive of our ‘personalities.’ It disposes us to being ‘naturally’ cheerful or melancholy, bright or dull, defensive or generous, introverted or extroverted, the propensity to be drawn to some temptations and not to others… We are subject to nature, limited by time and space.

    Yet if I understand correctly, none of these can be said to be who we truly are.

    Is who we really are the person (hypostasis) wholly liberated from “the body of this death” through death and resurrection? If so, it would seem that the Saints show us how to taste of this liberation and participation in hypostatic life by way of asceticism – how to ‘be’ beyond the limitations of nature, beyond time and space.

    And is this why who we are is a mystery even to ourselves, something we know and yet do not know, something that has yet to be revealed in all its fullness?

  37. Father Stephen et al
    This is probably a far out question. But granting that Renaissance art became more realistic outwardly (and by that I mean that the vanishing point was external-the light source was outside of the subject-rather than internal, inverse), is it possible than it contributed to a more outward and nominalistic view of man and creation?

    Communion is something that happens essentially more than externally, but the art I spoke of before is focused more on the external, perfecting the appearance rather than the essence.

    Michael, thanks for your comment. I will check out the icons you mention as though I would really know what the joy of the Lord would look like!

  38. From what I understand, icons, for my lack of a better way of saying it are in a way reflections of the (image) as well as windows allowing us to engage with the (essence) or eternal of who is re-presented in them as you stated Father. In them, we also see who we are or who we ought to be as. Maybe I am way off here and as Mark stated several posts above, hopefully my ignorance (in all matters) is curable as well! Although I am not Orthodox or attending any church right now, I hope to convert one of these days as I try to work through some of the mess I’ve made of life. God willing.
    Thank you Father, your posts are always edifying.

  39. Brian,
    Yes. Met. John Zizioulas, interestingly, refers to the “biological hypostasis” and contrasts it with the “ecclesial hypostasis” in order to say pretty much what you’ve said.

  40. Mark,
    It’s certainly worth pondering. There was a host of errors unleashed in the Renaissance – not because of the Renaissance, but coincident to it. There was, for example, a false humanism. It is interesting that the Eastern Church always (and still) professed a much more humanistic worldview than the Latin West. But it was never a free-floating make-it-up-for-yourself humanism. It was grounded in the dogma of the Church. In many ways, the dogma of the Latin Church began to be less and less constitutive of culture and understanding and less integral to life (the beginnings of secularism). The East always had an “eschatological” humanism, grounded in what we shall be. The Renaissance became focused on what we are (or what we only appear to be). Of course, in time, all hell would break loose (literally) in our art, leaving us with what shards of nonsense currently litter the landscape.

  41. Regarding the humorless countenences in icons:

    I have wondered why I seldom see Russians smiling or much frivolity in Russion literature. I had assumed it was the dour influence of Communism for 70 dour years. Now I understand it is the influence of Eastern Orthodoxy for 1000 years.

  42. Thank-you Fr. Stephen. Where can I learn of the Eastern-view humanism? This is more than intriguing.

  43. Mark and Fr. Stephen –

    I had a similar question about Joy being represented in icons. In fact, I have the icon of Mary called “Joy of all joys” and took a long time pondering the depth of her joy that looks, for all intents and purposes, like suffering – after which I think I may have found the “answer” to my own question and Mark’s about Joy.

    Joy is not the absence of suffering. Joy is the knowledge that Jesus – Immanuel -is with us, therefore, we are not alone. We then, like Mary, are able to suffer *well*.

    On the other hand, when a parent or grandparent looks at a newborn infant and smiles – that exchange – between the strong (parent) and the weak (infant) is also joy.

    Joy is the awareness that Jesus, Immanuel, is glad to be with us – whether we are weak or strong. In our suffering and in our moments of happiness.

    The Presence of the Eucharist is the core of Creation that exclaims “Immanuel is with us!” – our response to this grace is joy. We were not made to be alone.

    Perhaps we Americans miss this joy because we are so used to the high fructose corn syrup of our culture – with its cheap substitutions for joy – work, success, food, drugs, sex, recognition, ministry etc.

    Consistent with Orthodox thought, Fr. Stephen?

  44. It’s a sad reality that the phrase “Christian humanism” is seen as an oxymoron by virtually all of Western Christianity. One of the most joyful truths I have discovered/had correctly emphasized in Orthodoxy is that humanity is not the problem; humanity’s misdirected energies (which we call the passions, of course) are.

  45. There is often misunderstanding regarding the Catholic teaching on the role of sacred images. The views of Charlemagne were never, and are not now those of the Catholic Church. Likewise, the views of Saint Augustine on Original sin do not at all correspond to official Church dogma. Regarding the Invocation of Saints, and the Veneration of Relics and Sacred Images the Council of Trent declared: ”Moreover, that the images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints, are to be had and retained – particularly in temples, and that due honour and veneration are to be given them; … because the honour which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which those images represent; in such wise that by the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover the head, and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ; and we venerate the Saints, whose similitude they bear: as, by the decrees of Councils, and especially of the second Synod of Nicaea, has been defined against the opponents of images.”
    Here too, as in so many other cases, the Catholic West and the Orthodox East are in basic agreement. Lex orandi – lex credendi. As we pray, so also do we believe. In traditionally Catholic lands where the faithful have kept a lively and healthy faith, everyone directs his prayers to a sacred image, burning candles and kneeling before them, kissing and touching them. There is an intimacy between Catholic believers and the sacred images of Christ, the Mother of God and the Saints that parallels that of our Eastern Orthodox brethren.

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