Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Icons Will Save the World

I went through vast periods of my life where icon was a dirty word, a synonym for idol. I'm not sure where I picked this up, who taught it to me, or where I read it. It wasn't my parents certainly. But the belief was pervasive, gleaned from a thousand sources.

In the eighth century a period of great destruction of icons took place. It was the movement of the iconoclasts to remove all images from churches and homes - and if Louisville Sluggers and Zippos were needed to do so, well, so be it.

After worshiping with Eastern rite Catholics in Virginia Beach and being stunned by the sheer beauty of color and wood and saints and angels, I spoke with a fellow visitor (though a more regular visitor) who was a convert to Orthodoxy. His family, however, was Baptist - Baptist ministers, missionaries, professors. A very strong Baptist heritage (though this is not to rail against Baptists). They didn't warm to his conversion. One time his brother came into his apartment and, upon seeing an icon of Christ on the wall, he denounced it as Satanic.

Millions of babies are killed each year on the altar of self. Sick, unhappy people (we suppose) have food and drink taken from them in the name of mercy. Prisoners are tortured and humiliated in order to rip away their humanity in the name of the fatherland. In quiet rage we yell at our children and steal away their joy and burden their souls, we make dismissive and hateful comments to our spouses or about our families or about beggars on the street. In our anger we murder. We smash and burn and tear to pieces the imago Dei over and over with one atrocity after another.

Our Lord was truly human and truly divine. The Scriptures speak of our response to him with the following words:

Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord.
He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange.

- Wisdom 2

And so we beat and mocked and crucified him. We destroyed the true and perfect icon of the Father, the Word made flesh.

The incarnation of God is argued for and defended by icons, for he himself was Icon. And we are little icons, bearers of God's image, Christ bearers as well. And iconography, those pictures that we kiss and pray before, are paintings of loved ones whose physical presence is hidden from us. We venerate not the bits of wood and color, but the ones whom the wood and paint present to us. These boards become for us windows into heaven - just as the elderly widower kisses the photograph of his wife that sits by his bedside, and whispers to her sweet words of his unending love and devotion. These are icons. And my words fail to adequately or properly honor them.

And so in the eighth century, at the Second Council of Nicea, iconoclasm - the destruction and suppression of icons - is declared a heresy by the Church. For iconoclasm is the rejection of the incarnation itself.

And now, so late in life, I've fallen in love with iconography, with the communion of saints, with wholeness (albeit a rudimentary vision) and what it means to be fully alive.

Pray for me.


Scott Lyons said...

For more information on how Eastern Christians view iconography see the following article, Icons Will Save the World, from last month at First Things online.

Also, I'd like to make a note for clarification. When many people hear the word saved they think something along the lines of "Signed, Sealed, and Delivered." This is not the view of the Catholic Church. You are saved, you are being saved, and you will be saved - the Catholic understanding and use of the word runs along these lines. So, among so many other things, my daily prayers and my receiving holy Eucharist is for my salvation (some might be more comfortable with the word sanctification). We are not saying that it is through these things apart from the work of Christ that we merit heaven - only Christ and his finished, salvific work merits eternal life for us. And is given to us freely (though not without cost).

Our redemption is underway as Christ conforms us to his image. And when we die, we will, we hope, die in his friendship and not have fallen away as some, to our great grief, have done.

Our salvation is bound up in our relationship to the whole Christ. We are his brothers and mothers and sisters if we do the will of his Father.

ali said...

Our Lady of Perpetual Help, pray for us.

Ry said...

That was a great entry. Thank you for sharing that.