Why do we have icons? And so many of them? Icons in fact come out of a troubled time in the Church’s history. But that’s ok, because the Church comes out of a troubled time in history. This is what we read about in today’s Gospel.
Our Lord’s prayer in chapter 17 of the Gospel of John is easy to get lost in. There is a lot of circular language which our Lord uses in His prayer to the Father. This was the final prayer and conversation that Christ had with His disciples before his betrayal and death, and has been come to be known as His “High Priestly Prayer.”
We read the term “glory” in this prayer many times. This word is Greek is “doxa” and is the word that we get “Orthodox” from: Right- Glory (or worship). Our Lord says that He Glorifies the Father and asks that the Father glorify Him. He also says that He is glorified in His disciples. In praying this way He shows us the ultimate “chain of love” which comes to us down through the centuries. The love of God is made manifest, in the world, through the Son, who Glorifies His Father and who is glorified in His saints, and on and on and on through the centuries. The Church is not an arbitrary or incidental library of interesting facts about history. The Church is God’s love and truth continued in the world.
Why were icons so contested throughout history? Our Byzantine Church is an imperial Church. The emperor has always formed an important part of the way the Church operated. This has been wonderful when the emperor has been a holy man, and has been very difficult when the emperor had a political agenda which he tried to force on the Church. During the decades leading up to the Seventh Ecumenical Council, many saints suffered in order to preserve the fullest truth of the Incarnation. Although they were persecuted they continued in their worship of God using icons. What was at stake was not simply “another way of worshiping” but a statement regarding how God comes to us. God became a man and dwelt among us. He became stuff. He did not remain a lofty idea, a universal principle or a dream, but a man.
God likes stuff and uses stuff. Our tradition is full of things which appeal to the senses, and these material things can lead us to God. Icons bring us closer to God. The bodies of the saints in relics are holy and can bring us closer to God. God made this world and our bodies good and we use them in proper worship- in proper doxology of God. The greatest iconographer ever is God the Father, and His greatest icon is God the Son, Jesus Christ in whom we see the Image of the Father (“He who sees me sees the Father.” John 14:9)
And so we come to the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and all the Fathers of the Church, who have struggled to pass on to us this Image untarnished. We are part of this “chain of doxology” because of their preceding links. We are called to be the next link in the chain.
In our society we are no longer fighting about if icons are to be used in worship, but we are fighting about if a person should be able to ask the state to kill them at the end of their life, or if a mother should be able to kill her baby before it is born. Although Christians are not being put to death in this country for their moral stance, great pressure is put on us in many other ways to compromise (or at least be silent about) who the Lord is and what He expects of us. Our Lord prays in this Gospel for all of those “The Father has given Him out of the world,” that’s us! And as long as it’s us, there will be tension in the world.
What does this mean for us?
1. Learn about your faith
If you don’t know why the Church teaches what she does on certain moral issues, do your best to figure it out. Don’t be afraid to ask and to read. The Church has good reasons for believing what she does.
2. Be active locally
We can take a lesson from the icons- be concrete! The love of God is manifest in real life actions with real life people. Find a local thing which involves you being active with someone that you can actually meet and show forth the Love of God in their life. Show them the “chain of Glory” which you have received, but face to face, person to person.
The Love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Church, the Body of Christ, which has struggled to present us the “Icon of Christ” the image of the Father and His love for us throughout the ages. Let us continue to glorify Him in all that we say and do!