Holy Icons: Idol Worship or the Gospel Without Words?

Glory be to Jesus Christ!  Glory Forever!

Anyone who has read any history on the Christian Church, knows about all of the various persecutions and hardships that the faith has had to endure throughout the centuries.  One of the periods that does not get as much “run” as it should (outside of the Orthodox Church), is the terrible persecution that waged war on Christian truth in the 8th and 9th Centuries.  At the time, there was a heresy permeating the Empire called iconoclasm.  It was perpetrated by various religious and political leaders, who claimed the same things that the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches are under fire for today by many in the west…that images and icons depicting Jesus Christ and the saints, are sac-religious.  They claim that to venerate such icons, was to violate one of God’s most fundamental laws, which says:  “Thou shalt not make any graven image and worship it.”

The iconoclasts of that era, and many of them that still attack Holy Orthodoxy today, have forgotten the teachings of their Christian roots, and have acted as though the Church worships pieces of wood.  They have ignored the teachings of men like St. Basil the Great in the 4th century, who proclaimed rightfully that the veneration we offer our holy icons passes to the prototype. 

The arrogance of icon haters has blinded them, as they forgot about the first Christian iconographer St. Luke (he writer of one of the Synoptical Gospels) who wrote many icons…many of which survived that horrible persecution and are still with us today. 

The destroyers of icons have acted in accord with this belief that iconography is somehow hindering the spread of the Christian Gospel, rather than preaching it twice effectively by using both word AND image.  This was the type of ignorance that the Christian Church went to war against, all of those years ago.  Millions of people suffered, as they fought to preserve the teachings of the One Holy Orthodox Christian Faith.  Priests, monastics, bishops, laity…so many were mutilated and martyred.  Others living at the time lost their jobs and positions in state, in order to stand up against heresy, and keep this magnificent theology from the earliest days of Christianity intact.  Finally, after 150 years persecution, victory and triumph came, and Christianity endured.  Under Emperor Michael and his Mother Theodora, along with the Holy Bishops of the Church, the Iconoclastic heresy was weeded out of Christian teaching, and the icons were restored indefinitely to the Church by the last of the Ecumenical Councils. 

We thank the merciful God for victory over the heresy of iconoclasm, dearest brothers and sisters in Christ.  Look at what icons do for our lives as Christians!  When we come into the Church and see Christ, the Saints, and His Mother depicted on the iconostasis, do they hinder the prosperity of the Gospel in our lives?  Or is the gospel enhanced for us? 

When we see and venerate icons, do we think more about the greatest miracle ever, that God became man and conquered death so that we might have eternal life?  Or does it cause us to think less about these saving truths?

I often think about what would happen, if the incarnation of Jesus Christ took place today, instead of 2000 years ago.  Can you imagine how angry iconoclasts would be if this happened? 

Every single day, we would be watching viral videos on YouTube of Jesus touching sick people and healing them.  We would be seeing on some (not all) of the news channels, footage of Christ feeding the 5,000 and walking on the Sea of Galilee.  There would be thousands of people ripping out their iPhone after Christ shouted at the tomb of Lazarus for a man, who had been dead for several days, to come forth!  The image of Christ would be EVERYWHERE…inspiring and changing the lives of billions upon billions of people throughout the world, who would be unable to go and listen to him preach on the mountain.  This is precisely what icons do for us in our faith…they speak and teach the truth of the kingdom, without the use of speech! 

St. John of Damascus in the 7th century said something rather beautiful.  He said that when a Church is properly endowed with iconography, it can proclaim the Gospel from beginning to end without uttering a single word.  God willing, when our Church is completed and the walls have been expanded to their final resting place, every square inch of this Church will be covered with iconography, depicting the scenes from both the Old and New Testament, and allowing us to literally be surrounded by the Gospel every time we enter into the serenity of the temple.  May God grant us that reality within our lifetimes! 

But today needs to be a day of inspiration for us, dearest brothers and sisters in Christ.  I think that often, we are intimidated by so many in our culture who want to see Christianity swept under a rug, and kept to ones self.  What they fail to realize is that the faith and morals which they are trying to eliminate from our country, is the same faith that (as we will proclaim later today) holds up and establishes the universe.  This is the faith that has survived throughout centuries of martyrdom and persecution.  It has taken punches from the Romans, the iconoclasts, the Arabs, the Mongols, and the Turks.  The truth and power of Authentic Christianity and Worship has survived them all!

Look at what is happening now with our Slavic brothers and sisters, after they had gone through a century of persecution under the Soviet Union. Estimates put the death toll of Orthodox Christians anywhere from 14 to 22 million Bishops, Priests, and Laity, who were slaughtered in defense of the faith.  Yet despite a century of death, the truth once again prevailed, and Orthodoxy is now flourishing throughout Eastern Europe.

Behold the Triumph of the authentic Orthodox Christian Faith and Worship! 

This faith surpasses oppressive government regimes.  It surpasses martyrdom and death.  And throughout the centuries, it has proven to overcome difficulties and triumph over the powers of darkness.  Let all of the martyrs who have given their lives for the triumph of Christian Truth be our guides as to how important our life of faith is.  Take the celebration of Holy Icons and Holy Orthodoxy out into the world, which is so desperately searching for holiness.  Erect crosses and icons in public places.  Put them on your cubicles at work and in your cars as you are driving.  Take small icons in your purses and wallets and pin them up on bulletin boards in the places that you go eat. 

We cannot just celebrate this feast day as some event that happened 11 centuries ago.  Be a daily witness to the amazing truth, that God so loved the world that He sent His Son to be both God and Man, to join heaven and earth, to remain God and man forever, and to reconcile mankind by the Cross! 

May God give us the courage to continue this triumph of faith in our own lives…showing the world what it means to be a part of the faith that has established the universe.