03 May 2012
The Veneration of Icons in Holy Orthodoxy
Eugene Rose Lay Sermon March 1964
The first Sunday of Great Lent is celebrated by the Orthodox Church as the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. Originally this Feast was established to mark the restoration of icons after the period of Iconoclasm, and among the anathemas read on that day there is still one directed against "those who insult and blaspheme the Holy Icons." The Orthodox Church, then, places veneration of images on a level with the doctrines of Christian faith; and the central place occupied by this veneration in the life of Orthodox believers is another indication of its great importance.
Why is it so important? One reason is that the use of images answers a very deep need of human nature. Fr. John of Kronstadt has said has said, "Icons are a requirement of our nature. Can our nature do without an image? Can we recall to mind an absent person without representing or imagining him to ourselves? Has not God Himself given us the capacity to representation and imagination?"
There is yet a more profound reason for the Orthodox veneration of icons. This is the theological reason indicated in the Kontakion of the Feast: "The illimitable Word of the Father accepted limitation by incarnation from Thee, O Mother of God; and He transformed our defiled image to its original state and transfused it with the Divine beauty." It is because God has taken human form and so restored this form to its original likeness to Himself, that it is proper for us to reverence images of our Lord, His Most Holy Mother, and the Saints, in whom the Divine image has also been restored.
The art of iconography, having such a high origin, is not an ordinary art; it is sacred. Too many, alas, even among Orthodox believers, try to judge it by secular standards. It is often said that icons in the traditional style are "unrealistic" of "unnatural". But the Saints, too, according to the standards of the world are "unnatural"; and the same may be said of Christian Truth itself. These things must be judged by a higher, spiritual standard. "Realistic" images of the Saints are incomplete because they represent only their earthly appearance. Traditional iconography, such as is still practiced in centers of Holy Orthodoxy like the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, N.Y., depicts the Saints as they actually are spiritually and as we shall finally see them in the Kingdom of Heaven. Such are appeals not to the senses but to the spirit.
That is why genuine icons cannot be painted by an ordinary artist. While he is working, the icon painter must fast, pray, and be in a state of humility and contrition. And the believer who stands before a finished icon must be in a similar state. An icon is not to be appreciated as a work of art; its purpose is rather to help us to pray and to lift our minds and hearts above this earth into Heaven. According tot he Holy Fathers who compiled the decrees of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, at which the veneration of icons was restored, "The more continually the Saints are seen in iconic form, the more are the beholders lifted up to the memory of the prototypes and to an aspiration after them."
In a world that is plunging to its destruction along the path of a thousand enticing novelties, the Orthodox icon, like everything else connected with Holy Orthodoxy, stands out as constant and unchanging, guiding faithful Orthodox along the one sure path to eternal salvation. The constancy of the iconographic tradition and of the Orthodox teaching regarding the veneration of icons, is one of the many signs by which we know the truth of what the Church teaches us on this Sunday of Orthodoxy: "This is the Apostolic Faith, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Orthodox Faith, this Faith hath confirmed the universe."