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March 15, 2014

The Theology of the Icon

A homily of His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou, delivered at the Synodical Divine Liturgy, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, 21 February 2010, in the Sacred Church of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite in Athens.

Today, on the anniversary of the restoration of the sacred icons, we celebrate the feast of Orthodoxy and in this way is shown the connection between the sacred icons with the Church and, of course, with Orthodoxy.

In one of the hymns we chanted today in the service of Matins, the glory of the Church is expressed: "Today has been manifested as a day of festivity and joyfulness. The bright light of the most true dogmas shines as lightning. And Christ's Church is glowing, for She is once again adorned with the replacement and installation now of holy icons and depictions, and the light that they radiate. And a oneness of mind among the believers has God bestowed." Church, dogmas and icons are in the light of the glory of God and are the revelation of the beauty of Orthodoxy.

Having the command of His Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece and the Holy Synod to proclaim the festive discourse of this day at the Synodical Divine Liturgy, before Clergy, laity and the political leadership of our country, on this bright day of Orthodoxy, during which the Church of Christ shines and radiates with Her most true dogmas and the brilliance of Her holy icons, I shall make reference to the union between sacred icons and Orthodox dogmas.

The sacred icon is not offered for the adornment of homes or even of sacred churches, but to transmit grace to the faithful who embrace it with the utmost reverence and respect, depending of course on their spiritual state. At the same time, however, the sacred icon is one of the theological languages of our Church, which transmits many messages. I will highlight some points about this language.

The first point is the theology that refers to God, whom we worship. The Head of the Church is Christ the God-man Himself. This is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who was incarnated and assumed human nature and deified it.

In the Old Testament the depiction of God was prohibited, since the God who appeared to the Prophets was the fleshless Word, while after the incarnation and His assumption of a human body God is depicted. This was the biggest argument of the iconophiles, that, as long as Christ assumed and deified the human body, it means we can depict Him. Also the body of Christ is a source of uncreated Grace that illumines whoever is associated with Him.

Thus, here appears a great theological truth: that God is not an impersonal idea or an eternal value or a universal force, but a special person who loves mankind. The imaginary God is foreign to the problems of man, while the personal God loves man and cares personally for him.

In the icon of the Transfiguration of Christ we see the glory emanating from the deified flesh of Christ, and in all the icons in which Christ is depicted we see His cheerfulness, His inexpressible philanthropy, His love for mankind. God is full of love and affection.

In the icon of the Descent of Christ into Hades the iconographer shows the power of Christ, but also His affection for man, as well as showing tenderness by which he grasps the hand of Adam and Eve and He pulls them up, that is, He saves them by His all-encompassing power, as well as by His inexpressible tenderness. God is not wrathful, hateful and violent, as some want to present Him, nor a sadistic Father as some feel by contractual obligation, but a cheerful, philanthropic and affectionate God who overly loves man, and reaches even to the depths of Hades to meet him. He is the physician Who heals the deep traumas of man and not the judge and prosecutor who brings indictments.

The second point is anthropological, since the Orthodox icon shows man as created by God in soul and body and he is designed to reach His image and likeness, which is deification.

Ancient Greek philosophy made the distinction between the naturally immortal soul and the naturally mortal body. This means that the soul of man belongs to the unborn world of ideas, and God punished them as soon as they were moved by desire by enclosing them in a body, which is a prison of the soul. Thus, the salvation of man, as taught by Platonism, is the release of the soul from the body, and the deadening of the desiring part of the soul was the basic purpose of the Stoic and Platonic philosophers.

However, the Church through the sacred icons teaches that the soul and body are creations of God, so that both can be sanctified and deified. We even encounter this great truth in hesychasm, as it was expressed by Saint Gregory Palamas, since the nous of man through prayer returns to the body and the body is illuminated by the Light of God.

By observing the Orthodox icon, we see that the Light of God comes from within man and sanctifies his soul and body. The divine Light does not illumine man from the outside, but he is sanctified from within, as it appears, especially, in the iconography of Panselinos in the Protaton of Mount Athos.

This, of course, reminds us of the definition given to us by Saint Gregory the Theologian regarding man, that he is "an animal residing here but transferring elsewhere, and the end of this mystery is to move towards God." Man, therefore, is not a thing nor an object to be exploited, but a creation of God that must experience the mystery of deification by Grace.

The third point that we find in the Orthodox icon is the communion of the Church, that is, what consists of communion within the Church. The Church is not simply a gathering of people from one nation, but a meeting of people of all types that have a living relationship with Christ, and it is ecumenical, beyond nations and nationalities. Within the Church other laws and other requirements are in operation.

In the icon of the Nativity of Christ we see the significant place of the Panagia as a representative of the human race, but we also see the good Shepherds, as well as the Magi from the East who came to venerate Christ. Around the newborn Christ are the wise and the illiterate, the Judaeans with those of the East, angels and people. All receive glory from Christ and consist of His spiritual family. Nobody considers each others origin, nationality, or age, but the longing they have for God is considered as well as their humility. The Scribes and Pharisees and those who base themselves on their reasoning and power are absent from the mystery of the divine incarnation and do not participate in divine glory.

The fourth point we see in the Orthodox icon is ktisiology, or so-called ecology, since in Orthodox icons this creation is shown transfigured and sanctified. It is not fallen and corruptible creation, but creation steeped in the glory of God.

In the icon of the Nativity of Christ, near the newborn Infant are irrational animals, the cave is illuminated and the mountains transfigured, and even the star participates in this great mystery. In the icon of the Transfiguration of Christ we see a new earth and new heaven, as we expect them to be in future glory, but also how they are lived by the saints from now who are in the realm of the Church. In the icon of the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan River we see the sanctification of the waters and all that is found in the water. All things obey Christ and are glorified by Him.

Ecological problems, environmental pollution, do not have a place in the most bright glory of the Orthodox icon, but are outside of it. The Light from Christ and from sanctified people passes over to irrational creation, while conversely the passions of man create ecological problems. Icons do not present the sadness and suffering of creation, but its glory, as we are reminded by the Apostle Paul: "For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time" (Rom. 8:19-22). Thus, in Orthodox iconography we see clearly the teaching of Saint Gregory the Theologian about the participation of creation in the festivity of the Resurrection of Christ.

The fifth point we observe in the Orthodox icon is the dark element. In almost all icons that refer to Christ and the work of His divine economy, we also see a cavernous darkness. We encounter this in the icon of the Nativity, of the Baptism, and of the Descent of Christ into Hades. This dark cave is not at all similar with the cave of Plato, in which people who are found in the darkness of this present life see dim shadows of the world of ideas outside of it. In Orthodox icons we see people living within the divine Light, while the darkness is deep in the place of death.

As light has two properties, the illuminating and the burning, which enlighten and burn, depending on the state of each object, so does the Light of God illumine and burn, depending on the state of a person. So, this darkness is not the absence of God, nor the presence of God as darkness and fire, though this of course depends on the state of a person.

However, it is a fact that, as shown in the icon of the Descent of Christ into Hades, or the Orthodox icon of the Resurrection, Christ descends into the Hades of each person, He enters into their despair and into the place of their personal existential death, even when the doors of their existence are closed, in order to give everyone the opportunity to exit from this excruciating darkness of despair and loneliness and lead them to personal communion with Him, but without abolishing their personal freedom.

Finally, the Orthodox icon, in the way it presents Christ and the saints, shows that our God is full of love and affection for man, Who descends even into the Hades of our personal despair and desperation. That man may meet Him, He has high standards. And in no matter what state creation is in it can be filled with Light, since it suffers due to the passions of man. It accepts and awaits its renewal. And everyones personal Hades can be filled with the glory of the Light of God.

Your Beatitude,

Orthodox icons are a deep, theological, empirical, dogmatic book, and, when one penetrates into it, they can perceive not only what the Orthodox Christian God is, but also what is His Church and what is the meaning of the life of man.

The Orthodox Church is the glorified and deified Body of Christ, it is the place where all meet, angels and humanity, reposed and living, rulers and subjects, Clergy and laity, men and women, native and foreigner, it is the spiritual bridal chamber of glory, it is the property of divine eros. The Orthodox icon shows that the life of man is not determined by the material economy, but is given meaning by the divine economy, giving hope and perspective.

The Church is not owned by anyone and nobody can claim it and exclude others, but it is open to all the humble, who are distinguished by the cry of the publican, and at the same time it is closed to the Pharisees and the hypocrites who think they are in the Church. The Church is not a place for competition or the prevalence of certain groups, but a unity of persons, a place of testimony and martyrdom, silence and prayer, crucifixion and resurrection and Pentecost. The Church is not confined by walls and a roof, nor is it expressed by non-transformed people, who deal with the foreground and the background and have a knowledge about God, not knowledge of God. But the Church is expressed by the Holy Prophets, Apostles, Fathers, Venerable Ones and Martyrs, who are completely illumined, they are the "sunshine" of the Church.

The Orthodox icon, as an expression of Orthodox dogma and the inner brilliance of the Orthodox Church, scatters love and affection, peace and tranquility, and attracts those who are in pain and thirst for the righteousness of God, heralding the final sovereignty of the God of love, showing the transfigured world, the new creation.

God was manifested in the flesh, the Church is glorified as the Body of Christ, the icon is an expression of the transfigured life and the renewal of creation, Orthodoxy is the hope of the hopeless, the plenitude of the dispossessed. The Church rejoices today, and is glad with the glory of Her Bridegroom, and the sacred icons are the brilliant ornaments of the bridal chamber of this glorious Bride of Christ.

So, blessed are all those who love the glory of the Bridegroom and the Bride and live in the bridal chamber adorned with glory, dressed in the garment of gladness. Blessed are all those who participate in the supper of the Kingdom, which is shown in the sacred icons and is tasted in the sober intoxication of the Spirit, from which exudes fragrant incense. Blessed are all those who enjoy the glory of Orthodoxy, not once a year, but every day, whoever participates in the thrice-holy hymn of the angels and the song of the redeemed.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Η θεολογία τών εικόνων", February 2010. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.