March 22, 2019

On the Veneration of Icons (2 of 2)

By St. Nektarios of Aegina

The use of icons in the Church dates back to ancient times.... The monuments with the engravings and the murals found in the chambers-cemeteries of the catacombs as well as the martyria where worship took place, testify to the use of icons and certify that in the second and third century icons were used in the Church.

The enemies of icons claim that Christians coming from the Jews as well as the nations could not have icons. The Jews because even when they became Christians did not alienate themselves from the Mosaic law, while Christians from the nations were afraid they might turn to idolatry.

While opinions gathered by ecclesiastical writers are far from denying the use of icons in the Church, they nevertheless bear witness to the general use of icons by Christians in the early centuries. A great historic fact also attests to the use of icons in the Church. Eusebius the historian narrates that Constantine the Great founded Christian temples which he decorated with splendor.

If the catholic Church did not favor the use of icons then why do we see that generally all churches are decorated in the same way? If icons were not used in the Church then why is it that Ecumenical Synods did not raise their voice and anathematize the first one who wanted to introduce icons in the Church? How did they permit icons, if they considered them idols, to express the spirit of idolatry inside the temple of Hagia Sophia with the pious Constantine being the first and then Justinian?

Why is it that such an evil thing, namely idolatry, did not give rise to any protest and not even one Synod was held by the catholic Church against icons, when for the distortion of a concept in the Gospel, Holy Synods were held as well as consecutive gatherings? On the contrary, why did the catholic Church as a whole revolt against the iconoclasts? The only true answer to the above questions is the one given earlier: icons existed for a long time and the honor towards the icons was deeply rooted in the hearts of the faithful. The Synods that were held since iconoclasm broke out (726) were not able to prove that the use of icons in the Church did not have an ancient beginning. All of their arguments were directed to the fact that the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) allegedly forbade icons and that there was no apostolic order for their use. The answers to these questions can be found by anyone who wishes to in the minutes of the Seventh Ecumenical Synod. We mentioned everything we should in the relevant chapter about the so-called prohibition by the Decalogue. However, about the lack of apostolic order we are of the opinion that it was not possible for the Savior and his disciples to decree the way of expressing the feeling of love towards the Savior and the Apostles which overwhelms the hearts of the faithful. This is dictation of the heart and nobody has the right to ask for provisions that will set rules to the expression of a feeling.

The women who anointed Jesus with myrrh expressed the feeling of love within their grateful hearts, by placing the myrrh on the holy body of Jesus. Jesus liked their act as an act of goodness. The Lord showed no aversion neither to the tears nor the kisses of the sinful women as an act of anthropolatry, but accepted them as a true expression of great love and granted them remission of their many sins as a gift. God examines the hearts and rewards the feeling of the heart. Enemies of icons, I believe, are disapproved of by Jesus because they cause pain to those who honor them.

Ecclesiastical history in the first centuries of Christianity bears witness to the use of icons in the Church, but also by ancient Christians privately, because it teaches us that most Ecclesiastics wrote and said a lot about icons.

Saint Augustine confirms the same thing during the time he was alive (354-430), saying in many places the icons of Peter and Paul and of Christ the Savior Himself were made as works of painting.

Gregory of Nyssa in his work On the Divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit says: “Many times I have seen the painted icon of the Passion and seeing it I never walk past it without tears. The art brought vividness to the history that we may see it."

Saint Chrysostom in his discourse to Meletios says: "What you do with words is the same thing you do with His icon. Since many engraved that holy icon even in rings, in manuscripts, in bottles, on room walls and everywhere. They just listen to that holy name but also see everywhere the form of the body."

This has been proposed as an argument to refute the proposals of the enemies of the icon, who supported that the portraying of saints and the honor to their icons are opposed to the correct doctrines of the Christian spirit and the Fathers’ views.

In the fourth century Saint Gregory of Nyssa and Saint Basil the Great said the following about icons: Gregory calls icons "γλωττοφόρον βιβλίον" ("a book that has a tongue and speaks") and Basil when he occupies himself with speech writers and painters concludes that “the former [speech writers] decorate with words and the latter [painters] write with the paintings."

Saint John of Damascus in his apologetic epistle in favor of the icons also says the following: “What the Gospel explains with words is what the painter also shows with his work, since the writer also wrote in the Gospel, and what did he write in the Gospel? The whole life in the flesh of Christ and gave it to the Church. The painter does the same thing; he painted the churches with what is well-suited from the first Adam until the birth of Christ and the martyrdoms of the Saints, and he gave them to the Church himself as if both have recorded an explanation and teach us.... Indeed if man understands them well they are a good and righteous narration of the Gospel with the explanation. Because what the Gospel explains with words, the painter shows with his work.

From Study of Holy Icons.