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March 14, 2022

Concerning Icons in the Orthodox Church (Demetrios Panagopoulos)

By Demetrios Panagopoulos, Preacher
(Sermon Delivered on the Sunday of Orthodoxy 
in March of 1969)
The Icon is an expression of the divine economy, which is summarized in the teaching of the Orthodox Church which says: "God became man, that man may become God."

The Church attached so much importance to the Icon that she proclaimed and still proclaims that the victory over the Iconoclasts was a triumph of Orthodoxy, which we celebrate during the first week of Great Lent.

Furthermore, for the Orthodox Church, the Icon is a language through which it expresses its doctrines and commandments so well, just like it does with words. It is a theology that is expressed in shapes and colors that the eye sees. In other words, it is like a mirror that reflects the spiritual life of the Church, and in which one can judge the dogmatic struggles of every age.

Dogmatic icons exist in many of our churches and especially in our villages and monasteries. Only at the end of the nineteenth century did experts discover that the Icon exists, that is, the Byzantine one, because only it is an "icon". The others are paintings. The ancient iconographers were not only great painters, but also teachers of the spiritual life, who knew how to give form to the words of our Lord who said: "My kingdom is not of this world."

Not to understand anymore the essence of this art comes from our supposed progress, not from the fact that the Icon has lost its power or significance, but from our deep spiritual decline that our spirit is worldly and materialistic, and that is why the idea of the Church and the Liturgy was distorted in us.

The dogmatic depth of the Icon, the Church and the Liturgy has become the exclusive occupation of some and is considered today as an abstract Science that has nothing to do with our daily lives.

As for the Liturgy, which should be our infallible guide on our spiritual path and the confession of our faith, it is, most of the time, but only a formal ceremony, a custom, a pious and moving habit perhaps.

The organic unity of dogma and moral law within the Liturgy was cut, stripped. This absence of inner unity destroys the functional fullness of our divine worship. The elements that make it up and that we can no longer feel how they all contribute to one thing - the Orthodox homily, the Byzantine hymn, the Byzantine icon, the Byzantine architecture, the lighting, etc. - unfortunately attract everyone in their own way of religion, which is why we need a return to the Holy Tradition.

* * *

Today, on the first Sunday of the Fast, in which we celebrate the triumph of our icons, we must pay special attention to the confessors of the faith, because they lead us to the revival and development of the feeling of True Faith, in the Orthodox Church, and not to listen to Protestants (known to us as Evangelicals) or Jehovah's Witnesses, who call us pagans because we care for and respect and venerate the holy Icons of our Lord, His Saints or His All Holy Mother.

Saint John of Damascus says: "We depict Christ as our King and Lord, and do not deprive Him of His army. The saints constitute the Lord's army. Let the earthly king dismiss his army before he gives up his King and Lord. Let him put off the purple before he takes honor away from his most valiant men who have conquered their passions. For if the saints are heirs of God, and co-heirs of Christ, they will be also partakers of the divine glory of sovereignty. If the friends of God have had a part in the sufferings of Christ, how shall they not receive a share of His glory even on earth? ... So, through the representation of images we look upon His bodily form, and upon His miracles and His sufferings, and are sanctified and satiated, gladdened and blessed" ("Against Those Who Decry Holy Icons").

He adds: "This is how we should think about the icons of the saints, that they were painted in the churches and in the books in order to remember them and to love them and to correct our lives, and at the same time to show their good testimony to the pagans who come and believe in Jesus Christ. For in this way we received this (the Church) from the Holy Fathers as the Holy Scriptures teach us” (PG 95, 313).

Wanting to demonstrate the vivid impression and teaching caused by the sacred icons, he says: "If one of the pagans comes and says to you; 'Show me your faith so that I may believe', you bring him to the church and show him the adornment that surrounds her. You present to him the figures of the holy images, the unbeliever sees and says: 'Who is the one who is crucified? Who is the one who is resurrected and tramples the head of this old man (of Hades)?' Do you not teach him from the image, saying, 'This crucified one is the Son of God'?" (PG 95, 325).

Finally, this holy Father considers the iconographers of the Church equal in value to the Evangelists who wrote the Gospels. He says: "What the Gospel describes with the word, he (the iconographer) shows with his work" (PG 95, 316).

We come to the following conclusion:

The writer wrote the Gospel, which is accepted by heretics and they cut off into branches for its sake. What did he write in the Gospel? The whole incarnate economy of Christ and handed it over to the Church.

What did the painter do? The same. He painted on the board the dignity of the Church, from the first Adam to the birth of Christ and the whole incarnate economy of Christ and the martyrdoms of the Saints, and he also handed them over to the Church. That is, they both wrote an explanation, one on paper, the other on the board, and they teach us.

And now the heretic, the Evangelical or the Jehovah's Witness is asked: Why do you venerate and accept the Bible, while you spit on the Icon and despise it?

Tell me, heretic, what is the difference between the two, since they both teach the same thing? How do you bow before one and spit on the other? Why do you accept the evangelist who explains with the word and not the painter who shows with his work?

Tell me, heretic; what do you venerate in the Gospel, the material or the explanation?

You will answer me, the explanation of Christ's economy, not the matter. I will answer you the same, that I do not honor the board, nor the wall, nor the colors, but the character of the depiction and the economy of the Lord, according to the words of Saint Basil: "The honor shown to the icon is ascribed to the prototype."

So let us honor and venerate our holy Icons and pay attention to their acquisition - Byzantine icons, not "religious paintings". Icons of saints, serious and by holy hands, that pray in front of the Panagia Hodegetria, with which they perform the "divine work" with fear of God and reverence.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.