Yesterday marked the Sunday of Orthodoxy – the triumph of the faith. In our parishes we processed with icons of our Lord, of His holy Mother and of all His saints. St John of Damascus (679-745) was one of the greatest defenders of the use of icons within our Orthodox Christian tradition and worship.
The ‘Iconoclastic Controversy’ lasted from 726, when Emperor Leo III began an attack on the use of religious icons, until 843 when the Empress Theodora allowed their restoration, following the decisions of the Second Council of Nicaea in 787.
St John explains:
‘I honour all matter…and venerate it… Was not the thrice blessed wood of the Cross matter? Was not the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Sepulchre, the source of our resurrection: was it not matter? Is not the most holy book of the Gospels matter? Is not the blessed table matter which gives us the Bread of Life’ Are not the gold and silver matter, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either do away with the veneration and worship due to all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the worship of images, honouring God and His friends, and following in this the grace of the Holv Spirit…’
Elements of creation and matter can therefore, according to St John, be used as means to worshipping God. Through the veneration of icons, relics and holy men and women through whom God has shone forth, we are directed to the Creator and source of all goodness.
This respect and veneration of the human person and of all creation is only possible through the salvific incarnation of God; God becoming human flesh and dwelling amongst us:
‘Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation…’
If we are to think of moments in our lives that God revealed His presence and love to us it would most probably be through other people: by receiving the Church’s sacraments through a priest, experiencing compassion and understanding through family or friends, being granted assistance by a fellow student or colleague, by caring treatment from a doctor or nurse. God works through us – human beings – to convey and express His philanthropy and mercy. His saints are proof of this; that the human being’s natural end is unity and communion with God and one another. For this very reason, we venerate the Gospel, the relics of His saints, as vessels of His grace, the Cross and icons. In the incarnation, the Lord uniting with and sanctifying the whole of creation, lies the truth of salvation and the triumph of the Christian faith.
Στα παλιά χρόνια ο Θεός, ο ασώματος και ασχημάτιστος, δεν εικονιζόταν καθόλου. Τώρα όμως, επειδή ο Θεός φανερώθηκε με σάρκα και επικοινώνησε με τους ανθρώπους, απεικονίζω το ορατό του Θεού.
Δεν προσκυνώ την ύλη, προσκυνώ όμως τον δημιουργό της ύλης, αυτόν που έγινε ύλη για μένα και καταδέχτηκε να κατοικήσει μέσα στην ύλη και πραγματοποίησε τη σωτηρία μου μέσω της ύλης, και δεν θα παύσω να σέβομαι την ύλη, με την οποία πραγματοποιήθηκε η σωτηρία μου.
-Αγ Ιωάννου του Δαμασκηνού