Saturday, February 24, 2018

Why icons?.
Archimandrite Touma Bitar.

Today, brothers, the Holy Church commemorates the fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council which affirmed the veneration of icons after a long period during which those who venerate them were persecuted and most ancient icons that had existed before the eighth century were destroyed.
 What is the importance of icons in the Church? First of all, brothers, we honor icons and do not worship them. For this reason, all that can be said about us worshiping idols if we use icons in the Church is false. There is a great difference between veneration and worship. Worship belongs to God and God alone. But man expresses himself with word and image. Man has senses with which he expresses himself. Thus we use incense. Incense, for us, is a sign of venerating the faithful and of worshiping God in the faithful. So too with the Holy Bible. There are words in it, but these words are only vehicles for God's presence among us. We cannot express ourselves in a non-human way.
      We are human. Thus we express ourselves with sound, with the written word, with icons, with incense... All of these are languages. However, we need to know that the word of God which is read to us, though it has a human garb is not limited to human words. These words bear a divine presence. Thus we call this book the Holy Bible. It is the Holy Bible because it has a human dimension and another, divine dimension. It is different from every other book in the world. All the books in the world are human books, but the Holy Bible is a theanthropic book. In other words, we believe that the Son of God became flesh, that God became human. He is God and man at the same time. The Lord Jesus Christ is both God and man. For this reason, everything that goes out from God to man is divine and human in the image of the Lord Jesus Christ, God and man. The Holy Bible, then, contains human words, but these human words bear the divine presence, just as the body of the Lord Jesus Christ, which He took from the Virgin Mary, bore His divine presence. God was present in it and they were one and the same. Thus the word of God is a human word and a divine word at the same time.
The same thing can be said with regard to icons. In itself, an icon of course has colors. And of course there are shapes and lines. When we draw something, we place its name over the drawing. If there is an image of someone-- anyone at all-- without a name over it, then we do not regard it as an icon and we in no way venerate it. Then, when we are venerating an icon, in practice we regard the veneration as being directed toward the person depicted in the icon. We have here, for example, Saint Barbara. When we prostrate before Saint Barbara, we are not prostrating to the wall, but before the saint who is in heaven and who is present through the icon that we drew of her on the wall. In the same way, we kiss the Holy Bible. When we kiss the Holy Bible, we are kissing God, who was pleased to give us Himself through these human words. So our veneration is not of colors. It is not of wood. Rather, it is of the one who is depicted on the wood. So we venerate God and His saints in human shapes and human expressions. The Church has held fast to venerating icons because venerating icons is based on the incarnation of God.

     The icon indicates that the Son of God-- the second hypostasis of the Holy Trinity-- became incarnate indeed. He became human in every sense of the word. He became perceptible. God became perceptible in His body. God in the body ate, drank and suffered. So this is something that surpasses human understanding. One cannot understand something like this. But one is allowed to accept this through faith, through this trust that God indeed became incarnate, indeed became perceptible. He who is imperceptible gives us Himself  in a perceptible image in the icon. And He gives Himself in an auditory manner through human words. He gives us Himself through the worship that we perform: through the incense, through the motions, through the words... The priest, for example, is flesh and blood like any human. At some point, this body will become dust. But the Lord God was pleased at the raising of the priest's hand and at his making the sign of the cross in a particular way, to indicate the name of the Lord Jesus. In this way, in practice, he gives the blessing of Christ, who is unseen, in a visible manner. For this reason, people bow, receive a blessing and make a prostration, knowing that this priest is a man like other men. But this man was chosen by the
Church, a hand was placed upon him, and God's grace was brought down upon him, that he might become a servant of the Lord God. The priest, when he vests and serves according to the order established by the Holy Church, is not, in practice, the one who is performing the divine service. Rather, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is invisible, is the one performing it through him, who is visible, for the life and sanctification of the faithful. In the same way, we prepare the Eucharist. We prepare the bread, the wine and the water, and we sanctify them. In other words, the Lord God, who is invisible, is pleased to rest, by the Holy Spirit, in the bread and wine. They become, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Christ's body and blood. This is what we partake of when we partake of the mysteries. When we partake of them, we taste bread and wine, but this bread bears Christ as His body. That is, we receive God who is pleased to give us Himself under the sign of the bread. This is what the Lord Jesus did at the Last Supper. When He was with His disciples, He took a loaf of bread and gave it to the disciples, saying, "Take, eat, this is My body." And He took the cup-- the cup of wine at that time-- and said to them, "Drink of it all of you, this is My blood." For this reason, we do what the Lord Jesus Christ did at the Last Supper. Then, by the Lord's Holy Spirit, this bread and wine become Christ's body and blood whenever we gather together to participate in the Divine Liturgy. I cannot explain it, but I accept it. You cannot explain it. You must only accept with faith. This is a truth that surpasses the human intellect. It surpasses human understanding. But it is a certain truth in every sense of the word.

      So this is our life in Christ. For this reason, icons are very important and we kiss them and make prostrations in front of them. But this kiss that we press upon the icon is directed at the one depicted in the icon. That is, when we kiss an icon of the Lord and Our Lady, we are kissing the Lord and Our Lady, not just the wood. The wood must be there because we have bodies, because we are of this world, and we can only express what is imperceptible through what is perceptible. God is imperceptible in Himself. God is spirit. Nevertheless, He became perceptible when He became incarnate, in order to give Himself to us in a way befitting us. For this reason, these perceptible things that we use in the Church in order for the faithful to be sanctified through them bear God's presence. Thus we must honor with perfect honor these perceptible things that bear God's imperceptible presence. That is, we must consider the Lord Jesus Christ to be present here and now with us. When I give you a blessing, I am not giving it to you from myself. Rather, the Lord Jesus Christ is the one who is giving it to you through me. I become a sort of human instrument in a sense. Through me, you receive the presence of God who surpasses apprehension and transcends time. In other words, it is the same thing that happened two thousand years ago and still happens now. The difference is that at that time, the Lord Jesus Christ lived among the disciples in the body. Then He ascended into heaven and sent us the Lord's Holy Spirit, so that we may persist in the work He did, by the power of the Lord's Holy Spirit, by regarding God as present-- yesterday, today, tomorrow and forever-- as He is active in our life in every sense of the word. And so the icon is a creed: "I believe in one God, the Father almighty..." Then we say: "And in the Lord Jesus Christ," who became incarnate from the Virgin. So the icon points to God having become incarnate and to
man's having been granted to enter into a connection with God through the icon, through the word, through incense, through every perceptible, human thing. Man has become capable of talking with God in his human language. When one says, "Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your great mercy," he does not only speak words, but also directs words to the Lord God. He says to Him, "Have mercy on me, O God!"

        Now, as I am addressing you, am I speaking words without any purpose, or am I speaking in order to enter into a connection with you? Words connect people. It is language that ties people to each other. In the same way, when I use words, images, or anything perceptible as an instrument for bearing God, I am entering into a connection with God. I talk with God, just as you speak with God. Each of us is granted to speak with God, to enter into a relationship with God, into a connection with God, through perceptible, material things. We are human and need these things. Can I address you if I do not speak to you? If I do not lift my voice? If I do not transform this speech that is in my mind into words and sound so that it will reach you, so that there will be a link between my mind and your minds, between my heart and your hearts, between my presence and your presence, and then so God's presence will be in me and in you? All of this makes the icon something absolutely fundamental for expressing the nature of the Christian faith. If this was not so, then Christians at that time would not have sacrificed so many martyrs and struggled to keep icons. Without icons, they seem to say that God did not become incarnate. But God did become incarnate. God became man. God became perceptible. He gave us Himself. At every Divine Liturgy, we sense God's presence. We receive Him in a living form, in a perceptible form, in a human form. But at the same time, He is God and He was pleased to give us Himself in this way. For this reason, we receive and we give thanks and rejoice. We hold fast to the faith of the Church and to what our holy fathers have taught us.
The epistle says something very clear: "The man of heresy-- that is, turn from someone who teaches contrary to the teaching of the Church after having been warned time and again, knowing that he has gone astray-- and he is in sin, having condemned himself in himself." So we turn away from the man of heresy if he clings to his heresy, if he clings to his teaching that is strange to the teaching of the Church. For this reason, we the faithful must hold fast to what the Church teaches us. There is no question of changing words. Indeed, there is a divine presence in these words. Therefore, let us preserve everything we have received from our holy fathers, transmit it to our children, and continue to transmit it with perfect trust. 

Translated from the original by Same Noble, and posted on Notes on Arab Orthodoxy, on December 10, 2017.