Friday 16 November 2018

Concerning Sacred Depictions and Sacred Objects (2)

By Saint Nicholas Varzhansky

Part Two

The Hebrews used to worship and bow down before sacred objects:

"I shall worship toward Thy holy temple" (Ps. 5:8).

"I will worship towards Thy holy temple" (Ps. 137:2).

At the tabernacle, Moses and Aaron "fell upon their faces" (Number 20:16).

Jesus of Navi [Joshua] "fell to the earth upon his face before the ark" (Josh. 7:6).

They lit lamps before these sacred objects, following the teaching of the Lord Himself Who said unto Moses: 

"Thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold … and thou shalt make seven lamps therefore, and place its lamps thereon, that they might give light over against it. And the tongs thereof and the snuffers thereof shall be of pure gold … and look that thou make them after the pattern which was showed thee on the mount" (Ex. 25:31, 37-40; see Ex. 27:20, 21; 30:8; Lev. 24:2; 2 Chronicles 4:40).

They burned incense as the Lord commanded Moses:

"Thou shalt make … censers … and thou shalt make an altar to offer incense thereon… and Aaron shall burn thereon fragrant incense" (Ex. 25:29,30:1,7).

Candles and offerings in the temple of the Lord were not denied even in the New Testament, for the Saviour says (Matt. 5:21-24): if thou bring thy gift to the altar and the rest; and see also Hebrews 13:10; the Saviour's tribute money for the temple (Matt. 17:24-27); the widow's mite (Mark 12:41-44).

Miracles were worked through sacred object:

The Ark was taken by the Philistines into the temple of Dagon and for this reason Dagon was overthrown, and the Philistines were punished with grievous tormenting haemorrhoids (1 Kings [Samuel] 5:1-6).

"And He (the Lord) smote the inhabitants of Bethsamis, because they had looked upon the ark of the Lord, and He smote of the people fifty thousand and seventy men. And the people lamented, because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter" (1 Kings [Samuel] 6:19).

"Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God (to steady it) and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. But the Lord was angered against Uzzah, and God smote him for his boldness, and he died there by the ark of God" (2 Kings [Samuel] 6:6-7).

The Saviour did not condemn the true depictions in the Temple of Jerusalem, but on the contrary He said:

"My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer" (Mark 11:17; Matt. 21:13; Luke 19:46; John 2:16).

The apostles prayed and worshipped in this Temple:

"That thou mayest understand," said the Apostle Paul, "that there are yet but twelve days since I went up to Jerusalem for to worship" (Acts 24:11).

The Lord appeared to the Apostle Paul in the Temple showing that prayers offered in churches with sacred depictions are acceptable to God:

The Apostle Paul says: "When I was come again unto Jerusalem, even while I prayed in the Temple, I was in a trance and saw Him (Christ)" (Acts 22:14-18).

The Lord promised to reveal Himself to those who would keep His Commandments:

"He that hath My commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth Me, and he that loveth Me shall be loved of My father; and I will love him, and will manifest Myself unto him" (John 14:21). This implies that the prayer of the Apostle Paul in the Temple before the icons was acceptable in that the Lord once appeared to the Apostle Paul during such prayer.

The Lord founded the New Testament Church and in the true Church there are sacred objects such as the holy icons:

Prior to the Second Coming, the Antichrist will come, the "man of sin will be revealed, the son of perdition, who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God or that is holy, so that he shall sit in the temple of God, as God, shewing himself to be God" (2 Thess. 2:3-4).

This means that before the coming of Christ, the Christians will have churches of God, and in them will be holy things "called God". 

These holy things "called God" as the Apostle says are the holy icons.
[1] We depict:
  • God the Father, as the Prophet Daniel saw Him, as the Ancient of Days (Dan. 7:9).[2]
  • The Son of God - the Incarnate Word, as the Holy Apostles beheld Him (John 1:14).
  • The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, as He descended on the Saviour "in bodily form" (Luke 3:22).
We also have depictions of the Mother of the Lord, the Holy Angels, the Holy Apostles and of all who pleased God. For us, the icons are primarily for the remembrance of God, of the sacred events, of the instructive lives of the Lord and of the saints. Also, icons set forth the teachings of God and invoke religious feelings in us. Through icons we glorify God as we do through sacred singing and music. Christians have always had icons, and there never was a time when the Christians had absolutely no icons. This is shown not only by Scripture but also by the whole history of the Church. The Roman Catacombs, in which the Christians used to pray at the beginning of the Faith of Christ on earth, are abundant in icons.

Wherefore we must ask the sectarians: How can they be they Christians if they have no divine holy things? How is it that they have no holy icons?

A Selection of Refutations of the Dissenters

The Dissenters say: Exodus 20:4-5; images are forbidden, which means that icons are forbidden.

The Orthodox reply: It is idols of false gods that are forbidden. Through true depictions we remember and glorify the true God. These depictions are not forbidden: Ex. 25:8-10, 17-21; 26:1,31 etc.

The Dissenters say: Esaias [Isaiah] 17:7-8.

The Orthodox reply: This concerns the idols of Astarte and Baal and their altars, not true depictions.

The Dissenters say: Esaias 31:7.

The Orthodox reply: This concerns idols.

The Dissenters say: Esaias 42:8; 48:11.

The Orthodox reply: Here is says that the True God will not give His glory to a false god (an idol).

The Dissenters say: Esaias 44:8-28.

The Orthodox reply: Here it speaks about the making of idols, about their being unnecessary and vain, but it says nothing here about true representations. Moreover, here the Lord promises the building of the Temple of Jerusalem (Esaias 44:28.) showing that material sacred objects are permitted.

The Dissenters say: Jeremias 2:26-28.

The Orthodox say: We do not forget God, but rather strive to remember Him by His depictions.

The Dissenters say: “Thus saith the Lord, they shall say no more, The ark of the covenant of the Lord, neither shall it come to mind, neither shall they approach it, neither shall that be done any more” (Jer. 3:16).

The Orthodox reply: We do not mourn the loss of the ark because now we have Christ God. It is clear though that the commandments forbidding idols were not violated by sacred depictions or by the ark, the cherubims and the rest.

The Dissenters say: Deut. 4:15-17. All representations are therefore categorically forbidden.

The Orthodox reply: Here it speaks of the likenesses and idols of other gods. Moreover the True God is a jealous God and will not have mercy when man begins to serve other gods. However the Orthodox do not make false idols, only true depictions of the one true God. Similarly we depict the good servants of the one God, the holy Angels and the saints. A depiction of God is not a substitute for God, but recalls Him and instructs concerning the true God, just as a portrait of the king does not replace, but rather brings to mind, the earthly king.

The Dissenters say: Jer. 10:3-15.

The Orthodox reply: Here it concerns idols, and not true depictions, which are permitted (see Ex. 25:8-10, 17-21).

The Dissenters say: See the Book of Jeremias.

The Orthodox reply: This concerns idols and not true representations, which are permitted.

The Dissenters say: Acts 17:24-31.

The Orthodox reply: We do not think that the Divinity is gold, silver, or stone carved by men. But we ask the question: Is God actually paper, printed with letters? No. But we use paper to refer to God by writing the name ‘God’. Is God actually an angel or a stranger? No. But God appeared in the form of three strangers (see Genesis, chapter 18) and in the form of an Angel (see Judges, chapter 6).

Yes, we depict God in those forms in which He appeared to people; and Christ in the appearance that He had when he lived on earth; the Holy Spirit, as He appeared in a bodily form, in the form of a dove (Luke 3:22); God the Father in the appearance of the "Ancient of Days" that is as an Elder, as was seen in the vision of the Prophet Daniel (7:9) and also the angels, the Mother of God and the saints.

The Dissenters say: Romans 1:21-23. The Apostle forbids sacred depictions.

The Orthodox reply: The Church has never changed the glory of the incorruptible God. The sacred depictions, they do not stand with us "in place of the Creator," as do idols with the pagans. Just as a portrait of the king does not replace the king, so sacred depictions do not replace Christ God, Whom the holy icon commemorates.

The Dissenters say: Psalms 113 and 134.

The Orthodox reply: Here Scripture speaks of idols.

The Dissenters say: John 1:18. No one has seen God at any time and it is completely impossible to represent Him.

The Orthodox reply: It is possible, because "the Only Begotten Son, Which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath revealed Him" (John 1:18). "And the Holy Spirit descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon Him" (Luke 3:22). So we represent the Son of God and the Holy Spirit, as the Lord manifested Himself.

The Dissenters say: It is not necessary to speak of Old Testament depictions because Hebrew 9:5 now applies.

The Orthodox reply: Then don't read about them in the Bible, and cross these references out! But this one cannot do, but one must rather read Chapter Nine of Hebrews intelligently, and not like sectarians. The Apostle Paul spoke of the Old Testament sacred objects which were well known to the Jews, to whom this epistle was sent, not in order to deny them, which is inadmissible, but rather to instruct the Jews that it is possible to flee idols and yet to hold to physical sacred objects such as was God's command to Israel.

The Dissenters say: Why don't all icons work miracles?

The Orthodox reply: Why did not all the clothes of the Apostles work miracles, but only the Apostle Paul's "handkerchiefs and aprons" (Acts 19:12)?

The Dissenters say: If the icons are gods, then they should cry out when we hack at them and should strike those who mock them. This does not happen, which means that icons are not gods.

The Orthodox reply: No one recognizes them as gods, but only as sacred depictions. We should not be surprised that blasphemers of the icons are not immediately punished. Likewise, the soldiers and servants of Caiaphas hit Christ, spat at and mocked Him, but were not immediately punished; these acts, however, resulted in divine punishment after death. In like manner those sectarians who blaspheme will be visited with punishment.

In conclusion we say that the verses in Scripture that refer to idols do not refer to icons. Regarding idols: we do not have them in church. 

New Martyr Nicholas
[1] St. Nicholas’s meaning is clearer when we consider that the Russian word for 'icon corner' is bog – the same word as that used for God in Church Slavonic. St. Nicholas is not of course saying that icons are gods. An icon can never be consubstantial with the prototype because it has a different nature. The idea that two objects can be identical and yet different is explained by St. Theodore the Studite: ‘As in the Trinity Christ differs from the Father in hypostasis, so He differs from His own image in nature’.

The icon and the prototype are however connected – there is a participation of one in the other. An icon is connected to the person painted on it because the honour given to the image is transmitted to the prototype (the person painted on it). St. John of Damascus explains: ‘Matter is endued with a divine power through prayer made to those who are depicted in image. Purple by itself is simple, and so is silk, and the cloak which is made of both. But if the king put it on, the cloak receives honour from the honour due to the wearer. So is it with matter. By itself it is of no account, but if the one presented in image be full of grace, men become partakers of his grace according to their faith.’

The Fathers of the Seventh Oecumenical Council clearly state that we offer ‘relative worship’ to the icons. The original Greek word can also be translated as ‘venerate’. ‘Absolute worship’ or ‘adoration’ is offered to God alone.

[2] The Father is shown as the Ancient of Days in many older icons but the 1667 Council of Moscow condemned this practice. The dispute over whether the Son or the Father should be shown as the Ancient of Days still continues however. 

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