Sunday, 9 March 2014

Converts, Idolatry and the Icons issue.

It is always an interesting situation when people first enter an Orthodox Church. Many see people kissing Icons or praying before them and ponder, others will be worried about Idolatry. Recently I received a question from someone who was concerned about this. The following is from my response: 

Since the Apostolic Era, Icons have played prominent roles such as in procession and the sacraments. This is not in a worship based role but in representation.  When a liturgy happens it is not just a liturgy on Earth but one in Heaven, making the representation of the saints important since they are in attendance n the Divine Liturgy to receive the portion of Christ as we do on Earth. We also see this with the use of the icon of Christ in the sacrament of Confession, with our confessions addressed to Christ through his Icon, as he receives out
confession alone through the priest as an Icon of Christ in himself. To put it simply, the role of the Icon in the Church is vital.

The issue over the veneration of Icons usually comes from the ignorance of many of not understanding the difference between the two types of demonstration of respect. Latria (Worship of God) and Proskynesis (Veneration of those more important than us), The same can come into play when discussing the term Father for a Priest, where some will argue that we see the priest as God. Although he is only the Icon of Christ and thus deserving of our Proskynesis which is shown when we kiss his hand without taking Latria (Worship) away from our Lord in His heavenly abode.

Referring to the creation of the Icons, John of Damascus reminds us that "under the Old Covenant God commanded images to be made: first the tabernacle, and then everything in it." Indeed God orders Moses to build the Ark and detail it with “two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover.” Even detailing greatly as to the direction in which these should face. We know that the Ark was venerated for its contents but God had ordered Moses to have craftsmen design icons of heavenly beings.
The reason given in tradition that Moses was accepted in this task, apart from it being directly from God, is simply since it was not worshipped in the place of God, thus given Proskynesis and not Latria. This is the same with Icons. John of Damascus also explains this, he says “I do not venerate the matter but I venerate the Creator of matter, Who became matter for me, Who condescended to live in matter, and Who, through matter accomplished my salvation; I do not cease to respect the matter through which my salvation is accomplished.”

To venerate an icon for what it represents is not Idolatry, unlike worshipping an item for what it is. Through icons we see the heavenly forms of Christ as well as our saints and Martyrs. Through asking the saints to pray to God for us we are not worshipping them but praising the holiness which God has bestowed upon them in the same way in which one might show Proskynesis (Veneration)before an Icon or even kiss the Cross or Gospel book. This is not worshipping the Icons or metal of the crosses but those who we venerate through them.

Through this veneration of the Saints we are also inspired to holiness and to emulate those that came before us and to wish to live up to the example of another or ask them for assistance is not Idolatry.  As Saint Polycarp said to the centurion before his Martyrdom “For Him, being the Son of God, we adore, but the martyrs as disciples and imitators of the Lord we cherish as they deserve for their matchless affection towards their own King and Teacher.” Thus there is a great difference between Latria and Proskynesis.

It is always important to keep these key points in mind when you are in the Church, remembering that each time you kiss the Icon of our saviour, you are not kissing an Icon for the Icon’s sake but confessing your faith in Christ in the same manner in which you bow before a cross for the sake of Christ and not the wood it is made of. In the same way, to venerate an Icon of a saint is not to worship an Icon but to show Proskynesis (veneration) towards those it represents.

 This way, God Willing, the act of Proskynesis (Veneration) before an Icon of our Lord or the Saints will not seem so uncomfortable or feel like an attempted usurping of the full Latria (Worship) of God alone.
To what, in such a manner, do you my Christian bow,
When you, O my Christian, venerate the icons?
Before the Living God the Creator, I am bowing down,
With all my soul, heart and mind, I bow down to Him.
Mortal am I and, am unable upon Him to gaze,
Therefore, before His image I bow;
What, my Christian, do you so fervently reverence,
When, the icon O my Christian, you kiss?
Christ the God and Savior, I am kissing,
The choirs of angels, the saints and the Mother of God.
Mortal am I and, therefore am unable them to touch,
But when their images I kiss, my heart is at ease.
From the Prologue of Ohrid.
God Bless and keep you,
Dcn. Daniel

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