Icons and Veneration
Sayings of the Fathers
Hebrews 13: “Do not neglect hospitality for some have entertained angels unaware”.
An Abbott many years ago cut out hospitality from his monastery.. It is said that very night, all night long, the ants were busy removing the entire supply of the monastery’s wheat from the storage room to the sea!
The kind and charismatic barefoot elder Avvakoum always smiled when he received visitors, for he saw Christ Himself in their faces, accourding to the Gospel’s word: “I was a stranger and you took me in…” from An Athonite Gerontikon
A brother came and stayed with a certain solitary and when he was leaving he said, “Forgive me, Abba, for I have broken in upon your rule of prayer and fasting.” But the hermit replied, “My rule is to receive you with hospitality and to let you go in peace.”
“Look at all the earth supplies in summer and in autumn! Every Christian, especially the priest, ought to imitate God’s bountifulness. Let your table be open to everybody, like the table of the Lord. The avaricious is God’s enemy.” St. John of Kronstadt
Summary of Icons To Date
Icons are not “graven images” in that they do not attempt to portray the invisible God
Icons are sacred images, not wholly unlike other kinds of religious art that is used by Protestants and other Non-Orthodox traditions. The use of sacred images in sacred activity was not forbidden by God in the OT.
(Genesis 1 – John 1, Colossians)The defense of Icons used in the Orthodox Church comes from the fact that God made Man as an Icon of Himself, and that Christ is the perfect Icon of God – as a visible, material person. FOREVER. Representing Christ in a sacred image made up of material wood and paint only seeks to affirm that Christ Himself was fully material.
There was a long-standing division in the Church over the presence and use of icons in the Church. Most of the Orthodox Fathers – Basil, Chrysostom, Gregory, Cyril – affirmed the use of icons because doing so assumed a proper understanding of Christology and the Incarnation.
When we look at the heresies of the early centuries we see that nearly all of them err in their Christology. The division in the Church about icons came to a head in the early-mid 8th Century, known as the iconoclastic controversy. It lasted about 100 years and ended with the affirmation of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea. This final affirmation of Icons is celebrated on the First Sunday of Lent every year since, known as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy”.
Icons are a part of the Holy Tradition of the Church. They are not specifically mentioned in the Scriptures, nor do they act as an authoritative reference for Truth, in the same manner as the Scriptures.
But, icons are said to be “written”, not painted. The Church teaches that the Holy Spirit can use the icon to convey transcendent, spiritual Truth (as opposed to merely rational, intellectual knowledge common to Western understanding) to the viewer in a manner similar to the written Word of the Scriptures, albeit aesthetically through the eye. Basil: “What the word transmits through the ear, that painting silently shows through the image.”
Icons do not attempt to represent reality as we see it with our physical eye, but rather use color, style and subject matter to convey the Light and Beauty of Christ, the true light that has come into the world. In the Icon we glimpse the harmonious union of the fully visible, material world and the transcendent “uncreated light” of God as a single, immutable reality. Icons beckon us to open our eyes (like the apostles on Mount Tabor) and point us towards what we have failed to see because of our spiritual blindness and the darkness of sin in our lives – Christ as He truly is, and Man as he is meant to be. Icons become a way to redeem and heal our sight, to make our eye “single” as it says in Matthew 6:22, 23, Luke 11:34,35.
The Veneration of Icons
This is probably the most difficult of all practices of the Orthodox Church for Protestants to understand and accept. When they see someone bow before and icon and kiss it, the red flags wave and the Scriptures cry out “IDOLATRY!” But DO they?
This is where we REALLY need to let the SCRIPTURES tell us what is worship and what is not, and what can be done in worship and what cannot. To be very blunt, Christianity was born out of Judaism and OT Biblical practices, NOT modern American evangelicalism. If we are to understand the Church�s practice that has been going on for 2,000 years and for another 2,000 years before it in Judaism, we need to look at the Scriptures, not what WE do here and what offends us in the 21st century. SCRIPTURE must and does teach us what can and cannot be done in worship and does indeed make a distinction between worship that is given only to God and veneration which is given to multitudes of things and people.
Veneration and Worship
There is a difference between veneration and worship. Just as they are two different words in English, so they are in Greek and Hebrew. Unfortunately, the two words have come to mean virtually the same thing in English. We cannot base our theology and practice as Christians on modern definitions of Biblical words. We MUST let Scripture interpret Scripture on these points if we are to understand the actions and intentions of Orthodox Christians.
So, veneration is paying respect, reverence and due honor to someone or something. Worship, on the other hand, is reserved ONLY for God. As for the role of icons in worship, the Seventh Ecumenical Council affirmed the important Biblical distinction between veneration and worship: “We declare that one may render to icons the veneration of honor (proskune-sis), not true worship (latreia) of our faith, which is due only to (God).”
This should not be foreign to us if we think about it for a moment. We have all seen people kissing the Vietnam Memorial wall, kneeling in front of it, kissing pictures taped to it. etc. We have all seen movies of soldiers kissing pictures of their wives and kids when going off to battle.
We all treat “honorable things” with respect, like the flag, the Bible, and historical objects like the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln’s clothing, etc. When we take our hat off to the flag, we are not “worshipping” the flag, nor even the cloth of the flag itself, but we are respecting what it stands for. This is exactly the rationale of icons.
St. John of Damascus in his defense of icons in the 7th Ecumenical Council says, “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. I venerate it, though not as God.” In this way, the Seventh Ecumenical Council affirmed, “The honor paid to the icon is conveyed to its prototype.” When the Christian reverences an icon of Mary or the saints, the honor is transferred to the person it represents, just as the respect paid to the flag is given to the United States and all the it stands for.
It is clear that we need to distinguish between worship, which is for God alone, and honor. We bow to honor one another and to honor our heroes in the Faith who are depicted in icons. We greet all the saints (Hebrews 13:24) with a holy kiss …including the saints who are represented in the Bible and in icons. This is why we kiss our icons. It is much like a husband kissing the picture of his wife and children, or a widow kissing the wall of the Vietnam memorial. It is clear that we as human beings intuitively understand that there isn’t a great chasm fixed between the living and the dead. That gulf lies between the righteous and the wicked (Luke 16:26), not between us and the living Christians who are “absent from the body and present with the Lord.” Christ doesn’t have two Bodies, one on earth and one in heaven; His Body the Church is one, and includes both us who are in the body and the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1).
BOWING AND KISSING
In the Eastern cultures bowing is sign of humility before someone, or paying respect to someone. This is known to all from movies about Japanese customs. What about Scripture? Does the Bible have anything to say about bowing to people or objects and kissing things?
WWJD: What would Jesus do? If one reads the Babylonian Talmud (contemporary to Christ) it describes the feast of tabernacles and says the Jews prostrated to the ground and kissed the court floor of the Temple. Pious Jews still kiss the mezuzah (scroll containing shema and Shaddai on doorposts), fringe of prayer shawl, and phylacteries, the weeping wall, and the LAW during worship, (now we kiss the Gospel).
We all know that Christianity grew out of Judaism. What was/is the Jewish practice regarding kissing “holy objects”? Jesus, as a Jew, practiced these same things, especially in the context of the Temple and Synagogue worship. We see parallels within the Orthodox practices toward sacred things.
This is an article about “Kissing” from “To Pray As A Jew”, by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin KISSING: AN ACT OF RELIGIOUS DEVOTION
Kissing is a universal sign of affection. It is an act of love, an expression of endearment, not only between man and woman, parents and children, but is also the expression of one’s feelings for the ritual objects and the religious duties associated with them.
There are no religious laws that require us to kiss a ritual or holy object. There is only the force of custom as it develops through the ages. In varying degrees kissing has become an optional commonplace among the Jews as an expression of religious devotion at the following times:
The tallit [prayer shawl] is kissed just before putting it on.
The tefillin [phylacteries] are kissed when taken them out of their bag and before replacing them in the bag.
The mezuzah on the doorpost is sometimes kissed upon entering or leaving a house. It is done by touching the mezuzah with one’s hand and kissing the fingers that made contact with the mezuzah.
The Torah is kissed when it passes by in the synagogue. Here, too, it is often done by extending a hand to touch the Torah mantle and then kissing the hand. Some touch the Torah with the edge of a tallit and then kiss the tallit.
The Torah is also kissed before one recites the blessings over it. Here it is done by taking the edge of one’s tallit or the sash that is used to tie the scroll together, touching the outside of the scroll with it, and then kissing the tallit or the sash. Many people place the tallit or sash to the very words where the reading is about to begin. The sages advised against doing this as it may hasten a wearing away or erasure of the letters. At best, they recommend touching only the margin area near the line where the reading is about to begin. In all instances, one should not touch the Torah parchment with one’s bare hand. The custom of not doing so derives from a special edict issued by the sages prohibiting such contact (Shabbat 14a: OH 147:1).
The curtain on the Ark (paokhet) is kissed before one opens it, or after closing it when the Torah is put away.
A siddur [prayer book] and [C]Humash [Jewish Bible] are kissed before putting them away. These holy books are also kissed if they are accidentally dropped on the floor.
From To Pray as a Jew: A Guide to the Prayer book and the Synagogue Service, (New York: Basic Books [Harper Collins], 1980), p.43f.
The Biblical customs and piety of the Jewish faith is carried over into New Testament times and continued in the life of the Church. In general you won’t find commands to kiss things because it did not need to be commanded because it was part of the fabric of the Jewish faith.
However, the Bible does command we “greet one another with a Holy Kiss” Rom. 16:16, I Cor. 16:20, I Pet. 5:14 etc. So we see that kissing is NOT IN AND OF ITSELF a sign of WORSHIPPING an object or a person.
IS BOWING TO SOMETHING WORSHIP?
As we noted in the Eastern cultures it is common for people to bow to one another as a sign of humility and respect. The Roman culture practiced social bowing too. You’d bow to the ground (prostrate) upon meeting a king or governor.
But once again, we must let SCRIPTURE tell us the meaning of bowing. The Septuagint version of Genesis and noted the following instances of “proskunew” (bow down).
23:7, 12 “And Abraham stood up, and bowed himself to the people of the land, even to the children of Heth… And Abraham bowed down himself before the people of the land.”
27:29 “Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee”
33:3 “And he passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.”
37:7, 9, 10 “Behold, your sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf.”
42:6 “and Joseph’s brethren came, and bowed down themselves before him with their faces to the earth.”
43:26, 28 “And they bowed down their heads, and made obeisance.”
47:31 (quoted in the NT, Hebrews 11:21) “And Israel worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff.”
48:12 “And Joseph brought them out from between his knees, and he bowed himself with his face to the earth.”
49:8 “thy father’s children shall bow down before thee.”
In Esther 3:2-4, Mordecai refuses to bow before Haman since the latter is demanding this as latria (worship). But in Est 8:3, Mordecai’s own niece, Esther, bows before King Ahasuerus, which is simply an instance of her rendering him the honor (proskunew) he is due as royalty.
What’s significant about these passages is they demonstrate a form of veneration that is *NOT* worship. This is the OT basis for the fundamental distinction that St John of Damascus makes between worship (latreia) and veneration (proskunew).
BOWING BEFORE OBJECTS AND THINGS OF GOD
One might grant that it is OK to bow before a “live human being”, but what about before inanimate objects? What do the Scriptures say about that?
“Now when Ezra had prayed, and when he had confessed, weeping and **casting himself down before the house of God**, there assembled unto him out of Israel a very great congregation of men and women and children: for the people wept very sore.” (Ezra 10:1)
“And Joshua rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the Ark of the LORD until the eventide, he and the elders of Israel, and put dust upon their heads.” (Joshua 7:6)
The Scriptures did command the Israelites to bow before the Ark, which had two prominent images of cherubim on it. In Psalms 99:5, it commands: “bow before the footstool of His feet….” We should note first of all that the word for “bow” here, is the same word used in Exodus 20:5, when we are told to not bow to idols. And what is the “footstool of His feet”? In 1st Chronicles 28:2, David uses this phrase in reference to the Ark of the Covenant. In Psalm 99 [98 in the Septuagint], it begins by speaking of the Lord who “dwells between the Cherubim” (99:1), and it ends with a call to “bow to His holy hill” which makes it even clearer that in context, this is speaking of the Ark of the Covenant. This phrase occurs again in Psalm 132:7, where it is preceded by the statement “We will go into His tabernacles…” and is followed by the statement “Arise, O Lord, into Thy rest; Thou and the Ark of Thy strength.” This phrase is applied to the Cross in the services of the Church where as Orthodox Christians we will bow before the Cross, and the connection is not accidental, because on the Ark, between the Cherubim was the Mercy Seat, upon which the sacrificial blood was sprinkled for the sins of the people (Exodus 25:22, Leviticus 16:15).
Other Biblical references to bowing, images, and worship are found in many places.
1 Kgs 8:54 and 2 Chr. 6:13b, Solomon kneels in prayer in the temple, which as we noted was full of images of bulls, cherubim, things on earth and heaven. Ezekiel 43:3b-4 depicts the prophet�s prostrating himself in a temple that chapters 40-41 have described as being carved from floor to ceiling with images of cherubim. Other Biblical instances of people genuflecting in presumably image-laden houses of worship include 1 Chr. 29:20, in which the people bow before God and the king ! 2 Chr. 20:18, in which Jehoshaphat and all of Judah and Jerusalem fall on their faces in worship; 2 Chr. 29:28-30, in which the king and the assembly prostrate themselves thrice before the altar (Orthodox priests also bow thrice before the altar at one point during the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom); 2 Chr 32:12, in which Hezekiah instructs the populace of Judah and Jerusalem to prostrate itself before one altar only; and Ezra 10:1, in which Ezra is prostrate in front of the temple in tearful prayer.
In 1 Sm 5:3-4 God causes a statue of the Philistine god Dagon to fall on its face before the Ark of the Covenant, which was covered with carvings of Cherubim. This is an instance of a false image bowing to a true one.
So we see that Scripture teaches clearly that the Orthodox practices toward icons is NOT idolatry, anathema or heresy. Bowing and kissing are firmly Biblical, rooted in Jewish piety and continued within the piety of the Church from the beginning. It is a modern innovation that these practices have been dropped from the life of the Christian. It would do us well to recover the spiritual practices of the Prophets, Apostles and Christ Himself.
The Scriptures tell us that images, in and of themselves, are not idols.
The Scriptures tell us that bowing down and kissing things are not worship in an of itself.
The Scriptures tell us that God became flesh, circumscribed Himself with material form and thus depicted Himself in created matter to us.
Only by following the Scriptures can we not fall prey to two heresies: either worshipping that which is created and not God alone, OR rejecting the proper respect and veneration for things which God has told us is a right and good and properly expressed in relationship to HIM who is to be worshipped only.
DO I HAVE TO KISS ICONS TO BE ORTHODOX?
It is not so much that you HAVE to kiss an icon to be Orthodox as if it is a “law”. You DO have to understand that they are not idols and that bowing and kissing them is not idolatry, worship, vain traditions of men, or satanic. But once you have studied the scriptures on the practices of kissing and bowing as veneration of God’s holy things, there really isn’t much to keep you from kissing an icon except your personal uncomfortableness, fear of looking stupid, doing it wrong and/or feeling strange or goofy. And like your first kiss with someone the only way to get over the fear is to just do it.