Feast Day: December 4th| Father and Doctor of the Church | Patron of Theology Students, Icon Writers, Hymnographers, Poets, and Pharmacists.
“Iconoclasm.” Not a word we throw around every day, nor even consider all that often. It was a movement in the 700s and 800s, primarily in the Eastern Roman Empire (thus, often referred to as “Byzantine Iconoclasm”), that questioned the place of icons, really any religious imagery, in Christian worship and devotion. If God commands the Israelites to “make no graven image”, why do Christians dare to do so? Shouldn’t the great culture, and great emperor, of Byzantium have better subjects than the poor, unthinking Christians, bowing and venerating images? Does Islam, quickly becoming a real threat on the eastern border of the empire, and which decried the use of images and icons as idolatry, have a point? Have the Christians grown attached to their devotions and fallen from true worship, (and perhaps are afflicted because of it)? As the emperors began to exert their authority to destroy icons and “purify” the worship in churches under their dominion, many Christians were horrified to see the images of the saints, of the Mother of God [theotokus], and of Christ emptied from their churches and burned, but did the emperor perhaps have a point (and all the power)? Into this crisis stepped one of the final Fathers of the Church, and one of its first Doctors, St. John Damascene (of Damascus). He wrote three letters to the emperor, the first of which I offer an excerpt to us today:
This is the word the Lord hath commanded, saying: Set aside with you first fruits to the Lord; let every one that is willing and hath a ready heart, offer them to the Lord: gold, and silver, and brass, violet and purple, and scarlet twice dyed, and fine linen, goat’s hair, and ram’s skins dyed red, and violet, and coloured skins, selimwood, and oil to maintain lights, and to make ointment, and most sweet incense, onyx stones and precious stones for the adorning of the ephod and the rational: Whosoever of you is wise let him come and make that which the Lord hath commanded: to wit, the tabernacle,’ etc.
Behold, then, matter is honoured, and you dishonour it. What is more insignificant than goat’s hair, or colours, and are not violet and purple and scarlet colours? And the likeness of the cherubim are the work of man’s hand, and the tabernacle itself from first to last was an image. ‘Look,’ said God to Moses, ‘and make it according to the pattern that was shown thee in the Mount,’ and it was adored by the people of Israel in a circle. And, as to the cherubim, were they not in sight of the people? And did not the people look at the ark, and the lamps, and the table, the golden urn and the staff, and adore? It is not matter which I adore; it is the Lord of matter, becoming matter for my sake, taking up His abode in matter and working out my salvation through matter. For the Word was made Flesh, and dwelt amongst us. It is evident to all that flesh is matter, and that it is created. I reverence and honour matter, and worship that which has brought about my salvation. I honour it, not as God, but as a channel of divine strength and grace. Was not the thrice blessed wood of the Cross matter? and the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary? Was not the holy sepulchre matter, the life-giving stone the source of our resurrection? Was not the book of the Gospels matter, and the holy table which gives us the bread of life? Are not gold and silver matter, of which crosses, and holy pictures, and chalices are made? And above all, is not the Lord’s Body and Blood composed of matter?
Either reject the honour and worship of all these things, or conform to ecclesiastical tradition, sanctifying the worship of images in the name of God and of God’s friends, and so obeying the grace of the Divine Spirit. If you give up images on account of the law, you should also keep the Sabbath and be circumcised, for these are severely inculcated by it. You should observe all the law, and not celebrate the Lord’s Passover out of Jerusalem. But you must know that if you observe the law, Christ will profit you nothing. You are ordered to marry your brother’s wife, and so carry on his name, and not to sing the song of the Lord in a strange land. Enough of this! Those who have been justified by the law have fallen from grace.
Let us set forth Christ, our King and Lord, not depriving Him of His army. The saints are His army. Let the earthly king strip himself of his army, and then of his own dignity. Let him put off the purple and the diadem before he take honour away from his most valiant men who have conquered their passions. For if the friends of Christ are heirs of God and co-heirs of Christ, and are to be partakers of the divine glory and kingdom, is not even earthly glory due to them? I call you not servants, our Lord says; you are my friends. Shall we, then, withhold from them the honour which the Church gives them? You are a bold and venturesome man to fight against God and His ordinances. [St John Damascene, “On Holy Images”, Part I.]
– Fr. Dominic Rankin has to ask himself two questions this week: In what ways have I also forgotten God, who reveals Himself in matter? Have I also lost my sacramental view of the world, that takes Christmas seriously, and believes that God makes Himself evident to my eyes, darkly now, but will in heaven, truly and fully?! And, digging deeper, would I rather listen to the voice of the world, that says “This is all there is.”, or our days’ emperors “Forget your medieval devotions. Fill your eyes with media, with what it popular, with what is easy.”, or the Evil One, “God isn’t real. You can’t really hear His voice. Why bother? Why struggle? Why try again?” Christian obedience is not just listening to God. It is also not-listening, not obeying, the lies that attack our faith, our Church, and Our Lord.