Category: Orthodoxy

Iconographic Depictions of the Father?

Iconographic Depictions of the Father?

No matter what I read in defense of visual depictions of the Father as a man, the conversation always goes back to a conversation about the Ancient of Days. St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite (1749-1809), in his prolegomena to the Seventh Ecumenical Council wrote specifically about depicting the Father as the Ancient of Days, but he was a product of his time. To be fair, I will also not use the Moscow synod of 1666 which condemned depictions of the Father. This particular time period is said to be an incredibly murky 200 years of Western influence (17th-19th century), so I will not use it for the sake of taking a different argumentative route. The Old Testament passage is as follows:

I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.1Daniel 7:9

Even though many of the Church Fathers make exegetical illustration to Christ and His victory, this is not a literal description of what Daniel saw, nor was it what the text originally meant. Such an interpretation is more in the realm of creative theological liberties rather than exegetical accuracy. There is one interpretation by St Ambrose that is more accurate, especially in a visual sense:

He who sees Jesus, to him are the heavens opened as they were opened to Stephen, when he said: “Behold I see the heavens opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”  Jesus was standing as his advocate, He was standing as though anxious, that He might help His athlete Stephen in his conflict, He was standing as though ready to crown His martyr. Let Him then be standing for you, that you may not be afraid of Him sitting; for when sitting He judges, as Daniel says: “The thrones were placed, and the books were opened, and the Ancient of Days did sit.2Ambrose of Milan, Letter 63.

The liturgical services also testify to Christ as the Ancient of Days when it says:

He who is ancient of days and young in the flesh is being brought into the Temple by his virgin Mother.3Feast of the Meeting of the Lord

The ancient of days in a visual sense, is Christ, who is the image of the Father. “No man hath seen God,” which would include Daniel.4John 1:18, 4:12 Christ is even expressed with near identical imagery with the Ancient of Days in Revelation, which says,

His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire.5Rev 1:14.

This brings Daniel’s vision to its New Testament reality, because Revelation is essentially a continuation of Daniel’s vision. What was once called “Ancient of Days” in the Old Testament is now transfigured into the New Testament phrase “Alpha and Omega.”6Rev 1:8 One must always interpret the Old Testament obscurities in light of the New Testament revelation. The Old Testament always prefigures the coming Christ, for Christ’s said:

Search the scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life, and they are they which testify of me.7Jhn 5:39.

It is at least possible that one reason many church fathers missed some of the nuances of Daniel 7 simply because many of them did not have Revelation in their collection of scriptures. This would make sense as to why St Ambrose, a Western saint, had such an interpretation.8Revelation never fell out of favor with the West like it did with the East.

However, in spite of this, Daniel’s vision is already explicitly interpreted within the text itself.9Dan 7:18, 27 People seem to stop reading before they get to the part where scripture says the “one like the son of man” are the saints of God merely being represented by a single person. We know retrospectively, in light of Christ, that the saints of God are able to achieve this precisely because Christ is the firstfruits of mankind,101 Cor 15:23 but it does not follow that an anthropomorphic vision is a prooftext for iconographic depictions of the Father as a man.

Despite the fact that the “son of man” can be exegetically spoken of in light of Christ (the representative of mankind and the last Adam), it becomes theologically problematic to then visually depict the Father as a man in icons. Daniel used anthropomorphism to describe aspects of his vision and experience of God: garment like snow, hair like wool, throne like flame, etc. These are details that mean something specific about the character of God through Daniel’s personal and unspeakable experience of the Divine. Such a vision is not meant to be taken literally, because Daniel did not literally see such details with his eyes.

When the Father is depicted as a man in icons, it seems to inevitably undermine St. John of Damascus and the incarnation altogether. Jesus said you see the Father through Him.11Jhn 14:9 Therefore, scripture testifies that Jesus is the icon of the invisible God.12Col 1:15. In other words, when you look at Jesus, you see the Father as well. When there is an icon that simultaneously shows both Jesus and a human depiction of the Father, it is a blatant departure from the Gospel narrative, and the average person is not going to discern the difference between Christ (who is literally a man and not anthropomorphized) and the Father (who is anthropomorphized and not literally a man), because both are simply shown to be men. If one were to ask, “Show me an icon of the Ancient of Days,” the answer will always be the same: “If you’ve seen Christ, you’ve seen the Ancient of Days.” Therefore, to depict the Ancient of Days in Daniel, one need only depict Christ as the Ancient of Days, because the name applies not to a particular person of the eternal Trinity, but to all three persons. Because this is the case, it follows that it should be the person of Christ who is depicted, because He is the Word of God, the One through whom the Father is seen by men.

This emphasis on the importance of the incarnation is the entire foundation to St John of Damascus’ defense of depicting Christ as a man in icons:

Human nature was not lost in the Godhead, but just as the Word made flesh remained the Word, so flesh became the Word remaining flesh, becoming, rather, one with the Word through union. Therefore I venture to draw an image of the invisible God, not as invisible, but as having become visible for our sake through flesh and blood. I do not draw an image of the immortal Godhead. I paint the visible flesh of God, for it is impossible to represent a spirit, how much more God who gives breath to the spirit.13John of Damascus, On Holy Images

An essential part of St John’s argument is that depicting Christ as a man in iconography is validated precisely because the invisible God became visible through the Son’s incarnation. It is also worthy to note that St John of Damascus did not simply throw his arms back, kick his feet up and say, “Daniel 7” to justify iconographic depictions of God. He used the incarnation as justification for depictions of the second person of the Trinity (because the Son, who was once invisible, assumed visible human nature). Orthodox theology specifically says we see the Father only through the Son. Since iconography is inherently ocular, it will inevitably make a statement about what can literally be seen with the eyes. If there is an image of two men, and both are called God, the viewer is not seeing one through the other, he is simply seeing both. This is not accurate, and it should be reconsidered.

Therefore, it could be argued that visually depicting the Father as a man is theologically inconsistent with what Orthodoxy teaches, or at the very least, inevitably misleading the viewer into confusion. I believe it is essential that Daniel’s Old Testament vision is read through a New Testament lens: specifically (1) the gospel proclamation that the Father is seen through Christ, (2) that Jesus is the icon of the invisible God, (3) the Old Testament is about Christ, and (4) Christ is the Alpha and Omega. I think to use any other method to interpret the text is simply not as accurate. I do not expect this blog post to end the discussion by any means, I simply desire to bring the discussion further along in the hopes of one day arriving at a consensus.

The Shortcomings of Contemporary Orthodox Apologetics

The Shortcomings of Contemporary Orthodox Apologetics

I would say I am someone who is rather engaged in the online world of Orthodox conversation, so for someone like me, it does not take very long to notice particular patterns with Orthodox conversation (if one could call what I often see, “conversation”) in the realm of contemporary Orthodox apologetics with the non-Orthodox. Even though I am Orthodox, I think it is necessary to be honest about what we need to work on. So, here are some of the things I’ve observed:

“The East doesn’t define things, that’s a Western thing.”

This is one line that is frequently stated to contrast the Orthodox approach to the Roman Catholic approach. However, such a statement is extremely misleading. Yes, it is true that the East has not “defined things” the way the West has, however, it isn’t because the East has some explicit tradition stating “thou shalt not define things.” There are some underlying general differences in how the medieval West developed through Latin scholasticism, but in my opinion, much of this thinking is honestly unfair to Roman Catholics, because “defining things” was largely a direct result of Protestant pressure. Had the East been the ones with the Protestants (instead of being somewhat suppressed by the Ottomans), there would most certainly have been similar developments among the Orthodox. Mentioning that the Orthodox Church avoided such a theological crucible is not a good selling point, as it could be interpreted that Orthodoxy is simply not as developed as Catholicism, and is thus not relevant with regards to the questions of modern society. Just about every Eastern theologian was in the business of defining to some extent (especially Origen), so establishing theological clarity through the refining of definitions is not automatically a bad thing. That is literally why we use the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed instead of the original Nicene Creed.

This “Anti-West” mentality seems so pervasive in contemporary Orthodox apologetics (or to be more accurate, “polemics”), and it seems that it is largely built upon the Russian foundations of Aleksei Khomaikov and his critiques of the West. However, I think it is not in the spirit of Orthodoxy to demonize the entirety of Western civilization just because it developed differently. If one approaches apologetics by already thinking the West has it all wrong, such apologetics will necessarily devolve into unhelpful and misleading polemics.

“The Orthodox Church continued unchanged for two thousand years.”

This is a very common statement, but it is so dishonest. Of course there are going to be changes. The first century Church was not citing the Nicene Creed. St John Chrysostom was not singing hymns written by St John of Damascus. There were many years when the majority of the Church was Arian. There was a time when only married men could become bishops, and now it is the complete opposite. These things cannot be adequately addressed if we continue to say simplistic things like “the Church has never changed.” Fearing the word “change” is not reason to perpetuate such poor apologetics.

It is my belief that all apologetics must adapt to the response. I have seen the way people respond to statements like these, and it either leads to converts feeling misled or misinformed, or it leads to Protestants thinking Orthodox people are willfully ignorant. Therefore, popular apologetics must evolve and take on a form that actually answers the questions people encounter, rather than remain in a conversational form that is essentially the equivalent of walking away mid-sentence and taking a nap.

When there is confusion among the people about what something means, the proper response was never to ignore it, go to bed, and pretend ignorance is a virtue. It is precisely in those moments when the Holy Spirit within the Church raises up theologians ready and willing to bring clarity to the body of Christ.

 

On Icons and their Veneration

On Icons and their Veneration

Images of God

What are we to do with this notion that depictions of Christ are inherently wrong? I have encountered a few Christians who reject iconography specifically on the basis of the second commandment in the Old Testament. I found this peculiar, because they did not believe that God was inherently against particular forms of artwork (sculpting, painting, etc.). They also did not seem to have an issue with images of Christ, so long as He was represented in film or children’s books. I always ask if the person also boycotts these things (in order to be logically consistent with the argument), and this question usually proves my point. Nobody is raiding art museums because they contain ‘graven images’ generally. Nobody is surrounding Jim Caviezel’s house with pitchforks because he agreed to present himself as Mel Gibson’s graven image. Nobody is burning Evangelical children’s books simply because they depict Jesus. Nobody is filled with iconoclastic outrage after seeing a nativity scene on the front lawn of a Methodist church. Nobody is ripping pages out of their Old Testament because it talks about the Ark of the Covenant being adorned with the images of angels (Ex 25:22), or because God tells people to utilize the material world for the worship of His name (Ex 31:1-5).

To prove this point further, the commandment against graven images was to prevent the Hebrews from worshiping a false god, since we are dealing with people who had issues with literally worshiping cows.

The divine nature is beyond comprehension. It is too infinite and abstract to possibly imagine, let alone carve in a piece of wood. Any attempt to do so would inevitably end up being something that is not God. We can only depict that which is experienced through bodily senses, so God, who is spirit (Jhn 4:24), would need to take on physical matter for the possibility of an objective (rather than anthropomorphic) depiction. Lo and behold, the Son of God assumed human flesh. For the first time ever, mankind was able to see God for who He is, through the medium of human nature. This is why images of Christ are not only possible, but they celebrate the reality of His incarnation.

One might say, “But you depict God when you depict Christ!” In one sense, yes. In the sense of this objection, no. When Christ is depicted, only the human nature is shown. Yes, we know Christ is God, but Christ as God is not something we can observe with our eyes, it is something we know only in our hearts. The divine nature is invisible to human observation. We know it is there, but we cannot see it. When we look to God, what we see is a man, and that man is Christ. If we could see Christ’s divine nature by looking at His physical appearance, He surely would not have said, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah: for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father which is in heaven” (Mat 16:17). Therefore, when we see an image of Christ, we behold specifically His humanity, not His divinity (which is unseen).

However, this reveals that the issue people have with iconography is not that they depict Christ, but rather because veneration has the ‘outward appearance’ of worship.

Veneration

This is the real heart of the issue. If someone is seen kissing a religious image, it is automatically interpreted by fundamentalists to be ‘worshiping graven images’ (icons are usually painted or printed images, not graven, but I digress).

This leads to the question, “Does kissing an image automatically mean you worship that which is depicted?” How could anyone make such a claim? For even Judas gave Christ a kiss, and it was for the sake of betrayal, not worship (Mat 26:47-50). This is proof in of itself that merely kissing the “icon of the invisible God” (Col 1:15) should not be assumed to be worship.

What of a mother who has a son away at war, having nothing but his picture in her purse? Is she guilty of worship for kissing the image of her son? Everyone immediately knows that the mother kisses the image out of affection for the person depicted, not the glossy paper on which it is printed. And she is only kissing the image because the son is not physically present with her, so obviously kissing an image of a person represents a physical placeholder until the person returns. In the same way, when Christians kiss an image of Christ, it is to show affection for Christ in the material world until His return.

One may then say, “Alright, but it is still wrong to kiss an object in worship of God.” However, I find it unlikely that such a person would say the same thing to, for instance, persecuted Christians in China who kiss the Bible they finally receive for the first time, out of love and worship for Christ and His provision. The Bible is just as much an icon as anything else, and there is nothing wrong with expressing thanks and affection to God by kissing it.

On what grounds, then, do we show reverence to each other unless because we are made after God’s image? For as Basil, that well-versed expounder of divine things, says, the honor given to the image passes over to the prototype. -St. John of Damascus

This gets to the definition of veneration. Venerating an icon does not mean worshiping wood and paint, it is to exercise affection and honor for the person depicted. When you visit family and greet them with a kiss, you are venerating them. In most cultures, you greet someone by kissing them. It was not until our socially awkward American culture that the handshake became something less ritualistic and more standardized. Evangelicalism is now known for the ‘side-hug,’ and many people do not even come into physical contact with other people– generally settling for a wave or a nod. It is only natural that a culture like this sees a normative mode of kissing as foreign, let alone the kissing of objects. However, you cannot shake an icon’s hand. The practice of veneration was created in a culture that kissed each other, so that is how their descendants continue to greet and show affection to this day.

Scripture says to “judge not according to appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (Jhn 7:24). Just because it has the appearance of worship, does not mean it is. Like I said, Judas appeared to worship Christ right before his betrayal. Therefore, people should be given the benefit of the doubt when something has a peculiar appearance.

 

[For more information on icons and veneration, read St John of Damascus’ On the Orthodox Faith, IV.16].

 

Why Do You Keep Saying “Lord Have Mercy?”

Why Do You Keep Saying “Lord Have Mercy?”

One of the most common questions asked of Orthodox Christians is, “Why the repetition of ‘Lord have mercy?’ Isn’t that vain repetition? Don’t you trust in the mercy of God?” This question comes from a range of people, from the uneducated to even the scholar. I will seek to answer these questions by clarifying what vain repetition means, and then talk about what mercy means.

Vain Repetition

First, to address the question of repetition, one must first understand that Christ takes no issue with repetition generally. The issue is specifically repetition that is vain (Mat 6:7). Vain repetition is simply when the mouth runs ahead of the heart. However, the apparent ‘discovery’ of repetition is vocalized by Christians who are just as guilty of repetition. Any liturgy repeats something on a weekly basis. We repeatedly pray for our loved ones to be healed of their sickness. We repeatedly pray for peace in the world. Yet, for some reason, it is perceived as vain to repeat a prayer multiple times in one service.

We know repetition is not inherently vain for multiple reasons, one of which is the following passage:

“And they came to Jericho: and as he went out of Jericho with his disciples and a great number of people, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the highway side begging. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out, and say, Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me. And many charged him that he should hold his peace: but he cried the more a great deal, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me.” (Mark 10:46-48)

Notice how the blind Bartimaeus repeats his plea for mercy. Does this mean he lacks faith in the mercy of Christ by his repetition? On the contrary, persistent prayer indicates one has a strong working knowledge that God is merciful. The one with strong faith is one who, like the persistent widow, “always prays, and without fainting” (Luke 18:1). It is the absence of prayer that reveals the absence of faith, not the presence of prayer.

Mercy

This leads to the question, “What is mercy?” What exactly do we mean when we ask for mercy? Mercy does not have punitive connotations of God deciding not to throw down some fireballs on people who deserve it. Mercy is not about God relenting, it is about God bringing compassionate aid and comfort to those who are afflicted. We implore God to reveal to the world the compassion we already know He has.

This can take multiple forms. Aside from Bartimaeus invoking the compassion of Christ for healing, mercy is also found in the Our Father. The prayer states:

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

The language here is misleading in light of other places in scripture. For example, Christ was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Mat 4:1), and yet St James says God tempts no man (Jas 1:13). Therefore, the “lead us not into temptation” does not mean that we are praying to avoid temptation. The meaning is clarified by the conjunction “but deliver us from evil.”

When we pray this prayer, we are imploring God to give us the strength to endure the temptation to succumb to evil. As St James says, “Count it all joy when ye fall into diverse temptations,” he is echoing our Lord who said, “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven…” (Mat 5:11-12a). It is as Job declares, “When He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). This is why many martyrs battled their executioners (who persistently tempt them to deny their Lord) by repeating, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Through their calling upon the name of the Lord, they are delivered from evil’s temptation (Joel 2:32, Rom 10:13).

So the next time you hear, “Lord have mercy,” know that it is because we know God is merciful, and we want Him to show the world how awesome He is though His great and rich mercy.

 

On the Catechumenate

On the Catechumenate

Ever since I became a catechumen in the Orthodox Church, I have reflected deeply on the nature of what it truly means to be a catechumen. A catechumen is someone who is being prepared to enter communion with the Church. At the end of this process, they are received and given the Eucharist. But is that really all there is to it?

There is a special part of the Divine Liturgy dedicated to the catechumens, where they all physically gather to be prayed over. During times without catechumens, there are no people in the center of the church during that part of the service, which may tempt us to believe there are no catechumens in the building. However, we deceive ourselves if we believed such a thing. Indeed, it would be a fearful thing if it were true of any parish.

The Lord came to me in my meditations one day. He spoke to my heart, saying:

“Unless you have the heart of a catechumen, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

At first glance one may interpret this to simply mean one must first become a catechumen (as merely a means to then enter the Church) in order to be saved. However, that is not what the Lord was telling me.

The heart of a catechumen is constantly seeking God. It is a heart that wants to learn more and more about Christ and how to worship Him. It is a heart that, like David expressed in Psalm 1, meditates on the law of the Lord day and night. It is a heart that desires to have a closed mouth and open ears, as St. James guides us. It is a heart that knows its place before God and before others. It is soft and easily molded for the glory of God. When one is received into the Church, one must never cease to be a catechumen (within the heart) just because one no longer goes up front for the prayer.

The kingdom of God receives only those who truly remain catechumens even after they begin to receive the Eucharist. May the Lord remember this catechumen in His kingdom.

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mat 18:3)

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