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, and this is because his divinity is shrouded. Whether intentionally or not I cannot say for sure. Either it is shrouded because God mercifully protects us from being harmed by it, or because the sight of man has fallen into the blindness of sin and cannot see it. At any rate, 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, what we see with our eyes is specifically His humanity, not His divinity (which is unseen and has limitless incorporeality).

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.

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, are you not venerating them, giving them the honor you think they deserve? 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. This reality should be fairly obvious when reading passages like:

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, but in reality he did no such thing. 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].

 

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