04 March 2012
Amongst the Byzantine and Slavonic Orthodox churches, the First Sunday in Lent is known as the "Orthodoxy Sunday" or "Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy." That day commemorates both those who suffered or were martyred for defending icons, and the victory of Orthodoxy over iconoclasm. Above all else, this Sunday reiterates the confession that in Christ God assumed created matter, and so is able to be depicted. Hence, the prohibitions in the Old Testament do not apply to Christ Jesus or His saints (in whom He lives), or any likeness (e.g., dove or cloud) in which the Divine reveals Himself. (As an aside, while the West did not suffer iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries, they consistently agreed with the doctrine and confession of the Eastern churches.)
Icons are not only the chief expression of this doctrine; they are a particular visible form of confession amongst the Orthodox generally and the Byzantine and Slavonic churches specifically. Hence, icons are consistently venerated, particularly by being kissed. (Notice: there is a clear distinction linguistically and theologically between "veneration" and "worship.") These icons are made of various media; most commonly painted wood, mosaics, or enameled or painted or engraved metal.
Because of our practice of venerating icons, Orthodox Christians are often accused of greater or lesser degrees of idolatry. The most virulent will recite the words, "Thou shalt not make any graven image/icon" while others will confuse the veneration of the icons with the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. In the case of the former, the particular doctrine described above is not understood; in the case of the latter, the distinction between sacrament and sacramental is lost.
The irony of this criticism is clearly shown when one remembers the ceremony that took place a few weeks ago at the end of the Super Bowl. One by one, players and coaches from the victorious New York Giants football team lined up to kiss the Lombardi trophy. No one took that ceremony as strange. No one accused these men who were kissing engraved metal of idolatry. In fact, most everyone understood what they were doing - giving true lip-service to their joy at having reached their season-long goal.
If football players are permitted to kiss their metallic symbol, then why should anyone look askance when Orthodox Christians affectionately kiss their symbols of faith? If athletes can venerate their signs of victory, then why is it hard to understand Orthodox Christians who venerate the signs of their Victor and victors? If it is accepted when others hug tightly those things which depict such mundane and fading accomplishments, then surely there should be no qualms with Orthodox Christians embracing sacramentals which which depict their God and Lord, and His glory in His saints.
Of course, there are qualms; the veneration is not understood; and the kisses are denounced. And I suggest that this occurs because those who reject such Christian piety understand precisely what the Orthodox Christian is doing; he is confessing that Him whom the world cannot contain was conceived in the flesh of the Virgin; and that this same Virgin together with all the saints pinned their hopes to their undying victory in this God-Man.
HT: Fr William Bartz, Chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Detroit and homilist at the COCC (Metro Detroit) Inter-Orthodox Lenten Vespers at St Mary's Basilica.