ICONS: The Gates of Heaven

Around the sixth century, a certain great ascetic who was living cloistered on the Mt. of Olives was undergoing fierce carnal warfare. One day, discouraged by the persistence of the enemy, the ascetic said to the demon of fornication, “Once and for all, leave me be! You’ve been warring against me for so many years now;” At that moment, the demon appeared before the ascetic’s eyes and re­sponded, “Swear to me that you will not tell anyone what I’m going to tell you, and I will stop warring against you.” When the Abba swore the oath, the demon went on to say, “Do not worship this icon, and I will no longer war against you.” And the demon pointed to an icon of the Theotokos holding the Divine Infant which was in the ascetic’s cell. “Let me think about it,” the hermit said, and the next day he narrated everything that took place to a certain Elder who was blessed with the gift of spiritual discernment and who was waging the spiritual struggle in the Lavra of Faran. “You were tricked by the demon, Abba,” answered the Elder, “because he got you to swear an oath. But you did well to confess everything. It were better for your soul for you to enter every house of pros­titution in this whole land than ever to give up worshipping our Lord and the Theotokos.” (PG 87, 2900.)

This example of the ascetic yet again brings to mind the wise as­surance that morals have no value if they are not the fruit of the Faith. It was better for Abba to be sinful but faithful, than to be moral but a denier of Christ. Today, there are many moral “Chris­tians” (so-called) against whom the devil does not wage war because they reject the veneration of icons. They go so far as to accuse the Orthodox Christians of worshipping idols, boards of wood, and walls.

We Orthodox Christians are not defensive about our sins. We are aware of our sins, and we beseech God to enlighten us to see even those of which we are unaware. We do defend the Faith, however, because our salvation depends on it, and we reply to the iconoclasts (icon breakers) of today (the Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others) with the same words that the Most Holy Patriarch of Constan­tinople Gennanos II (thirteenth century) directed toward the here­tics of his day: “One of these demon-faced Bogomils (followers of a heresy led by a Bulgarian priest named Bogomil in the tenth century) asked me, ‘why do you worship walls, and boards of wood and plaster and dif­ferent colors?’

By saying this he meant the holy icons. And I said to him, ‘when did you ever see one of those nourished by our Church, traveling on the highways and byways—where there can be found plaster, and ruins, and piles of stones and paint supplies-­worshipping these things and doing homage to them? For if we were paying homage to stones and colors, then we would have to worship them wherever and whenever we saw a stone or a plank. Now this is not the case, and even you who are the enemy of the truth will not dare to say this, for we simply do not render worship to the mate­rials but to the figure depicted on the materials; and, indeed, not to every figure but only to the image of Christ, the Theotokos, and the other holy ones. For the honor rendered to the icon passes on to the person depicted (prototype).” (PG 140,664.)

The wrath of the iconoclasts of olden times and today is not direc­ted against pictorial depictions, however. They, themselves—in their own homes—have pictures of loved ones or of memorable occa­sions, and do not consider them idols. Such was the case with the iconoclasts of the eighth century also. They burned and destroyed the icons of the saints whenever they found them, while as regards depictions “of trees, or birds, or dumb animals—indeed even of fictitious satanic charist races, hunts, theatrical performances and horse races—these they permitted to remain in honored places and to be displayed.” (From the life and martyrdom of St. Stephen the New, PG 100, 1113A.)

Their wrath is against the saints who are depicted on icons and against the grace and power the faithful reap from their worship of the icons. For even as the handkerchiefs and aprons of the Holy Apostles (Acts 19:12) were means of grace and well-springs of miracles; even as the relics of the holy ones “shine forth every day in signs and miracles” (St. Gregory the Dialogos, Evergetinos I, vii, 8); as even the soil on which the martyrs were sacrificed “is an agent of grace” (St. Theodore the Studite, PG 99, 768 D); as when we worship and kiss the cross, we draw there-from abundant blessing” (St. Gregory Palamas, Homily XI, 62), so, too, the icons. Without being deified, they are used by God as a means of adora­tion, for the salvation and sanctification of those who draw near with faith. “For the saints were filled with the Holy Spirit even while they were living, and after their repose the grace of the Holy Spirit continues to dwell in their souls, and in their bodies in the graves, and in their depictions, and in their holy icons, not in essence but by grace and power.” (St. John of Damascus, PG 94, 1249 CD.)

Icons are a piece of our life. In the arches of the churches, the domes and the narthex, the compunctionate souls of the humble iconographers who worked there in prayer and fasting managed to vividly imprint the whole way of life of the people of God. The Saints dwell and move among us. The Church Militant communes even from now with the Church Triumphant.

Here, we behold St. Pachomios receiving the monastic schema from an angel. There, we see the repose of St. Ephraim, and a bit fur­ther on stand the anchorites of the desert. Still further down, Abba Sisoes is bending over the skeletal remains of the once glorious king of the Greeks, Alexander, and we read in the inscrip­tion. “Oh, death; Who can escape thee?” And then there are the lamentations at the Burial of Christ; the resurrection of St. Laza­rus; the holy Prophet Elias and the manna from Heaven; the military saints; the hierarchs; the blessed ascetics; the martyrs; the Theotokos; the Passion of the Lord; and on and on—open books for both the educated and the illiterate.

In essence, we have before us the future blessedness depicted by the perishable hands of our iconographers, who had nothing in common with the secular spirit, who were strangers and aliens to

this world, and who, “being contrite and humble, fasted, wept on account of their sins and ‘all the day long…went with downcast face,’ (PS 37:6) possessing the gladdening power of faith.” (Photios Kontoglou)

Art is assimilated and sanctified by and within the Church. The icon, the hymnography, the wood engravings, the vestments, the chanting, the decoration, the sacred vessels, the whole architec­tural arrangement of the temple, the manuscripts, the collections of lives of the saints, the liturgical texts are all one and the same with our Faith and the holy dogmas. They are the types or figures of Heavenly things. They comprise the spiritual ark wherein our salvation is accomplished. They are a whole daily way of life, “from the morning watch until night”. They are sanctification and living tradition. They are not heady intellectual abstractions and scholastic knowledge, but a tangible salvation and doxology (glorification), of the very materials of this earth, of the very dust of our bodies, which themselves will be either glorified or dammed unto eternity.

Let the lips of those who do not worship the holy icons be ren­dered speechless; оr rather, let the eyes of their souls be opened so that they may behold the wonders which God works by means of the icons and the power which the faithful obtain from them not only by worshipping them, but also by merely gazing upon the faces of the saints and thereby “being filled with all bless­ing by the mere sight of them,” as St. John Chrysostom wrote some 1600 years ago. (PG 50,518.) Then the iconoclasts will see their error in confusing the idol with the icon. Then they will comprehend the true value of the sacrifice of myriads of confes­sors and martyrs for these “pieces of wood.”

Icons are the gates of Heaven. Whoever keeps the gates closed remains in darkness, “for the icon is called a door which opens up the mind fashioned according to God to the inward-dwelling image and likeness of the prototype (i.e.. God).” (PG 100, 1113A.)

May the Lord, the Theotokos, and all the Saints open the gates of the Kingdom of the Heavens unto us who worship the precious icons.

Orthodox Presence

St. Mark of Ephesus Church

Roslindale, Mass