The Orthodox Pages
DISCOVERING THE ICON
OLD AND NEW LAWS
An Icon is a painted image of Christ, the Mother of God, or of one of the saints. We also have Icons depicting events, parables and other stories related to us in the Holy Gospels and other Holy Scripture, as well as miracles and events that have taken place since the birth of Christ until now. There are many good reasons why the Orthodox Church has Icons: let us first see why the Church accepted Icons and their veneration.
THE OLD LAW ON IMAGES
In the Old Testament, we read that God gave to Moses and the children of Israel the Ten Commandments. With the second commandment, the Lord said, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God” [Exodus 20: 4-5]. This law was given because God is uncreated and invisible and therefore indescribable. To show Him in any form whatsoever would have been a false image, because the invisible and Absolute Being of God, cannot be described by created matter. This law was also to protect the people of Israel from idolatry [the worship of false gods]. God foresaw that without the law to guide His chosen people, the weak in faith would be more vulnerable to the devil’s temptations to abandon the worship of the One Invisible God and worship gods made by men’s hands. This is shown very clearly in the story of the Israelites in the wilderness. God performed many miracles and delivered Israel from the hardship and evils of Egypt. But having eaten all their food supplies in the wilderness, the people suffered from hunger, so they complained to Moses that it would have been better for them to have stayed in Egypt, in spite of all their sufferings, than to die of hunger in the wilderness. From here, it is already clear that as soon as there was any affliction, they began to lose faith in God and did not put their trust in Him to help them. Even so, God made food fall from heaven in the form of quail and manna. Then they suffered from thirst and again complained, so God gave them water from a rock. Then when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the law, he delayed many days, and the people, losing faith in God and presuming that Moses had deserted them, melted their gold jewellery and vessels and made a false god in the form of a calf.
This story shows us that if we fail to put our complete trust in God, it is all too easy to fall into the same trap of worshipping other things. Many of us do so in our normal daily lives without even realizing, because it takes on another form such as money, a prized possession we cannot bear to part with, a pop idol, a favourite television programme, etc. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans took worshipping false gods to great extremes. They worshipped the sun, moon, stars, mountains, sea, birds, animals and even men who where strong and successful were worshipped as gods or sons of gods. It is a great wonder that with the coming of Christ it was their descendants who smashed and put aside these false gods and accepted and embraced the Holy Trinity as their only God.
The old law did not in fact prohibit every representation of created matter. In exodus 25: 18, we read that God said to Moses, “Thou shalt make two cherubim of gold; of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat”. The mercy seat was to be placed on top of the Ark of the Covenant. Solomon used this same ordinance when building the temple: “and within the oracle he made two cherubim of olive tree each ten cubits high” [1 Kings 6: 23]. Again, in Numbers 21: 8, the Lord said unto Moses, “Make thee a fiery serpent and set it upon a pole”. From these exceptions found in the Old Testament, we arrive at another theological meaning to the old law. Man was created in the image and likeness of God, but when he sinned and fell from the grace of God, this image was distorted. With man’s fall, all visible creation fell with him and so all creation was separated from God. This separation or broken relationship with God, where the image is distorted, expresses a false reality and in a certain sense becomes an idol. On the other hand, the cherubim were not affected by this separation: they had not fallen into sin, but remained faithful spirits to God. They were thus capable of being represented as protectors on top of the Ark of the Covenant.
Let us return to the question of why in the old law, God could not be represented in any form. God was not only invisible and indescribable; He was also uncircumscribable. This means that He was everywhere, in everyplace and without being confined to any boundaries in any given time. Let us imagine that an image of God was made; we would then be able to draw a circle around this image, thus making it possible to say that God is within that circle. This circle would form a boundary and would limit God to that space alone. God cannot be confined to any boundary, He reaches beyond all creation and beyond our understanding.
A NEW LAW IN CHRIST
God is Trinitarian, that is to say, Three Persons, in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. These Three Persons of the Holy Trinity each have their own individual characters, but all three have the same essence [nature], which makes them one. The three Persons possess the same attributes and all the inexhaustible riches and treasures of the Divinity. But again each Person has his very own particular and distinguishing mark, his own hypostatic attribute or idioma: that is to say, the Father is unbeggoten, He is the “cause” or “source” of the Godhead, born of none and proceeding from none. He is the principle of unity among the three. The Son is begotten, that is, He was born of the Father from all eternity [before all ages]. This means that the Father begets the Son from His own essence eternally, timelessly and unexplainably. The Holy Spirit proceeds, that is, He proceeds from the Father from all eternity and is sent into the world through the Son. All of God’s works, the works of creation, recreation and the salvation of man are brought about by all three Persons of the Godhead for the Father does all things through the Son and in the Holy Spirit.
The concept of One God in Three Persons has always been the most difficult to understand because man can only explain what he hears, sees and understands by other things in his life. What man knows about God is only what God Himself has revealed to him. The Church Fathers have tried to explain this concept by using things we can see e.g. the river and the sun.
The source of the river is the Father from whom proceeds the Holy Spirit. The river is the Son, who sends the Holy Spirit after His voluntary sacrifice on the cross and His glorious Resurrection. The water of the river that we drink is the Holy Spirit who distributes grace and gifts. Therefore, the three Persons of the Holy Trinity are indivisible as this comparison shows: the source, the river, the water; all three are of the same essence, like the river’s water.
The sun is a great fiery star in the galaxy, and although scientist have a fairly good idea of what it is made of, no man can ever reach the surface of dig into its surface to discover its substance. Here on earth we see the sun as a round body in the sky, but more that just this, it gives out rays of light and heat. Here therefore we have three characters and at the same time one sun. We do not say we have three suns: we have only one sun of which its substance [essence] is beyond our reach. This same rule applies to God. We do not have three gods: we have only one God because the three Persons of God, while still keeping their individual characters, are consubstantial [identical or of one substance] in that they are united in the one nature [essence], which again is inaccessible to all creation.
FOR THERE ARE THREE THAT BEAR RECORD IN HEAVEN,
THE FATHER, THE WORD, AND THE HOLY GHOST:
AND THESE THREE ARE ONE. [1 John 5: 7]
The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, whom we call the Son of God, became a human being by taking flesh from the Virgin Mary and received as a man the name Jesus Christ. Before the Son of God became a man, He had only one nature: the divine nature common to the Holy Trinity. Now in the flesh, He is still the same person, but with another nature: the nature common to man. He does not lose by becoming a man His first nature, but remains what He was and becomes what He was not. Therefore, He is both God and man: two natures but one person [hypostasis], Jesus Christ, the Son of God. For this reason the old law on images had to change, for whereas before God was uncreated, invisible and indescribable, He has now become as one of His creatures: a man visible and describable, and whereas before God was uncircumscribable, now He has made Himself circumscribable.