The Orthodox Pages

email: pater@christopherklitou.com 

TALK ON WHETHER BOWING TO

AND KISSING ICONS
IS A FORM OF IDOLATRY
 

4th OCTOBER 2012

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I like to welcome you all to our first weekly talk of the New Season. With Summer now over and the kids well and truly back to school, its also time for us grown ups to return to our desks as it were and refresh our spiritual batteries.
Over the years, as a priest, I have baptized many grown ups from various nationalities. I have tried to teach them what the Orthodox Church believes, but I've noticed in some that even after many years of being Orthodox, they still have a reluctance to venerate Icons.
Understandably those who converted from western churches like Roman Catholicism, Church of England, and other Protestant denominations, were brought up to believe that venerating Icons is a form of idolatry and even though they understand that kissing icons is the Orthodox way, somewhere in the back of their minds the teaching they received when they belonged to another church is still there forbidding them to touch the Icons with their lips, lest they fall into the sin of worshipping inanimate objects. But also many cradle born Orthodox brought up in the west and having been influenced by Protestant beliefs have a problem with Icons. Often they are caught up in conversation with people of other denominations who claim that Icons are a form of idolatry and don't know how to defend the use of Icons by the Orthodox Church.
Thus for our first talk of the season I like to speak to you on why we Orthodox venerate Icons. It is a subject we covered in October of last year in the talks on the Ecumenical Councils, but possibly some of you were not present or didn't understand fully what the Icon represents for the Orthodox Church. With today's talk I don't want to make a repeat of last year's talk which concentrated on the history of the Iconoclast wars, which lasted for more than a hundred years, from the 8th through to the 9th century. Then we saw the reasons that led to the Iconoclast movement and how the Orthodox eventually won the battle and proved with theological reasoning that venerating Icons was a legitimate and rightful practice.
Alternatively today, I want to concentrate on whether the act of bowing to and kissing inanimate objects like Icons can be considered as an act other than worship. For most Protestants and some Roman Catholics, this is probably the most difficult thing to grasp when considering Orthodoxy. Their immediate reaction is that it is worship, or at least borders on worship rather than simply an act of respect and honour to the saint depicted.
It is not the Icon itself that is the cause of offence because an Icon is similar to a photo and everyone, even Protestants, have photos reminding them of people. Granted they do not bow to them, but many people kiss photos of their loved ones especially when they are distant from them for long periods and are dearly missed.
It is the bowing to and kissing of Icons that seems to cause the most problems. Protestants see in these actions a "worship" of the item. But where does this view stem from: for example is it Biblical? In the Old Testament the verb "to bow" is very context sensitive; in other words, according to where and how it is used it can mean worship, a sign of honour and respect or simple a sign of friendly affection as when David bowed before his close friend Jonathan. In general, bowing was a sign of submission to another person and a sign of showing honour. It suggests a respect or recognition of another person's authority and was frequently done in greeting another person. A good example still practiced today is the bowing or curtsy done before the Queen of England or another member of the royal family. It is a sign of honour and by no way indicates that the person bowing is worshipping the Queen. Bowing only becomes an act of worship when the action is applied to a god. But in the Old Testament, whenever bowing to God or an idol is mentioned, the context of serving that god is usually included, the implication being that it is to the exclusion of other gods. It is the person's heart which is significant; who is he serving? It is not just the outward bowing, but also the attitude of the heart to serve that God or idol. The second of the Ten Commandments, which is often used by those who claim that God forbids Icons, is clear that bowing is totally context sensitive and only means worship when it is linked to serving: "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: 4-6)
Bowing by itself does not indicate worship, but only when linked to the heart that serves God or the idol.
Another example from the Old Testament is the story of Naaman the Syrian who was cured of leprosy by the prophet Elisaeus (Elisha). After being healed Naaman proclaimed that the God of Israel was the one true God, and announced that he would no longer offer sacrifices to any other god. Yet he was troubled because when he would return to his master's house, his master would require of him to bow before the god of his house. He therefore asked the prophet to pardon him for this act because even though his outward action would indicate that he was subjecting himself to this idol god, in reality his heart would be subjected to the One True God of Israel. The prophet therefore pardoned him and told him to go in peace. (2 Kings 5: 17-19)
Naaman's case shows that even though, through obedience to his master, he would bow before an idol, it was not proper worship because his action of bowing his body was not accompanied with the relevant bowing of his heart. Thus, worship can be expressed by our bodily actions, but it is not defined by them because worship is always done, as Christ has told us, in spirit and truth.
Just bowing as an action cannot be considered worship if the heart is not also bowing in servitude. The worship of the Hebrews was full of bowing which was linked to serving the One True God, but they also bowed in greeting, in honouring, in showing respect, and in acknowledging authority. The Bible is full of examples where bowing and even prostrating down to the ground was a usual custom especially when it involved showing respect to authority.
Let's look at another two examples from the Bible, the one bowing in greeting and the other bowing in respect to authority. The first is from the story of Jacob and Esau. After deceitfully taking the birthright from Esau and tricking his father Isaac to give him the blessing, due to the firstborn, Jacob left the family home and journeyed to his mother's native land and made his new home with his mother's brother. There he worked for his uncle seven years to marry his cousin Rachel, but he was tricked into marrying Leah so he worked another seven years to finally marry Rachel. After spawning many children and becoming wealthy he decided it was time to return with his family to his own country. Esau heard of his return and went out to meet him. Now because Jacob had deceitfully taken Esau's blessing from their father he wasn't sure how he would be received by his brother. As he approached closer and closer to Esau he bowed himself to the ground seven times. And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept. Jacob then introduced his family to Esau, first the handmaidens and their children and they bowed themselves: then Leah also with her children and they bowed themselves: then Rachel and Joseph and they bowed themselves. (Genesis 33: 2-7) They bowed not because they worshipped Esau, but simply as a greeting and as a sign of respect that Esau was Jacob's brother.
The other example I want to use is the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph was sold into Egypt by his brothers and after many years through the workings of God, he earned the position of being, after Pharaoh, the most important person in Egypt. During the long famine his brothers came to buy provisions from Egypt and unknowingly they were led to Joseph's home where they bowed themselves to him to the earth. Joseph asked them about their father and they answered: Thy servant our father is in good health, he is yet alive. And they bowed down their heads, and made obeisance. (Genesis 43: 26-28)
They didn't know that they were prostrating themselves before their brother whom they sold for twenty pieces of silver: they prostrated before him because he had authority and had the power to grant them the provisions needed to feed their families or to send them away empty.
Bowing and prostrating are totally context sensitive both in the Old and New Testaments. It basically conveys a respect and submission to another person, but when done to God, it becomes an act of worship, because our hearts are devoted to serve Him and Him alone. Therefore, we cannot judge a person who bows to another as worshiping him, there simply is no Biblical support for such a conclusion.
The other action done to Icons also falls within this realm. Along with a bow we kiss Icons, yet, kissing like bowing has a wide range of meanings depending upon the one doing it and the context of it.
The Greek word for kiss is φιλώ which in the language of the New Testament has two meanings, the first meaning brotherly love and the second the more common meaning of kissing with the lips. Its foremost meaning is brotherly love as is clear from its use in St. John's Gospel. After the Resurrection Christ asked Peter three times if he loved him, and Peter three times answered that he did. The Greek makes use of two words, both meaning love, "αγαπάς με" and "φιλείς με". In the first two instances Christ uses the word "αγαπάς με", but Peter always replies with "φιλώ σε".
The third time Christ also used the word "φιλείς με". The text using the Greek φιλώ instead of the English love reads: "Christ saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, φιλείς με? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, φιλείς με? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I φιλώ σε." (John 21:17)
The other kind of φιλί, the kissing with the lips is used in the famous kiss that Judas gave to Jesus (Matt 26:48-49). Paul also uses the word φιλί when he tells those he writes to give the brethren a holy kiss "φιλίματι αγίω" (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Th 5:26) I have used these examples simply to show that the act of kissing is not always of a romantic or sexual nature which you will understand further down.
As with a bow, the context of the kiss is the deciding factor in what it means to kiss someone or something. When done to God, it becomes worship. To other people, it shows affection, love, and respect. In Biblical terms, kissing an Icon cannot be interpreted to be worship in and of itself. It has to be done with that intent as does the actions of bowing and prostration.
In general, kissing, like bowing, is an action that has missed much of its proper context. Western culture has reduced it to a primarily romantic love meaning and has lost the brotherly love which shows respect and acceptance. It is for example socially unacceptable for men to kiss men in our society, unless they are homosexual. The only place the Biblical context of kissing has held a hold in our society is in the family kiss.
Consequently, when kissing is placed outside of that context, it tends to be seen as suspicious behaviour. However, unlike bowing, westerners don't have a set idea that kissing is only done in worship to God. So, there is more room to define it in the right context, as showing brotherly affection and respect to another. Since that concept is, to some extent, still in our culture, it can be more readily understood.
So this brings us to the question of "why do Protestants and in general most westerners have such a hard time with this? Why does bowing and kissing an Icon come across to many as worship or bordering on it?
There are two main reasons. First, western culture has lost the meanings behind these actions that were common in the Bible and second, the use of an inanimate object can make it appear that we are doing these actions to the object and not to a person; the concept of "Icon" has been lost.
In western culture, people simply don't do a whole lot of bowing and kissing; they rarely bow to anything, except in prayer to God. The bowing and kissing, when greeting another has been replaced with the handshake, and if real familiar, maybe a hug. Respect for another is demonstrated by being kind and using good manners.
The more east we travel the more bowing we see. The President of China, for example would be receive by his subjects with bows as a sigh of respect, whereas the President of the United States, would be received with a standing ovation. The only context that westerners have for bowing is in prayer to God. So, when we bow to another person or an Icon representing another person, westerners tend to identify this as an action of worship simply because they have no other cultural context for it. It is basically a result of "culture shock".
The veneration of Icons had been lost to the west from centuries passed. Beginning from the late 8th century France rejected the Seventh Ecumenical Council which was called to deal with whether veneration of Icons was a proper Christian practice. A wrong translation from Greek into Latin of the acts of the council was basically to blame which used words like worship instead of veneration and honour. There was also a political problem between France and Constantinople and Charlemagne, the king of France, was looking for an excuse to attack anything that was connected with the Greeks and especially with the Empress Irene who rejected a marriage proposal between his daughter and her son.
With France rejecting the Seventh Ecumenical Council, they declared that the veneration of Icons was sinful and idolatry. In due course, other areas followed France, but probably the understanding of Icons was totally lost with the Reformation. The newly formed Protestant churches rejected the Communion of the Saints, forbidding prayer to the saints with the teaching that a Christian “needs no mediator” save Jesus Christ. This led to the west losing the proper context of Icons, and the meaning behind bowing and kissing in venerating them.
Probably the biggest reason that Protestants might feel that these actions are worshiping an idol is the fact that they are being done to an inanimate object, and not to a person. After all, the Scriptures we have seen in bowing and kissing were all to persons, not objects. Therefore, they tend to equate it with worshiping idols which are prohibited in Scripture.
But there is a big difference between an Icon and an idol. The idol is seen as a god in itself or as pointing to a god other than the God of Israel. The Icon only points to another person that cannot be present with us. They really serve the same function as photographs do, to remind us of loved ones. They are "Windows into Heaven" and remind us that Christ and the Saints are still alive in heaven and that they are a "cloud of witnesses".
The Icon is at the centre of the Orthodox faith, it teaches many doctrines and one of these is the teaching that the Church is the whole body of Christians on earth and in heaven. When someone passes over to the other side he does not stop being a member of this great family. All our faith and hope is that there is life beyond the grave. As Orthodox Christians we believe that with his death on the Cross Christ overcame death. There is only the temporary death of the body, but the person still lives on in the world of spirits. “God is the God of the living, and not the dead”. The Orthodox veneration of the Saints is nothing less than the wholehearted belief in Christ, his Incarnation, his Resurrection, his Sitting on the right hand of God and the Descent of the Holy Spirit.
The Icons therefore, are reminders of people who have left the Church on earth, but are still alive with Christ in the heavenly Church. The saints are not gods, but simply our brothers and sisters and the Icon gives us a means whereby we can indirectly greet them as we enter the church to worship with them.
We greet them by bowing, not in worship, but with honour that they have achieved through their way of life what is expected from all Christians; a union with God which is our destiny. And we kiss them, again not in worship, but with a brotherly kiss of love.
When we venerate an Icon, we do not venerate the paint or the wood; we do not worship or venerate inanimate objects; that indeed would be a form of idolatry. The Icon acts like a window to heaven or a transmitter where the honour is transmitted to the person depicted on the Icon to the actual person who lives in heaven.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council held in 787 A.D., made a clear distinction in the type of veneration offered to the Icons of Christ and the Icons of the saints. In Christ, it takes on the form of worship because He is God. In the saints the veneration is called ‘honorific’, this is to say, it is honour and respect but never ever worship which is reserved only for God.
In the words of the Council, Icons are images of the saints which help us to remember the originals and the more often we see their images the more we are led to love them. And because we love them we are prompted to kiss and pay them honorary veneration, not the true worship which according to our faith, is proper only to the one divine nature, but in the same way veneration is given to the image of the precious cross, the Holy Gospels and other sacred objects, which we honour with incense and candles according to the custom of our forefathers by way of manifesting piety. For the honour given to the Icon is passed on to the original, and whosoever bows down in veneration before the Icon, is at the same time bowing down in veneration to the person represented on it”. (Decree from the Seventh Ecumenical Council)
Icons are not idols because they simple are not viewed as a god, nor do they point us to a god (except when the Icon is of Christ) so if they are not idols of gods how can they be worshipped? You have to have a "god" to worship before it can become idolatry. Bowing and kissing an Icon is no more idolatry than a Protestant kneeling at an altar is idolatry. Bowing and kissing are only "worship" when done unto God with a heart of faith. When they are directed towards another person, they are signs of respect, love, honour, and greeting. There is no way Biblically or logically that a person can claim that it is idolatry unless the intent of the person doing it is to that end.
But let's ask another question. Do we need Icons; are they essential for the Orthodox Church? I would say YES! they are essential: they represent a teaching far more important than just representing our brothers and sisters in heaven. The Icon has a doctrinal significance and is essential in teaching the true dogma on the incarnation and on man’s salvation. But before we see the dogma of the Incarnation, let's go back to the Second of the Ten Commandments and the prohibition of images.
“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].
Graven image is used as a translation of the Greek word είδωλο, meaning an idol, which specifically refers to a carved image in wood or stone that was used in pagan religious worship. The commandment is clear that no idol is to be manufactured having any likeness of anything that is in heaven, or on earth or in the sea. Note that the commandment only refers to an idol created to be worshipped as a god and not for every form of images. If it refers to all kinds of images then God contradicts himself because a little later he gives another charge to Moses saying: “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”.
Is God then contradicting himself? On the one hand, he tells us not to make any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven, on earth and in the sea and then on the other hand he tells Moses and Solomon to make images of Cherubim and a serpent. It is therefore obvious from these exceptions found in the Old Testament that God only prohibited images that were to be used as idols of gods or even as images that would represent Himself. Images other than idols were permissible because they were not images intended to be worshipped as a god. The commandment therefore had a twofold purpose: a practical and a theological. The practical purpose was to protect the Israelites from polytheism and pagan worship which was the common practice amongst other nations of that time such as the Egyptians and Assyrians. Believing in an invisible God was difficult and there was always the possibility that through encounters with other nations, the Israelites would become influenced by their religious practices and would sooner or later demand to make an image that would act as a visual aid in their worship.
This is where the second and theological purpose of the commandment is revealed which generally escapes the rational minds of westerners. God forbade the use of images that would represent himself because he was an invisible God and being invisible he cannot be depicted in material form. God is also uncircumscribable; in other words He is 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.
The Old Testament Law was valid up until the coming of Christ. Christ is God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the same God who gave the law to Moses and the Israelite people. The same God who forbade images of himself because he was invisible and uncircumscribable and any attempt to present him in material form would have been a false image because no-one had ever seen God to be able to describe him. But this same God decides to because human, he decides to take upon himself our flesh, to become a creature, to become material. As a human being people could now see him and describe him. He is the same God, the same second person of the Holy Trinity, but now he is both God and man, a person with two natures: the divine and human. The Old Law is still valid as far as making images of idols is concerned that would be served as gods instead of the one True God, but as concerning the prohibition of images of God himself because he couldn't be described, the Old Law was now invalid and illogical. God is now as one of his creatures: a man visible and describable, and furthermore, whereas before God was uncircumscribable, now He has made Himself circumscribable.
The belief that God became man is known as the Dogma of the Incarnation. The Icon is directly connected to this dogma, which is the very foundation of Christianity and which all our hopes of salvation depend on.
In the early Church there were heretic groups who claimed that Jesus Christ was not both God and man. These groups were many but we can collectively place them into two groups – the Arians and the Nestorians. The Arians claimed that Jesus was only divine and that he didn't have a human nature and the Nestorians claimed that Jesus was just a man and was not at the same time God. The Icon, and especially the Icon of Christ comes and testifies, through the inscription that it bears, that Jesus Christ is both God and man. The Icon is a witness to the true teaching of the Dogma of the Incarnation and those who opposed the Icon were in fact denying that God had become man which at the same time broke the union between God and man which Christ united in Himself. If man’s union with God is broken then that also means that man has no means to be saved, his salvation is lost and faith in Christ is in vain.
The Icon therefore is not an idol; it is a testimony to our faith and teaches that God became man to save us. We do not worship the Icon which is just material, but we worship the person of Jesus Christ who is represented on it. The great defender of Icons, St. John of Damascus living in the 8th Century explained this with the following words.
“In former times, God, who was without form or body and was uncircumscribable, could never be depicted, but now that God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I make an image of the God who can be seen. I do not worship matter; I worship the creator of matter, who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter, who worked out my salvation through matter.” [St. John of Damascus]
The Icon also testifies to another issue of the Incarnation. God is divine and if Christ is God then surely his human body is automatically deified, in other words, his body is sanctified and also becomes divine. His human flesh is sanctified, but more in general, created matter can be deified and become spirit bearing.
When we talk about Christ's human body we are talking about our bodies as well, we are talking about man in general. Whatever happens to Christ's body can also happen to our bodies. Thus, if Christ's body was deified then our bodies can also be deified.
This is another doctrine that we Orthodox believe in – The Doctrine of Deification. The doctrine of deification is very important to understand because it is what makes us Orthodox different from other so called Christians who do not have this belief. It is unique to us and not even the Roman Catholic Church who we often hear is similar to us has this belief.
Man was created for union with God and the purpose of this life is to attain this union. But what does this actually mean? The Orthodox Church believes that man, by using his free will in cooperation with God’s will can attain this goal of union with God and become a god by grace. This belief is not something invented by the Church: it is a solid doctrine based on scriptural testimony found in the New Testament. The quotes from scripture are many, but there is also an event in the Life of Christ which clearly tells us that man can receive deification.
The event is the Lord’s Transfiguration. From the Gospel of St. Matthew we read that Christ took with Him Peter, James and John his brother and went up into a high mountain [Mount Tabor], “and was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun and his raiment was white as the light” [St. Matth. 17:2]. St. Mark, in his Gospel, says of the same event, “And his raiment became shining exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them” [St. Mark 9:3]. St. Mark tries to describe this light, but can only say that, “no fuller on earth can white them”. As created beings, we can only explain what we see, hear or understand, by other things in our life. We cannot begin to describe this light of the Transfiguration because it is not created, as is the light of the sun.
The event of the Transfiguration in the life of Christ has never really been understood by the Western Churches in the same way the Orthodox Church understands the event. Christ appeared to His disciples as God, the light that they saw was the uncreated light of God. But it was the human body of Christ that shone with this light: in other words it was man’s nature that appeared in the divine glory. Thus not only can the uncreated light of God be seen by human eyes, it can also be received by the human body. It brings us to that renowned statement by St. Athanasius and repeated by so many fathers: “God became man so that man may become God.”
This brings as to why we show respect to the saints and venerate their Icons. Some people have the opinion that it is acceptable to kiss the Icon of Christ because He is God, but to show such reverence to the Icons of the Mother of God or of one of the saints is a form of’ idolatry. But if we understand the doctrine of deification then we will understand the true relationship between God and man.
Mary the Mother of God carried in her womb the God-man Jesus Christ. Could she carry the divine person within her without herself being deified? Mary was not a deity to be worshiped, but she is worthy of veneration because she received sanctification and was deified through the grace of God. The same applies to the saints: they are only men and thus we do not worship them, but through their way of life they were united with God and they received deification through the grace of God. They have achieved what we must achieve. We were created for union with God; that is the only purpose of humankind. In the saints we see our hopes and destination and the fulfilment of Christ's commandment “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”. (Matthew 5:48) To be perfect as God means to be united to God and become one with him. The Gospel of St. John is much clearer on the subject of our deification. Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane said to the Father: “That they all may be one; as thou Father art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them that they may be one even as we are one: I in them and thou in me that they may be made perfect in one”. (John 17:21-23)
Thus, if the saints have achieved this union with God and have been deified then they also are worthy of our honour and respect and we show this honour and respect by bowing before their Icons and kissing them with brotherly love.
If there are some among you that have a real concern that if you bow to an Icon and kiss it, that you might accidentally be worshipping an Icon, you can set their minds at rest knowing that you simply cannot accidentally worship an Icon. Worship is intentionally giving veneration to a god. No one can accidentally worship a Saint. Worshipping is an activity that is done on purpose and with that intent. If the intent is honour then that is all it is.
So let's ask another question: are Orthodox Christians obliged to bow and kiss Icons when they enter a church? Again the answer is YES, for many reasons. First it testifies to others that you are Orthodox. When someone enters a church and doesn't conform to the practices of the Orthodox, then people who see that he didn't kiss the Icons can only assume that he is a heretic. Most people don't understand the true meaning of the Icon and just do things out of tradition, but as we have seen, the Icon represents far more than just a custom. When we bow before an Icon and kiss it, we are making a statement of faith; we are proclaiming our faith in the true dogmas of the church. We are saying that we believe that God truly became man and that Jesus Christ is both God and man. We are saying that we believe that Christ's human body was deified and that we also can be deified. We are saying we believe in the communion of the saints. We are saying that we believe that the Church as a whole is not only the church on earth, but also the church in heaven.
The Icons serve to inspire, guide and encourage us to seek the Kingdom of Heaven. They also serve to remind us of Christ’s suffering and that He suffered all things for us so that we may have eternal life. They remind us that, the saints are those who genuinely served the Lord in faith and devotion and that we should strive to imitate them and follow in their footsteps. The Icon therefore expresses the Life of the Church, her beliefs and her worship.