Christ, the Cosmos, and Icons

adam_reation_iconic1My M.A. adviser, Pr. Aristeides Papadakis, is a Byzantinist of the fist order. He published two books, both still available via St. Vladimir’s Seminary press, along with a number of articles. He lived in Georgetown, and thus could walk to Dumbarton Oaks where he went most days to read and research. After he published his Byzantium and the Rise of the Papacy, and then shepherded it through its subsequent French edition, he took up the great topic of Byzantine Monasticism, but set it aside, after some years’ work, for another project, pressed on him by others. I saw him last Fall, the guest of John Neumann University and Fr. John Perich for an exhibition, and he was the evening’s speaker, giving a lecture on the Schism. As always, he was masterful. Now in his 80s, he is still sharp and energetic. Though certainly not the efficient cause of my conversion to Orthodoxy, he was certainly instrumental in it, in that his conversations pointed me down paths I had no idea even existed, including why icons could not not be venerated, and how behind the filioque stood a vast theology, one that my Calvinism ultimately could not do without, and thus to jettison the one will inevitably lead to a jettisoning of the other (I was too full of hubris to take him at his word, but subsequent events proved him true). It is the question of icons that is of the moment, since yesterday, of course, was the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the remembrance of that day in March 843 when the Augusta Theodora restored icons to their rightful places within the Church. Pr. Papadakis had written his dissertation at Fordham on what hagiographical evidence says about iconoclasm, and a subscription to Proquest will get it for you. I have the PDF.

Last night my daughter and I attended the local pan-Orthodox Vespers for the Triumph of Orthodoxy where there were about a dozen clergy and somewhere around 150 of the faithful. It was a glorious service, complete with a procession of icons. My daughter told me later that she thought she was in heaven, surrounded by angels (of course I then had to tell her she wasn’t the first to say that, and related to her the story of the Russian Primary Chronicle and Prince Vladimir’s envoys to Constantinople – – an Historians work is never done). About a dozen people were there from my parish of St. Paul’s (Emmaus, PA), and it was great to see so many people from around the valley that I have known for years. The homily was given by Fr. Anthony Perkins on how icons are the cure for secularism. His sermon went in a different direction than what I thought. You can read Fr. Anthony’s wonderful discourse here:

On our way there Kristen and I had actually discussed how icons free us from secularism, or more precisely, how the theology behind icons does (as after all, theology stands behind everything). St. John Damascene writes

Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, (Bar. 3.38) I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God. How could God be born out of lifeless things? And if God’s body is God according to the hypostatic union, it is immutable. The nature of God remains the same as before, the flesh created in time is quickened by a logical and reasoning soul. I honour all matter besides, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was not the thrice happy and thrice blessed wood of the Cross matter? Was not the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Sepulchre, the source of our resurrection: was it not matter? Is not the most holy book of the Gospels matter? Is not the blessed table matter which gives us the Bread of Life? Are not the gold and silver matter, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either do away with the veneration and worship due to all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the worship of images, honouring God and His friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing is that which God has made. This is the Manichean heresy.

What stands behind icons is the Incarnation, the union of human nature with the divine in the one divine Person of the Logos, the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. This union brings man, the pinnacle of creation, in that we are made after the Image and in the Likeness of God, to our goal, our telos, our purpose, namely union with God. For from creation God’s purpose for us, the teleology of our creation (His predestinations) was for us to possess life, and this life can only be realized by a union with the Divine. We were not created immortal, notes St. Athanasius (the natural immortality of the soul is a Platonic doctrine), and for us to become immortal, there has to be a real union, not just a putative one, with God, with Life. From creation God’s purpose was to unite us, body and soul, to Himself, and as we are the apex of all creation, Christ has thus united all the world, of which we humans are the imaged protos, to himself.

My students start discussing Petrarch tomorrow in class, and it is easy to misread him as asserting that man is a microcosm of the universe, when in fact it is the universe that is a microcosm of man (or better put, a microcosm of Man). Because the whole of the cosmos finds its significance in what St. Irenaeus called “the Man fully alive (“the glory of God is Man full alive”) we must take measure of Petrarch’s reading of St. Augustine at the top of Mount Ventoux. There he pulls out his copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions and practicing a bit of bibliomancy he reads how men go to see the great natural wonders of the world, and yet neglect their own souls, that which nothing compares to the intellect (and here Petrarch cites Seneca). It was a telling moment for Petrarch, mutatis mutandis. Thus, that which our Lord Jesus Christ assumed He assumed not only to restore it to the pinnacle of creation, but instead to very union with God. Therefore, “that which we have seen with our eyes . . . which our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life,” has sanctified not merely matter, but that which is sensual, turning the very universe into God’s temple, but more especially, His saints and their very likenesses, now following the Likeness of God, into objects of consideration for our divine life.


About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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