His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH's Address to the 2004 Northern California Women’s Retreat on Iconography
November 13, 2004
Reverend Fathers and Sisters in Christ:
Iconography has always been an important part and dogma of the Church’s life. It expresses our reverence for God, and protects us from making the Lord some kind of theoretical and remote Being far from us. The icon is a messenger and a message, it speaks without words and says more than words can say. The icon, painted on a flat board, plunges into the depths of our soul when we gaze upon it, and leads us to heaven when we yield to God’s power.
Heretics have always hated icons, just as they have hated scripture. While the man who hates icons smashes them, the man who hates scripture twists it and distorts it through false teachings. But, the true believer accepts the Scriptures as handed down by the Church, and reveres icons as outwards signs of inward truths.
Icons challenge us in prayer to move from impersonal to personal, from abstract to concrete. Icons reveal that the spirituality of the Church has transformed countless lives throughout the ages and bring the experiences of the saints into our present time. They are present in our lives through their constant prayer and intercessions for us. They become a means by which the eternality of God breaks through our temporal confines. No longer are we slaves of our own lives, but rather enjoy the experiences and wisdom of innumerable great men and women whose lives were transformed by the Holy Spirit.
When we gaze up the holy faces of the icons, we must ask ourselves: ‘What is my excuse for not seeking Jesus Christ like this holy person did? Why do I slack off in my spiritual life when I know how richly spiritual people are rewarded by God?’ If the message of the prophets has always been, ‘Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand,’ then icons show us what great things happen for us when we overcome our selfishness and fear through trust in God’s mercy and love for our neighbor.
Icons are the greatest evidence for the Orthodox belief that there is no such thing as ‘blind faith.’ God does not whisper secret teachings in darkened rooms, but loudly proclaims His desire to save all mankind. He provides us evidence, foremost of all the very public death and Resurrection of His Son. He works miracles in our midst. He creates the Church to bear the witness of the ages to the transforming power of the Orthodox Faith. He surrounds us with the holy images that we, like the Apostle Thomas, might not be faithless, but believers.
Those who try to raise their children without icons are shocked when they realize that their children know more about Big Bird on Sesame Street than they do about Jesus Christ. After all, they can see Big Bird, but Jesus is kept out of sight like some kind of embarrassing relative. We Orthodox are not ashamed of our Lord or the saints. They are active in our lives. They are not abstractions, but more real than reality. We can say that icons, as bearers of divine reality, are more real than a photograph. A photo is a recording of physical light, but an icon portrays the Light of God shining through humanity.