Monday, June 6, 2016

Depicting God

I’m not going to analyse here the issues that led iconoclasm grow so vastly and rapidly in Byzantium. This is a massive issue, which will need many posts and pages, in order to fully analyse it and give all its parameters. However, depicting God, having icons is an issue for some, who see this as a violation of what we read in the Old Testament, of what God tells us of not depicting Him or any other false God. If this is the case then we are in the wrong; we have erred for millennia. However, what is the true belief the Church maintains on this interesting and significant issue? St John Damascene wrote Three Treatises on the Divine Images. In the first one [Treatise I, 16] he gives an interesting explanation on why we should depict God, claiming:

 ‘Of old, God the incorporeal and formless was never depicted, but now that God has been seen in the flesh and has associated with human kind, I depict what I have seen of God. I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation, and I will not cease from reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked. I do not reverence it as God – far from it; how can that which has come to be from nothing be God?- if the body of God has become God unchangeably through the hypostatic union, what gives anointing remains, and what was by nature flesh animated with a rational and intellectual soul is formed, it is not uncreated. Therefore I reverence the rest of matter and hold in respect that through which my salvation came, because it is filled with divine energy and grace. Is not the thrice precious and thrice-blessed wood of the cross matter? Is not the holy and august mountain, the place of the skull, matter? Is not the life-giving and life-bearing rock, the holy tomb, the source of the resurrection, matter? Is not the ink and all-holy book of the Gospels matter? Is not the life-bearing table, which offers to us the bread of life, matter? Is not the gold and silver matter, out of which crosses and tablets and bowls are fashioned? And, before all these things, is not the body and blood of my Lord matter? Either do away with reverence and veneration for all these or submit to the tradition of the Church and allow the veneration of images of God and friends of God, sanctified by name and therefore overshadowed by the grace of the divine Spirit. Do not abuse matter; for it is not dishonourable; this is the view of the Manichees. The only thing that is dishonourable is something that does not have its origin from God, but is our own discovery, by the free inclination and turning of our will from what is natural to what is unnatural, that is sin. If because of the law you dishonour images and prohibit them as fashioned from matter, see what Scripture says: “And the Lord spoke to Moses saying, See I have called by name Beseleel the son of Ori the son of Hor from the tribe of Judah. And I have filled him with the divine spirit of wisdom and understanding and knowledge in every work to devise and to design and to work in gold and silver and bronze and aquamarine and porphyry and spun scarlet and twisted flax and stonework and of carpentry for wood, to work in every craft. And I have also given him Eliab the son of Achisamach for the tribe of Dan; and I have given all of them intelligence in an understanding heart, and they will make all that I have commanded you.” [Exodus 31:1-6 LXX.] And again, “Moses said to all the congregation of the sons of Israel, Hear this word which the Lord has commanded, saying, Take from among you an offering to the Lord. Whoever has a generous heart, let him offer the first-fruits to the Lord, gold, silver, bronze, aquamarine, porphyry, scarlet twill and twisted flax and goats’ hair and rams’ skin dyed red and skins dyed aquamarine and acacia wood and oil for anointing and spices for incense and carnelians and precious stones for engraving and for the shoulder-piece and the robe. And let every one wise in heart among you come and work everything, that the Lord has commanded, the tabernacle,” [Exodus 35: 4-10], and the rest, and after the other things “he fastened both the stones  of emerald together, enclosed in settings of gold filigree, and engraved like the engravings of a signet,”[Exodus 36:13 LXX] and again, “there were twelve stones with their names according to the names the sons of Israel; they were like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes,” [Exodus 36:21 LXX], and straightaway, “and he made the veil of the tabernacle of witness out of aquamarine and porphyry and spun scarlet and twisted flax, woven work of the cherubim.” [Exodus 37:5 LXX]. Behold precious matter, which you regard as dishonourable! What is cheaper than coloured goats’ hair? Are not scarlet and porphyry and aquamarine merely colours? Look at the likeness of the cherubim. How therefore can you say that what the law orders to be made is prohibited by the law? If, because of the law, you prohibit images, watch that you keep the Sabbath and are circumcised; for these the law unyieldingly commands. But know that if you keep the law, “Christ is no use to you; you who would be justified by the law, have fallen from grace.” [Gal.5: 2, 4.]. Israel of old did not see God, “but we, with unveiled face, behold the glory of God.” [2 Cor. 3: 18]’.

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