Somewhere decades ago a true story was told.
It’s interesting how somethings stay with you throughout life. I must have been around nine or ten years of age. My parents took me to yet another Protestant gathering. Another adult speaking as I fidgeted in my chair. A missionary, I think, I mean my mind was wandering, oh what’s that over there! Southeast Asia, sounds distant and scary.
Then somehow, some words caught my ear and I began to listen … A village … evangelized … instability … communist (or something) militia comes to this village. The communists gathered the whole little village in the open and in front of all produce a Bible. Ruthlessly they throw it into the mud and at the threat of death command the villagers to step on the Bible. Yelling … tears … dirt … screaming …. Slowly a few approach, hesitating, conflicted … a foot raises and descends, touching, just enough, the Bible. Free, the person moves away, head sagging low; more come forward, just one touch of the bottom of the foot, that’s all … Then, as if from nowhere, a young girl (maybe my age) runs up and dives into the mud, taking up the bible she begins to tenderly wipe off the mud and then with heartfelt love presses it to her lips. A kiss for truth and beauty. A shot rings out. She falls dead … blood and mud mix.
I was spell bound as the adult told the story. Many others in the village then followed the example of courage demonstrated by this young girl. They also paid with their lives. But they willingly did so when one person was willing to die for truth and beauty.
Somehow this young girl decades ago in some village, in some distant land, understood the purpose of truth and beauty. She understood they are worth dying for. She had been taught correctly that the Scriptures are the word of God. She had been taught to give honor, reverence, and veneration to this revelation of Truth. She held fast to this teaching unto her death.
Yet, as I reflect how easily we “enlighten” western Christians are able to rationalize away the reality of sacred holy things, I’m shamed by the loftiness of this girl. She theologized in a manner beyond the capabilities of most. She was more orthodox than many an Orthodox.
Yet, as Orthodox Christians we have a deep theology of holy things, images. Yet, it is not enough for us to speak about it, we must believe it in action also.
By virtue of the person of Word of God becoming incarnate, matter that is used to represent holy realities becomes a participator in that very holiness. It becomes a means by which the grace of the Archetype is communicated to believers. The Scriptures are holy because of the revealed word of God they record. These words are alive and ready to energize those who have ears to hear. The matter of paper coveys the eternity of God’s Word.
St. John of Damascus teaches, “If the body of God has become God unchanging through the hypostatic union, what gives anointing remains (ie, the Divinity, my note) 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.”
Holy icons and holy things are, as the saint says, filled with divine energy and grace. This is what they communicate to the believer, by faith. They cannot communicate the corruption of this world any more than the Archetype of our salvation, Christ Jesus Himself, could.
The saint continues, “Divine grace is given to material things through the image borne by what is depicted … So material things, on their own, are not worthy of veneration, but if the one depicted is full of grace, then they become participants in grace, on the analogy of faith.”
The holy things become active participants and conveyors of the grace of the One depicted. They are open channels through which divine grace flows. When a Christian venerates truly an icon, he is venerating the one it depicts. When he venerates the Scriptures, he is venerating the revealed Word it contains.
The holy things make mysteriously present those spiritual realities which they represent.
St. John elaborates, “The apostles saw the Lord Himself with their bodily eyes, and others saw the apostles, and others martyrs. And I long to see them in soul and body, and to possess the medicine that wards off evil, for I am made with a double nature, and seeing, I venerate what I see, not as God, but as honorable image of those worthy of honor … I am a human being and wear a body, I long to have communion in a bodily way with what is holy and to see it.”
And he goes on, “I venerate the image of Christ, as God incarnate; of the mistress of all, the Mother of God, as the mother of the Son of God; of the saints, as the friends of God, who struggling against sin to the point of blood, have imitated Christ by shedding their blood for Him who shed His blood for them and lived a life following in His footsteps.”
If Christians were simply representing mundane things, then indeed icons and holy things would be frivolous. But holy things are not mundane, they are participators in the virtue of the Incarnation of God Himself and they make present in a material manner the reality of divine grace energizing throughout salvation history.
“The image is a triumphant manifestation and inscribed tablet in memory of the victory of the bravest and most eminent and of the shame of those worsted and overthrown. Many times I have seen those who long for someone, when they have his garment, greet it with their eyes and lips, as if it were the one longed for himself,” teaches St. John.
To draw near and kiss with veneration the holy things is to, as it were, be drawing near and kissing the one who is represented there in. In a mysterious manner, an icon of Christ represents in a material way Christ in our midst, and thus as Christians venerate the image, that veneration is given to Christ Himself.
Those worsted are the devil and his demons. They hate the loving veneration of icons and holy things. Why? Because they are stark reminders of his defeat and coming complete destruction. Holy things are tokens of the Victory of Christ our Lord over corruption and death. This fallen sick world is passing away, and the one who does the will of God will abide forever.
Saint John elaborates with these strong words, “Let everyone know, therefore, that anyone who attempts to destroy an image brought into being out of divine longing and zeal for the glory and memorial of Christ, or of His Mother the holy Theotokos, of of one of the saints, or for the disgrace of the devil and the defeat of him and his demons, and will not venerate or honor or greet it as a precious image and not as god, is an enemy of Christ and the holy Mother of God and the saints and a vindicator of the devil and his demons.”
And he exhorts true Christians, “We shall not suffer a new faith to be taught … We shall not suffer different things to be thought at different times, changing with the seasons, and the faith to become a matter of ridicule and jest to outsiders … Therefore, I entreat the people of God, the holy nation, to cling to the traditions of the Church. For just as the removal of one of the stones of the building will quickly bring ruin to that building, so will the removal, ever so little, of what has been handed down. Let us be firm, unflinching, unmoved, established upon the secure rock, which is Christ.”
As the secular mind would cast the holy things into the mud of the mundane, treating them as but things of this world, let us risk the mud and the shame of being “fanatics.” Let us lift them and clean them, kissing them tenderly with deep love and reverence.
If the words of Saint John fall dead on our ears, let us at least rouse ourselves to vigilance least we be found to have less understanding than the young protestant girl who sacrificed all for the reverencing of a holy thing. In her one action she was more Orthodox than most.