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The Sacrament

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The Icon: Sacrament of the Kingdom

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The Icon: Sacrament of the Kingdom

Boris Bobrinskoy, St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, vol. 31, n. 4, 1987

To introduce my subject, I would like to paraphrase these words from the prologue of the First Epistle of St John:

What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have beheld, what our hands -and our lips- have touched, concerning the Word of life... this we proclaim to you (1:1-3).

If there is an aspect of the mystery of Christ that we cannot reduce to apodictic formulas, but can only present in its ineffable fullness, it is the mystery of the Beauty, the Glory and the Light of God. This reality is incapable of external proof; it can only be perceived and received by virtue of its internal truth. We require a great deal of discretion and sensitivity to speak about the icon: the self-revealing and self-communicating sacrament of the Beauty and Glory of God.

The very title of this presentation-taken from Fr Alexander Schmemann's spiritual work, Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom-attempts to suggest a dynamic concept of the icon as sacrament, or as a particular expression of the radically sacramental character of the Church. The Orthodox consciousness has never felt at ease with the scholastic theory of Seven Sacraments taught in its own dogmatic textbooks. Contemporary Orthodox theologians-Fr Sergius Bulgakov, Fr Nicholas Afanassieff, Fr Alexander Schmemann and their successors-have never hesitated to affirm the sacramental character both of liturgical forms and gestures, and of the Word of God expressed as a human word in Scripture, preaching, worship, and theological discourse. Liturgical art, which is inseparable from the Word and ecclesial worship, likewise possesses a sacramental quality. It is this specific quality that I would like to develop in the following paragraphs.

We can speak of the icon as a sacrament on one condition: that we abandon the familiar atomistic, materialistic conception of the sacraments and return to the Mystery of the Church: the unique and all-sufficient sacrament of salvation communicated by Trinitarian Love through the redemptive work of the incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit.

It is necessary, nevertheless, to qualify to some degree our use of the term "sacrament" as we apply it to the icon and ecclesial art in general. While Nicea II, followed by the Triumph of Orthodoxy (843), could formulate the dogma of the icon and express its sacramental character without even using the term itself, it is certain that the "catholic" ecclesial consciousness witnessed the growth of iconic art and piety, and discovered its theological and christological foundation, on the basis of a deep personal and communal spiritual experience in which we can clearly discern the work, the very breath, of the Spirit. If Orthodoxy since Nicea II has received the doctrine and piety of the icon as a dogma-having a value that is at once obligatory and universal because it concerns the whole person and thus the whole of humanity-we nevertheless need a great deal of discretion, humility and modesty when we survey the history and geography of Christianity, both within and beyond the limits of canonical Orthodoxy. This is because iconographic art and piety have known excesses and abuses bordering on fetishism. And they have known as well the opposite phenomena or reactions: excessive spiritualization in certain currents of Orthodoxy that represent something of a Platonic temptation, an anthropological dualism of the sort we find in Origen and Evagrius that has had serious consequences for Christian art as a whole. Christian art has passed through periods of profound decadence. Yet despite this fact, the Holy Spirit has always found compensatory avenues by which He touches and sanctifies the human heart.

Having stated this, however, the icon nevertheless represents a gift of sacramental fullness without which Orthodoxy would be seriously diminished. For the icon constitutes one of the most creative aspects of our witness, both to divided Christendom and to the secularized world in which we find ourselves today. Yet the icon must speak for itself, above and beyond our language of concepts. And we ourselves must grow to the stature of the icon, beginning with its teaching and illustrative role, and moving towards the contemplation of those mysteries which the sacred image presents to us.

In the living experience of the Church, that primordial and pre-theological experience which we try to formulate theologically, the icon is indeed a sacrament-a mode of presence and communion-of the divine-human nature of Christ. In the words of St John of Damascus, "By virtue of the fact that God has now been seen in the flesh and has lived among men, I represent what is visible in God" (Imag. 1.16). With these words, St John of Damascus affirms the christological and incarnational foundation of the icon. And this is precisely the starting point for our Orthodox theology of the sacred image.

This incarnational foundation, however, should be sufficiently expanded to include the whole of the Savior's redemptive activity. Each stage in the work of salvation deepens the capacity of matter, and particularly of man himself, to become the very image of the trinitarian Kingdom. For ever since that moment in which the flesh of Christ, and thereby matter itself, was transfigured in the splendor and power of the Resurrection -ever since it was exalted through the Ascension so as to participate in divine life, enthroned in the Lord of Glory at the Right Hand of the Majesty of the Father-from that moment on, the creature has once again been capable of striving towards and attaining the divine Likeness, through participation in Christ as the Principle of our salvation and as Head of the Church. Accordingly, from that moment on, human language and human art are capable of being baptized within the Church; and by the flame of the Spirit they can translate for our human senses and understanding the presence of the divine Trinity, a presence communicated both directly and through the saints.

In speaking of the christological foundation of the icon, I would distinguish between its " incarnational " and its " ascensional " aspects. This distinction concerns the whole of ecclesial reality: the Church in its ultimate mystery as the sacrament of the Kingdom, whose sacramental life is centered in the Eucharist and in whose liturgical symbolism the icon plays an indispensable role.

Yet the christological foundation of the icon must be "interiorized" and given stability by its pneumatological or spiritual dimension. This becomes clear when we recall the maxim of St Basil the Great: "the honor rendered to the Image passes to its Prototype" (On the Holy Spirit, XVIII.45). The literal and historical context of this passage, of course, is the trinitarian and pneumatological controversy in which St Basil was caught up at the time. Nevertheless, by means of a legitimate and even necessary theological extrapolation, this same maxim played a crucial role in the iconoclastic controversy and was given the status of dogma by the Council of Nicea II.

It should be pointed out, however, that this maxim appears not only in the treatise On the Holy Spirit, but that St Basil uses it as the cornerstone of his definition (probably unique in all patristic literature) of the tropos or particular mode of action of the Holy Spirit in the indivisible, trinitarian economy of salvation. To summarize his thought: the Spirit is at one and the same time the true place or locus of trinitarian adoration offered by the human creature, and the locus of the creature's sanctification by the Holy Trinity. Thus it is in the "sacred space" of the Spirit that the worshiper contemplates the Son, and by Him, the Father: "If we are illumined by divine power, and fix our eyes on the beauty of the invisible God, and through the image are led up to the indescribable beauty of its source, it is because we have been inseparably joined to the Spirit of Knowledge. He gives those who love the vision of truth the power which enables them to see the image, and this power is Himself" (ibid., XVIII.47). And again St Basil declares, "it is impossible for you to recognize Christ, the Image of the invisible God, unless the Spirit enlightens you" (ibid., XXVI.64).

This pneumatological dimension or condition of the vision of Christ, Himself the perfect image of the Father, is essential to the theology of the icon. Without it, the reference made by defenders of icons to the classic maxim of St Basil is emptied of its force; the relation of the image to its prototype remains purely external, as a mere illustration or abstract idea.

We encounter this understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in the context of the iconoclastic conflict, in a letter which Pope Paschal I addressed to the Emperor Leo V, "the Armenian," in the year 817: "If no one can call Jesus 'Lord' except by the Holy Spirit (I Cor 12:3), to write [which in the context of his letter signifies "to paint"] Him represents far more of a risk than to speak this confession. No one can depict Jesus as Lord except by the Holy Spirit. For you will find that even Bezalel was filled with the Spirit, for no other reason than to reproduce the heavenly symbols engraved on the mountain (Exod. 31) (1).

When we turn to the greatest defender of the veneration of icons, St John of Damascus, we see (as Fr Christoph von Schonborn has so well shown) that the Damascene distinguishes various categories of images. Beginning with the most perfect image-that of the Son Himself, who is the perfect image of the Father-he next considers man, created in the image of God and called to assume the divine likeness; and finally he concludes with icons as such. (2)

Rather than simply enumerate the various images in a descending order of importance, I would prefer to underscore the unity which exists between their several dimensions: christological, anthropological, and (at the risk of redundancy) iconographical.

As the true and perfect icon of the Father, Jesus communicates himself to human persons by the "illumination" of the Holy Spirit, within the living sacramental and spiritual experience of the Church, both now and until the end of the ages. Just as Jesus is the true Temple of Divinity, the Temple not made by human hands (cf. John 2:21 ; Col 2:9 and 1:15), so we, in the likeness of the Son, bear within ourselves this same image of the Father. And that image should become ever more manifest within us. Just as the Name of Jesus is engraved upon our heart from the moment of our baptism ("May Thy holy Name be glorified in him/her, together with that of Thy beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and of Thy life-creating Spirit..."), in the same way the image of Christ is engraved on the human heart. The very aim of our life is to manifest this interior icon. The role of our spiritual mothers and fathers -our "pedagogues" in the Church- is to lead us towards just such a manifestation: "My little children, with whom I' am again in travail until Christ be formed in you!" (Gal 4:19).

The true secret of the relation between the likeness of the painted icon and its prototype is to be found precisely in the growing correspondence between the icons we venerate and the "interior icon" within the heart of each person. Permit me in this regard to quote several lines from the work of the iconographer, Father Gregory Krug (d. 1969):

"The divine image and likeness, placed in the human heart at its creation, are as it were the condition granted by the Creator which allows, through the senses and in a way accessible by contemplation, their self-revelation in the human image. This image and likeness of God, bestowed upon man at the very moment of his creation, serve as a sort of archetypal icon; given by God, they serve as an inexhaustible source of personal sanctification. The image and likeness of God, preserved intact even through the Fall, must be incessantly renewed, reanimated, purified, and by means of Grace and human asceticism, be in a certain sense unceasingly depicted in the depths of the human spirit. Through ascetic struggle and sanctification, the image of God is etched into the very deepest layers of human being. Such struggle and effort-creative, unceasing and unalterable as it is- serves as the very foundation of human life. By Grace, it creates a permanent and inviolable image of Christ within the soul itself... In His incarnation, Christ appeared as the restorer of the divine image in man. Yet more than the restorer, He is the total and perfect execution and realization of the image of God in man: the Icon of icons, the Source of every holy image, the Image not made by human hands, the 'living Jerusalem "(3).

On the basis of this correspondence that exists between the painted icon and the image of God within the human heart, we can return to the notion of the sacramentality of the icon. By this we mean on the one hand its capacity and function to transmit to man the sanctifying presence of Christ and His saints; and on the other, its ability to raise up towards God both ecclesial and personal prayer. This means that the icon possesses sacramental value and functions of different degrees and kinds. I would like to distinguish the following three aspects of this sacramentality: its becoming, its permanence, and its mediation.

1. The creation of the icon, when it surges up from the depths of the artist's heart as an expression of pure and true beauty, is a mystery and miracle that is ever new and ever wonderful. Of course we must not forget that such creation demands purity, asceticism, and holiness on the part of the iconographer -just as they are demanded of the preacher, the catechist, the theologian or the spiritual director, each of whom in a profound sense is a theologian and an iconographer. For this creation of the icon, from the inner depths of the purified heart, is the work of the Holy Spirit; it is He who creates its dynamic quality and ensures its truth; it is He who "reproduces" the interior and eternal image by means of the painter's brush (as He does by means of the orator's tongue or the writer's pen). A true iconographer, then, can most appropriately speak for him or herself the words of this prayer, taken from the eucharistic Liturgy of St Basil: "Remember, O Lord, my unworthiness, by the multitude of Thy compassions. Forgive my every transgression, both voluntary and involuntary. Because of my sins, do not withhold the grace of Thy Holy Spirit from these Gifts [from this icon] here set forth".

Accordingly, from the initial conception to the completion of the icon, He, Christ the Lord, must increase and the painter decrease. At the end of his crucifying effort, the iconographer should incline, prostrate and efface himself before Him who transcends and judges all.

2. Thereby the icon acquires a sacramental existence which is autonomous, objective, permanent, and true for each person at every moment and in every place. The icon not only reflects the glory of the trinitarian Kingdom which we are called to inherit; it actually contains the life-giving energy of the Kingdom. In the words of St John of Damascus, it is "filled with divine energy and grace" (Imag. 1.16). That is, the icon is filled with the Holy Spirit. It is not only the object and vehicle of contemplation, and therefore of prayer; it is truly the vehicle or channel of human sanctification, due to the inseparable presence within it of grace and divine energy.

This "energetic" or sanctifying (and therefore pneumatological) function of the icon is one of the most basic characteristics of the veneration of sacred images within Orthodoxy. And it is perhaps as well the only aspect of Orthodox piety concerning the icon that Roman Catholic theology finds difficult to accept. Therefore, in the first edition of his remarkable study of the christological basis of the icon quoted earlier, Fr C. von Schönborn perceives in the iconology of John of Damascus '"the most difficult aspect of the veneration of icons for the Western Christian: namely, the insistence that the icon actually communicates the divine presence and bears divine grace; and this to the detriment of the veneration of the person depicted by it" (p. 196). In the third edition of this work, however, Fr von Schönborn somewhat softens the severity of his original judgment regarding the Damascene (Paris 1986, p. 250-51).

We must conclude, then, that in the theological consciousness as in the piety of Orthodoxy, every icon is ontologically "miraculous," filled with the life-giving energy of the Spirit of Christ. Here, too, the doctrine of the Church concerning the "objective" holiness of the sacraments (ex opere operato) and openness of the celebrant of the sacrament to the Grace of God (ex opere operantis) apply wholly to the icon as the locus of the divine presence and an instrument of divine grace. If every icon is "miraculous" by virtue of its sacramental nature, certain icons nevertheless manifest God's presence in a more tangible way. In them the prayer of the Church becomes concentrated, focused. For the grace of God willingly situates and expresses itself in this most beautiful product of human art and prayer.

3. A third order or level of the sacramental nature of the icon, the reason why it was created, is its " mediatorial " function in the context of deep personal prayer. By his very nature, man is a sacramental being; he is an "iconic" creature, "an animal," in St Basil's words, "who has received the order to become god." Consequently, he needs a particular vehicle for the sacraments and symbols of his faith, in order to attain the vision of and communion with the One who is invisible and indescribable. Through the mediation of the icon, a truly personal relationship is established between the believer and the "mystery" of the person represented. Orthodoxy never forgets the "diaconal" role of the icon (and of the sacraments): to serve the coming of the trinitarian Kingdom into this world through sanctification of the human heart.

I would conclude with just a few words on the transcendent character of the icon. In this regard as well, the very nature of sacrament implies that "the honor rendered to the Image passes to the Prototype." In this present age, the icon is a veritable "epiphany" that enables the worshiper to stand face to face with the eternal Kingdom. In the age to come, the human person will become in every aspect of his or her being a transparent and faithful "icon," growing in an infinite outpouring of love from the hidden image towards the glorious likeness of the divine Archetype. There we shall enter into immediate communion with Christ Himself, the living Word and the life-giving Image of the Father.

As the Sacrament of the Kingdom, therefore, the icon leads us in the way of the Only Son, enabling us as "only sons" through the grace of adoption to enter into the Mystery of the Father, beyond every image and every form of speech, into the ineffable utterance of the Name of Jesus and the Name of Abba-Father, in blessed contemplation of the Face of the Risen One. Then, through the quiet presence and movement of the Spirit within us, there shall flow forth from the depths of our being inexhaustible streams of grace and praise (4).


(1) This quotation from Pope Paschal I was kindly indicated to me by Fr Emmanuel Lanne, who makes note of it in his study on "Rome et les Images saintes "; Irenikon (1986), p. 180-181. The Greek text of this letter has been published in Giovani Mercati's Note di Letteratura biblica e cristiana antica, " Studi e Testi," 5; Rome, 1901, p. 227-235.

(2) Cf. St John of Damascus, Imag . 1.9-13, quoted by C. von Schoborn, L'lcone du Christ, fondements thiologigues, Paris 1986, p. 191-193.

(3) G. Krug, Cornets d'une peintre d'icônes, Paris 1983, p. 35f ; Russian text, Paris 1978, p. 15f.

(4) This essay was originally presented at the Colloquium on Nicea II, held at the College de France, 2-4 October 1986. It was published in F. Boespflug and N. Lossky, Nic é II, 787' 1987, Cerf, Paris 1987, p. 367-374, and it is translated and reproduced here by permission of the publisher.

The French edition concluded with the following English summar y :

Having recalled the christological foundation of the icon, this ought not to be limited to the incarnation of the Word but to be extended to the entirety of the stages of the life of Christ, particularly the Cross, the Resurrection and the Ascension. The anthropological dimension of the icon leads out from the above. The painted icon finds its correspondence in the image of Christ engraved in the heart of man, an image which grows while leading man toward full resemblance. It is from these things that the sacramentality of the icon proceeds:

1) In its birth, from the hands and heart of the painter, but more fundamentally as a word of the only Artist Creator who is the Holy Spirit.

2) In its autonomous, permanent, objective existence as an ecclesial sacrament of divine grace.

3) In its ever-renewed mediation where a relation of communion with God is founded and developed.

Finally, the icon orients the gaze towards the heavenly Father, the Beyond the Word and Image, who yet comes with the Son to make his dwelling place in us".

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