“The All-compassionate God, ever wishing to arouse us to perfect recollection of His becoming man, hath delivered this precept unto men, namely, that His venerable form should be depicted through the painting of icons; so that beholding it with our eyes, we might believe what we have heard by word, and might clearly know the accomplishments and names, the appearances and the contests of the saints, and might also know Christ, the Crown-bestower, Who granteth crowns unto the holy athletes and martyrs, through whom now the Church yet more manifestly holdeth fast the true Faith and doth venerate the icon of Christ’s incarnation.” ~ Ikos of Orthros Canon for Sunday of 7th Ecumenical Council
This hymn is read at the Orthros for this Sunday, which is the commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. On this Sunday, we are reminded of the importance of icons in calling us to remembrance of God and of His boundless love for us.
God is compassionate, and desires “that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” And so He is always doing everything possible to save and heal us. One thing that He does is to remind us, continually, of the things we need to remember. As we hear in this hymn I just read, He wants to remind us of His becoming man - of His incarnation - out of love for us. This is the most central reality in our lives. And so to remind us of this reality He has given us icons - holy images. These are not idols, but rather the opposite. Idols lead our hearts away from God. Icons lead our hearts to God. Idols distract us from true worship. Icons call us to true worship and help us to focus on the true God.
The hymn goes on to say that God’s purpose in blessing the use of icons in the Church is “that beholding it with our eyes, we might believe what we have heard by word.” In today’s Gospel we hear the parable of the sower. As the Lord explains, the seed is His word. The Lord sows the Word - Himself, His life, His teaching, His love, His grace - in our hearts. But in the world, there are forces working against that. The devil comes and tries to snatch away the word. He tries to make us forget. Persecutions and afflictions and difficulties arise in our lives, and we are tempted to forget about the Word of truth in the midst of them , and seek some other consolation. Even outwardly good things - success in life, riches, pleasures, and so on, can drive a wedge between us and the Word of God. We get distracted by all our business and by the things our hearts get attached to, and we forget. We forget God.
The Desert Fathers were always talking about the need for the remembrance of God. They were striving for constant remembrance of God. In a sense, this is the whole struggle for us. And the great danger is to forget God. To experience spiritual amnesia. When the devil and the world and the flesh are all acting in a way to distract us, it is so easy to fall into this spiritual amnesia. And then our life falls sadly short of what it’s meant to be. Instead of attending the great wedding banquet to which we were invited, we end up wandering alone, in the dark, through the swamps of life.
Thankfully, God has provided a great many reminders to shake us out of the amnesia. Our worship in the Church does this for us. In the Liturgy, just before the consecration of the gifts we have what we call the “anamnesis” which means the “un-amnesia”. In other words, we remember everything that God has accomplished for our salvation, and we are filled with gratitude. Remembrance leads to Eucharistic thanksgiving.
And among the many other ways that God reminds us in the life of the Church, of Himself and His presence and His love, we have the Holy icons as particular reminders. As that hymn said, “[that we] might clearly know the accomplishments and names, the appearances and the contests of the saints, and might also know Christ, the Crown-bestower, Who granteth crowns unto the holy athletes and martyrs, through whom now the Church yet more manifestly holdeth fast the true Faith and doth venerate the icon of Christ’s incarnation.” In other words, the icons are constant reminders to us of how we are created to be icons - made in God’s image - and how the Lord become human to restore His human icons to their proper beauty and glory.
There is such a great need in our lives for these reminders. How often do we go through our whole day hardly thinking of God at all? How often are we living our life with spiritual amnesia? How sad! And it would be hard enough just with all the cares of life and responsibilities and so on. But on top of that, we’ve got all these electronic gadgets and gimics and so many things in today’s world that distract us and make us forget.
And besides all that, we live in a world that is very much iconoclastic. It is constantly denying the place of the icon of Christ. It pushes out the holy icons and puts other images in their place. You know, we can’t live with a vacuum. If we don’t surround ourselves with holy images, we will be surrounded with unholy images. This is exactly what has happened in society - we’re hit with a barrage unholy images all the time. In place of Holy Icons, we have all kinds of idols offered to us.
And this is exactly what can happen in our lives. With all the influences causing us to forget about God and to be distracted from thinking about Him, we have to fight to keep God in our minds. Our Faith gives us so many tools for that, but we have to make use of them. We have to put icons in our homes, in our offices, in our cars - wherever we spend our time. We have to come to Church often, and not just on Sundays. The services of the Church train us to think about God, and to remember Him in the most beneficial way. We have find times to pray at home, and to read the Scriptures and other holy books and to learn about the Saints. We have prayer ropes that remind us to continue praying throughout our day.
We have to be proactive about finding ways to keep God’s love always in mind, and to cultivate that remembrance, so that the world, the flesh and the devil won’t snatch the Word of the His love away from us. May God grant us, through the prayers of the Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council, and all the Saints, to remember Him constantly, and to know His love more deeply. Amen.