This past Sunday I was at the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy at the local Orthodox parish. As he often does, the pastor provided a brief explanation of the origins of the feast, which was the end of the power of the Iconoclast heretics and the restoration of icons to the churches by the Regent Theodora. The Iconoclasts had gained their power by the fact that the emperor Leo III had agreed with them and had been willing to use Byzantine imperial power to enforce his views by banning the use of icons.
When an underwater volcano wreaked havoc upon parts of the empire, many people, including (it seems) Leo III, believed that this was a sign of God's wrath, and then inferred that what had caused God's wrath was the use of religious images. Interestingly, common superstition lead to a concern with idolatry, and this then lead to violence as those who believed that the images were idols (iconoclasts) and those who thought them worthy of veneration (iconodules) clashed over the issue. Because the Emperor at the time agreed with the iconoclasts, many icons were destroyed, and this is in large part why there are so few Byzantine icons remaining from the era prior to the first Imperial spasm of iconoclasm.
The priest of the Orthodox parish helpfully explained the reason for our continued veneration of icons despite the prohibition of graven images in the Ten Commandments. He pointed out that until God was incarnate in the form of Jesus Christ, there was no God in the world which could be represented by the use of images. Because God Himself had not showed the Israelites an icon of Himself, God could not be depicted as an icon. That is, until God became incarnate, sending His only begotten Son in human form, God clothed in the image and likeness of God.
We know from Sacred Scripture, specifically Genesis, that from the beginning we have been made in the image of God and bear His likeness. For those of us in the Latin tradition, this is often referred to as imago dei, a concept I've referenced before. For those in the Greek tradition, the term is eikōn, rendered as icon in English. This term is used in the Septuagint in the passage which explains that we are made in the image of God. According to Sacred Scripture, we are all icons of the living God, made by Him in His image and bearing His likeness. God created us as icons, so we know that icons are good, which may be why we keep so many of those we love.
The pictures I have in my apartment of my family, friends, and godchildren are very much images of people I love, icons of those created in God's image just as the Saints are, but no one suspects me of worshiping them. And though my Protestant grandmother's house is so thoroughly lined with pictures as to be reminiscent of the way Orthodox and Catholic churches are covered in images, no one would ever suspect her of worshiping them no matter how often she has filled her house with prayer and worship. And if she were to kiss an image of my grandfather who has passed away and hope in her heart that he could see her and pray for her from Heaven, many would think it a touching testament to her love for him.
They would probably admire my grandmother's devotion, and rightly so. But when the Orthodox or Catholic grandmother shows devotion to an icon by kissing it or touching it, many of the same folks are much more likely to worry than to admire her devotion to the Communion of Saints. And when those who are Orthodox and Catholic cover the house of God with the images of those He loves and those who love Him, painted and sculpted images of the members of the family of Love who have been adopted into the divine household through the Blood of Christ, some are concerned that this is idolatry.
This is, of course, understandable. We humans are prone to worshiping other human beings, the icons of the living God, instead of worshiping God. Many a lover has begun to worship his beloved, placing her on a pedestal in his heart, placing her above even God. And this is indeed iconolatry, a grave sin to be avoided at great cost. We should neither worship one another as icons of the living God nor worship painted or sculpted icons of one another.
We should go no father than dulia for the icons of the living God, venerating them for their godliness but not worshiping them as God. And just as God did not refrain from creating icons in His image, knowing that they would sometimes worship one another, the ancient Church did not refrain from creating icons in His image though it was likely that some would fall to worship them. Neither God nor His Church keep back from His People the good things of the world, though we may do evil with them.
And we who are icons created by the God who is Love are bound to participate in God's love which creates icons; thus it is natural and right for those who participate in God's love to also create icons, images of the living God and images of the icons he has created out of His great Love. We are the icons of Love, and we cannot help but show our love for Him by creating icons of Love and icons of those who He loves.
How can we not create icons of Love when He sent us the very Icon of Love? Christ is indeed both Love and the Icon of Love, God in the form of an icon. Christ Himself tells us in the Gospels that through Him we see the Father (John 4:19). In the Incarnation, God took to Himself an icon and became the true Image of God. Christ is the imago dei who shows us how to be more fully an imago dei; Christ shows us the path we must walk, the via dolorosa which leads those of us who are icons of Love into being united with Love.
Christ is the very Icon of Love, and even He was destroyed on the cross; His death was the destruction of the most holy icon of all, the ultimate iconoclasm. If even Christ, the Icon of Love, is smashed by the iconoclasts of the time who could not imagine a greater blasphemy than a man who was God in the image of God, then is it any surprise that many other icons of Love would be smashed by iconoclasts?
The holy martyrs, like us, are icons of the living God, the images of God crushed in their infirmity; like Christ, they will rise to glory. We are called to follow them, to willingly separate ourselves from anything which might keep us from being beautiful icons of Love, to divest ourselves of all that is not a reflection of the light of divine love. Like the holy martyrs, we are called to love to death all that prevents us, we who are images of God, from being united with the one whose likeness we bear.
As we reflect the light of the Icon of Love, we become more and more the image and likeness of God, icons of ever greater beauty. Just as those who paint icons pray while they paint in order that their icons might become holy icons, so too we are called to pray in order that we might become holy, icons who increasingly resemble the great beauty of their love He who is Love.
In imitating Christ, He who is the Icon of Love, we are gradually transformed into ever more clear and more beautiful icons of Love; by His grace we are granted to be perfect just as our heavenly Father is perfect.
By Anonymous - National Icon Collection (18), British Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7306236
Note: The image is an icon depicting the restoration of icons to the churches under Theodora and Michael III.