By FATHER JOSEPH A. FAHY, CP, Commentary | Published March 23, 2006
Some weeks before beginning the holy season of Lent, we put away the tender Nativity scenes, centered on the lovely images of the Holy Family, the newborn Infant, Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, and the Magi. As the beautiful preface of the Christmas Mass marvelously proclaims, “In the wonder of the Incarnation … a new and radiant vision” emerged. In Jesus, “we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.” During Lent we also venerate the image of the crucified Christ. Realistic crucifixes portray vividly the sufferings of the Crucified, helping us understand the Gospels’ description of the crucifixion.
The veneration of sacred images and icons is recognized as lawful by both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.
Before the tragic separation of the Eastern and Western churches, various Byzantine emperors during the eighth century condemned such veneration. The movement forbidding the veneration of icons or images, called iconoclasm (from the Greek, meaning “breaking of images”), led to widespread destruction of icons and/or religious representations.
To address this challenge, the seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II, was convoked. Nicaea II was the last ecumenical council fully recognized by both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The roles of Pope Adrian I and of the Catholic Church have been recognized as essential for the success and validity of that Council.
The Council stated that “the production of art representing events of Jesus’ life” is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the Gospel, as it provides confirmation that the Word of God truly became man, and not apparently or in an imaginary fashion. The defense of the veneration of images was presented principally as a legitimate and logical consequence of the Incarnation of the Son of God, “And the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14). The term “flesh” emphasizes the reality of Jesus’ humanity.
St. John of Damascus, in his classic defense of the cult of sacred images, declares that the artist “boldly draws an image of the invisible God, not as invisible, since the divinity of God is impossible to be represented pictorially, but as having become visible” by assuming a human nature for our sakes, by partaking of flesh and blood. “I do not draw an image of the immortal Godhead, but I print the image of God who became visible in the flesh.”
Through art, Jesus is born, seen, touched, eats and drinks, matures and grows, works and rests, hungers and thirsts, weeps and sweats, sheds His blood, is beaten, dies and is buried. “By means of the visible human face of the God made flesh, image of the invisible God (Col l:15), we are led to the worship and service of the invisible majesty of God.”
The Council of Nicaea declared that the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the martyrs, and saints could be represented in images, to aid the prayer and devotion of the faithful, particularly the numerous illiterate, “who could see what they were unable to read in the Scriptures.”
The very holy sacraments of the church employ material elements: bread, wine, water, oil, and the Sign of the Cross. The honor given to a sacred image is actually bestowed upon the one who is represented.
Those who condemn the cult of sacred images “call into question the reality of the Incarnation”—that the Son of God, equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit, assumed in the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4) a real human nature, not the mere appearance of a humanity (a belief called docetism).
The beginning of the First Epistle of St. John, similar to the classic prologue of the Gospel, expresses how the witnesses of the events of Jesus’ life, in a thoroughly concrete manner, experienced these events through their senses: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life … and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us” (1 Jn 1-2).
Pope John Paul II stated in his apostolic letter on the 12th centenary of the Second Council of Nicaea, Dec. 4, 1987, that the anniversary should be an invitation for both Catholics and Orthodox “to travel again together the road of the undivided Church.” Pope Benedict XVI has also indicated from the beginning of his papacy that closer ties with the Orthodox Churches are a high priority for him. In addition, the Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna recently stated that Catholic and Orthodox leaders are preparing a “historical meeting between the pope and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Aleksy II.”
May the future “historic” meeting between pope and patriarch be an important step in healing the tragic division between the two sister churches, echoing our Blessed Lord’s prayer: “I pray … that all may be one … that the world may believe you sent me” (Jn 17:20-21).
Father Joseph A. Fahy, CP, works with the Hispanic ministry for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He is a parochial vicar at St. Lawrence Church, Lawrenceville.