Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Icons, images, Church history, and churches

Icon of Our Lady of Czestowa
I just want to share a pretty neat coincidence of Church history and real life.

Over the weekend I went on a pilgrimage with a group from my diocese to a few notable churches in a nearby city.  One of them was a big, gorgeous, French Gothic Cathedral Basilica that looks like it was transplanted from Europe.  Another was a (ethinically) Polish Church with very ornate paintings inside, a beautiful icon of our Lady of Czestowa above the tabernacle (which was behind the altar), and a relic of Blessed Pope John Paul II.  We were lucky enough to have our bishop along with us, and he was our tour guide, being very familiar with both churches (he actually had been baptized at the Polish church, and he served at the Cathedral Basilica before becoming the Bishop of our diocese).

Throughout showing us around the churches, in addition to telling us about the history of the building, he told us a lot about the architecture, statues, stained glass, and paintings.  He kept on stressing how the images serve, in addition to creating a religious ambiance, to instruct viewers without words, especially back in a time when not everyone was literate.  That was the perfect thing for him to point out, since, coincidentally my reading assignment for my Church History class was  On The Divine Images by St. John of Damascus.  This was great!  The bishop was talking about the importance of images in our churches and that same weekend I was reading St. John's defense of using divine images!  (Mind blown by this coincidence.)

Icon of John of Damascus. And he's holding an icon!
 St. John of Damascus lived ca. 650 to ca. 749, and resigned from a post in the Muslim Caliph's court to join a monastery.  He was ordained a priest and wrote about theology, philosophy and liturgy.  During the period of 725 to 774, there was a period of iconoclasm, brought about by the imperial policy of Emperor Leo III, who wanted to forbid "worshiping" statues.  John of Damascus was conveniently located outside of the Byzantine empire, so he could write rather freely in contradiction of the emperor's policies.  This was his reason for writing his treatise, which is seen as "one of the most important reflections on the theological issues at stake in the iconoclastic controversies" (1).  Here is a link to Part I of the Apology against Those who Attack the Divine Images (not the translation I read, but probably close enough). This one may be easier on the eyes.

One of the ways St. John explains that images are not worshiped instead of God is by describing the nature of worship itself.  While worship is the way that we revere or honor something, there are different levels in which it is applied.  He explains that Adoration, or in Latin, latria, is the highest worship, which is due only to God.  This is probably why we use the phrase "Eucharistic Adoration" rather than a more general term.  On the other hand, we can also honor something that is not as high as God, but still deserves some degree of reverence.  This honor is in Latin called dulia.  I think these terms are also used to explain how we don't "worship" Mary as God, and how we pray to her and to saints.  St. John says some other interesting things, so I recommending reading some if this treatise (I only had to read Part I for class, not the whole thing).

1. Coakley and Sterk, Readings in World Christian History, Vol.I, 289.

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