LE SANTE ICONE E LA FEDE DEI CRISTIANI: QUALCHE DOMANDA PER SAPERNE DI PIÙ

L’autorevole sito orthodoxinfo.com ha pubblicato, di recente, una serie di domande che frequentemente vengono rivolte da chi si accosta alle icone e a questa particolare forma di arte sacra, che riconduce alle sorgenti della cristianità. Riproponiamo tre di questi argomenti – Che cos’è un’icona? I cristiani pregano le icone? Le icone compiono miracoli? – agli amici del nostro spazio web. Domande e risposte sono in lingua inglese.

Do Orthodox Christians Worship Icons? What’s the difference between “worship” and “veneration”?

Orthodox Christians do not worship Icons in the sense that the word “worship” is commonly used in modern English. In older translations (and in some more recent translations in which the translators insist on using this word in its original sense), one finds the word “worship” used to translate the Greek word proskyneo (literally, “to bow”). Nevertheless, one must understand that the older use of “worship” in English was much broader than it is generally used today, and was often used to refer simply to the act of honoring, venerating, or reverencing. For example, in the old book of common prayer, one of the wedding vows was “with my body I thee worship,” but this was never intended to imply that the bride would worship her husband in the sense in which “worship” is commonly used now. Orthodox Christians do venerate Icons, which is to say, we pay respect to them because they are holy objects, and because we reverence what the Icons depict. We do not worship Icons any more than Americans worship the American flag. Saluting the flag is not exactly the same type of veneration as we pay to Icons, but it is indeed a type of veneration. And just as we do not venerate wood and paint, but rather the persons depicted in the Icon, patriotic Americans do not venerate cloth and dye, but rather the country which the flag represents.

This was the reasoning of the Seventh Œcumenical Synod, which decreed in its Oros the following: “Since this is the case, following the royal path and the teaching divinely inspired by our holy Fathers and the Tradition of the catholic Church—for we know that it is inspired by the Holy Spirit who lives in it—we decide in all correctness and after a thorough examination that, just as the holy and vivifying Cross, similarly the holy and precious Icons painted with colors, made with little stones or with any other matter serving this purpose (epitedeios), should be placed in the holy churches of God, on vases and sacred vestments, on walls and boards, in houses and on roads, whether these are Icons of our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ, or of our spotless Sovereign Lady, the holy Mother of God, or of the holy angels and of holy and venerable men. For each time that we see their representation in an image, each time, while gazing upon them, we are made to remember the prototypes, we grow to love them more, and we are more induced to worship them by kissing them and by witnessing our veneration (proskenesin), not the true adoration (latreian) which, according to our faith, is proper only to the one divine nature, but in the same way as we venerate the image of the precious and vivifying cross, the holy Gospel and other sacred objects which we honor with incense and candles according to the pious custom of our forefathers. For the honor rendered to the image goes to its prototype, and the person who venerates an Icon venerates the person represented in it. Indeed, such is the teaching of our holy Fathers and the Tradition of the holy catholic Church which propagated the Gospel from one end of the earth to the other.”

The Jews understand the difference between veneration and worship (adoration). A pious Jew kisses the Mezuza on his door post, he kisses his prayer shawl before putting it on, he kisses the tefillin, before he binds them to his forehead, and arm. He kisses the Torah before he reads it in the Synagogue. No doubt, Christ did likewise, when reading the Scriptures in the Synagogue. The Early Christians also understood this distinction as well. In the Martyrdom of Polycarp (who was St. John the Apostle’s disciple, and whose Martyrdom was recorded by the faithful of his Church, who were eyewitnesses of all that it recounts), we are told of how some sought to have the Roman magistrate keep the Christians from retrieving the body of the Holy Martyr “‘lest,’ so it was said, ‘they should abandon the crucified one and begin to worship this man’—this being done at the instigation and urgent entreaty of the Jews, who also watched when we were about to take it from the fire, not knowing that it will be impossible for us either to forsake at any time the Christ who suffered for the salvation of the whole world of those that are saved—suffered though faultless for sinners—nor to worship any other. For Him, being the Son of God, we adore, but the martyrs as disciples and imitators of the Lord we cherish as they deserve for their matchless affection towards their own King and Teacher…. The centurion therefore, seeing the opposition raised on the part of the Jews, set him in the midst and burnt him after their custom. And so we afterwards took up his bones which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place; where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birth-day [i.e. the anniversary] of his martyrdom for the commemoration of those that have already fought in the contest, and for the training and preparation of those that shall do so hereafter” (The Martyrdom of Polycarp 17:2-3; 18:1-3).

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Doesn’t the 2nd Commandment forbid Icons?

The issue with respect to the 2nd commandment is what does the word translated “graven images” mean? If it simply means carved images, then the images in the temple would be in violation of this Commandment. Our best guide, however, to what Hebrew words mean, is what they meant to Hebrews—and when the Hebrews translated the Bible into Greek, they translated this word simply as “eidoloi”, i.e. “idols.” Furthermore the Hebrew word pesel is never used in reference to any of the images in the temple. So clearly the reference here is to pagan images rather than images in general. Let’s look at the Scriptural passage in question more closely:

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image (i.e. idol), or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor shalt thou serve (worship) them…” (Exodus 20:4-5a).

Now, if we take this as a reference to images of any kind, then clearly the cherubim in the Temple violate this command. If we limit this as applying only to idols, no contradiction exists. Furthermore, if this applies to all images—then even the picture on a driver’s license violates it, and is an idol. So either every Protestant with a driver’s license is an idolater, or Icons are not idols. Leaving aside, for the moment, the meaning of “graven images” lets simply look at what this text actually says about them. You shall not make x, you shall not bow to x, you shall not worship x. If x = image, then the Temple itself violates this Commandment. If x = idol and not all images, then this verse contradicts neither the Icons in the Temple, nor Orthodox Icons.