Thoughts on Icons

1. The icon embraces the tension of the one and the many, of the universal and the particular. Each icon presents the mystery of the person as a particular mystery, the mystery of the named person who participates in the universal- yet particularly received- energies of God, is divinized. Divinization does not reduce the person into indistinguishableness; rather, it “expands” the person into her true self, her true realization in God. So the icon is not simply naturalism, but instead leans towards the mystery of realized personhood, the stylization of the icon indicating that this person has entered into this reality. When I view an icon I see a manifestation of what a true person can be, I am at once connected to that person and I am encouraged to live out my personhood in the energies of God.

The icon is also the possibility- both in itself and in what it says about matter- of the energies of God becoming manifest in a bewildering plurality of people and places and under a massive plurality of names and languages. Ambrosius Giakalis describes this potency in relation to the iconoclastic heresy:

“Fundamentally it was a debate about the locus of the holy. For holiness was not just a matter of personal piety; it was closely connected with the exercise of power in society. The legitimacy of material images as such was never a point at issue. The controversy revolved around which images could be regarded as vehicles of the holy. For the iconoclasts the holy was mediated to the people through material things consecrated by the clergy- the basilica with its liturgy, the Eucharist, the symbol of the cross. To have the holy mediated by a myriad icons seemed to them to dilute it to the point at which it ceased to be efficacious. The iconophiles, by contrast, sought through the icon to enable the holy to permeate the material world.”

The icon threatens the “secular” and the “bourgeois” in a way spiritualism and mere anti-materialism (in the strict sense of the word) cannot: it refuses to concede the created, the crafted, the material to the Devil, to the darkness of the age. The icon resists the commodification of everything, not by withdrawing from the material, from the manufactured even, but by embracing material reality and claiming it also for the Incarnate God. The material is not merely material for commodification and sale, for the use and exploitation of the fallen passions. The world is not conceded to the Devil; the world is not conceded to capitalism or the state or anyone else, but is contested by Christ and His saints. The icon then marks out materiality and material space as God’s; it is a redemption and a sign of redemption of matter, of the physical world, because it immediately participates in and transcends the “physical.”

2. Again, icons destabilize our language, by advocating the breaking in of God upon the world, of elevating the mystery of personhood in a manner we cannot speak. Early apologetics for icons emphasized their utility in educating the illiterate, yet at the same time they speak to the highly educated: the illiterate and the scholar meet on this un-worded ground of the Word, where the image cuts through language ultimately and moves the viewer/venerator to a different plane of knowledge, of participation. Kissing the icon is an action, is a movement beyond spoken language. It is an act of faith that expresses itself beyond what our words- as important as they are- are capable of. The image seen, the prayer uttered, the kiss done: multiple levels of the material and spiritual are involved, all becoming one transcendent act of prayer and veneration, reclaiming the whole for God, while pushing the limits of what can be said and what is expected of the world.

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