The Eastern Church in the 8th century experienced the “iconoclastic controversy.” The main controversy was over the veneration of icons (holy images of Jesus, Mary, the Saints &c.). Those who thought icons ought not be used destroyed icons (hence the name “icon-smasher”). Saint John of Damascus responds to this controversy in On the Divine Images. He says, “I am emboldened to depict the invisible God, not as invisible, but as he became visible for our sake, by participation in flesh and blood. I do not depict the invisible divinity, but I depict God made visible in the flesh” (I.4). We do not have to be wary of images of God, for God is our Savior, Jesus Christ. When we see an image of Jesus, we simply see God as a man, as he really is. Thus, it is through Jesus who is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15) that icons become a testament to the truth about our Savior.
Christ is the Image of God, so in Him, we see the Image of the Creator. St. John of Damascus states, “now that God has been seen in the flesh and has associated with human kind, I depict what I have seen of God. I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation” (I.16). Through icons, we see reality—the reality that God is with us in the flesh. As it is written in Colossians, “For in him the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20 RSV-CE). God became incarnate and suffered as a human being so we may be united to him through participation in His Divine life. To reject icons is to reject that God became true man and thus can be depicted in an image.
A further defense that our Lord became matter—and thus can be seen in an icon—is that we receive Him in the Eucharist. As St. John of Damascus rightly points out, “is not the body and blood of my Lord matter?” (I.16). We do not only see that God came to us in the flesh through icons; God comes to us substantially in the Eucharist through which we experience His physical presence in the matter through which we receive our salvation. It is in this union with God that we are made truly human. Christ as the Image of the living God is the same Christ who restores the distorted Image of God in fallen humanity.
For several years now, icons have been a beautiful reminder to me that God is a human being, that the Son took on flesh and blood to be with me, to be united to me, for me to be brought into His life. While He is the Image of God the Father, He is also the Image of the Human Being; he is the new Adam, “the first-born of all creation” (Col. 1:15). In Christ, I see my humanity restored.
Icons are beautiful pieces of art that remind me that Jesus walked the earth and performed miracles and showed mercy and forgiveness to so many. They are reminders of salvation history and of the divine dwelling with humankind. But it is not until fairly recently that I have realized the great help that icons offer the faithful in prayer to focus our attention on the person of Christ, and specifically, to realize His real, human relationship with each of us.
There is something about gazing on the face of Christ in an icon that truly brings me close to Him. St. John of Damascus says, “For what the word of a story makes present through hearing, the very same is shown silently in a picture through imitation” (III.47). I cannot help but remember that Jesus is true man and true God, and someday, I will gaze on His face. Icons have been called windows into heaven, and they truly are. Looking into the eyes of Christ in an icon is a window into the mystery of what it means to look into the eyes of God. I know He sees me. And I know He bids me to see Him face to face. Looking on Him, I see my Hope, my Love, my Life. I am overwhelmed both by His perfect holiness and the perfect love of He who sees all things, of He who sees me.
As human beings, we are physical creatures. Physical objects mean something to us, as they often symbolize for us something greater or remind us of someone we love. As St. John of Damascus writes, “We therefore venerate the images, not by offering veneration to matter, but through them to those who are depicted in them” (III. 41). As physical manifestations of our love, we hug and we kiss one another. Because God is a human being in Jesus Christ, we can hang pictures of Him in our home. We can kneel before an icon of Jesus and talk to Him, even kiss the icon, as we would talk to a loved one we long to see and to hold. We are human beings, and God is, too. Let us gaze on the Image of God, who is also the Image of Man, and rest in the gaze of our Lord and our Lover.