Sunday, October 13, 2002

Is Iconoclasm Back?

Today in the Eastern Church it is the Sunday of the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. This council took place in Nicea in 787, and was called in response to the problem of the Iconoclast heresy. In 726, the Emperor Leo ordered all the images of Christ and the saints to be forcibly removed from all the churches. Most were destroyed. Leo was probably influenced in his decree against the images by the Muslims, who had attempted to convert him. Leo decided to get rid of the images, hoping that this would allow an easier conversion of Muslims and Jews. As a result, the faithful had to suffer as their churches were despoiled and their precious icons were destroyed. To see what these icons look like, go visit my parish's web site.

In 787, the council declared that we could in fact venerate icons. The reason given is the Incarnation of Christ. Here is an excerpt from the hymn sung in Liturgy today: How the Son proceeded from the Father our words cannot express; but having two natures, He was born of a woman. We do not reject His image when we behold it, but in faith we venerate and honor it. And the Church professes it as true belief when she honors the image of Christ's incarnation.

We are able to venerate images of Christ and the saints because Christ assumed a truly human nature, thus elevating that human nature. The old testament prohibition against graven images makes perfect sense, because the God of the Hebrews was a spirit and not a physical being. But two thousand years ago, the greatest miracle of all happened: God, pure spirit, became man. Since the second person of the Trinity was born of the Virgin, we can truly paint a picture of God. It is right and just that we do so. The picture of the human being is a picture of God because God is a human being. This is the great and awesome mystery that the icons celebrate.

What does any of this have to do with us today? This past summer I traveled to Spain with my wife. We visited a 1200 year-old mosque in Cordoba, built by the Muslims over the site of a Catholic church in the 800's. (After the Reconquista, it was reclaimed by the Catholics, and is a cathedral now.) The building is an amazing structure, consisting of thousands of columns arranged in precise geometrical patterns. In keeping with the theology of Islam, there are no images of God and no representational art. There are only verses from the Koran embroidered into the mosaics. There is a garden outside that even has air conditioning, by means of evaporating water. It is a site well worth visiting.

It is the first mosque I have ever visited, but I felt that I had been there before. Then it hit me: the mosque reminded me of any number of Catholic church buildings here in America. Modern church design is every bit as iconoclastic as Muslim mosque building in the ninth century. There are rarely any images of the saints, the stained glass windows are non-representational, the high altar is non-existent or stripped of all ornament, and the central focus of the building is no longer the tabernacle, but an amorphous "worship space" at the center of the congregation. Christ may be there among us, but His image is almost nonexistent. But for the crucifix, often itself a "risen Christ" or something terribly distorted and abstract, one would not know that most of these buildings are churches. We are the midst of an especially virulent outbreak of iconoclasm.

In the old days, iconoclasm was easy to fight, since it was imposed by a bad emperor. The Church had a target to fight. Now, however, iconoclasm is hidden in liturgical committees and architectural firms. They will never deny the Incarnation of Christ, but they will ever so gently but insistently remove all testimony to the Incarnation from the churches. Heresy has become as invisible and ephemeral as poison gas. You might not even know you have been poisoned until it is too late.

Fortunately, however, there is something we can do, although it will involve much suffering. If your parish has liturgical committees or worship-space committees, join them, no matter how painful it may be. These committees must be stacked with Catholics who understand the Church's teaching on sacred art and music. Then, perhaps, parish by parish, we can fight back the scourge of iconoclasm.

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