The Sacred Icons and the Holy Cross - By: Fr. Anthony Alevizopoulos PhD. of Theology, PhD. of Philosophy
God is the unique Being, the absolute existence; nothing can be compared with
Him and the honor which is due Him, i.e. worship and adoration, is rendered
unto none other; neither to some non-existent god nor to some idol.
But God's grace
is transmitted in every way in accordance with His will; even through material
objects or even through the shadow of holy men, as was the case with the shadow
of the Apostles, which is their imprint, a type of image (Acts 5, 12-16.
In the Old
Testament some of the objects which transmitted the miraculous grace of God
were the bronze snake of Moses, the Ark of the Covenant, the sheep-skin coat of
the Prophet Elias, et al. Every desecration of the sacred objects was severely
punished by God (see Num. 10,15-20. I Kings 5, 2-4).
The teaching of
the Orthodox Church concerning the holy icons has a Christological foundation.
God is by essence unapproachable; He can neither be expressed by words nor
depicted. The Son and Word of God, however, became man and we beheld His glory
(Jn 1, 14). Thus we can depict the person of Christ which constitutes the
visible sign of the invisible presence of God, an "image of the invisible
God" (Col. 1, 15). In the Orthodox Church that which is seen can be
depicted; we express the same confession of faith either by written or oral
word and even by depiction. The icon of Christ constitutes the confirmation of
the incarnation of the Son and Word of God, which was a totally real, and not a
docetic or imaginary, one.
sacred icons we express our internal desire to grow in the love of Christ and
the saints, to attain to the "new creation in Christ" and to become
"conformed to His image" (Rom. 8,29). Just as the word sanctifies our
lips, in a like way the icon, which transmits the same meaning as does the
word, sanctifies our eyes and our mind.
The icons of the
saints refer to "the new man" and are a declaration of our belief in
our transformation in Christ and in the incorruption of man and the entire
world. They do not refer to the "beauty" of this world, but rather
symbolize the beauty and the glory of the "future age". This is why
the holy icons lack the dimension of "depth" and are
two-dimensional. They proclaim a transfigured world which however we observe
"as through a mirror" (I Cor. 13, 12). The holy icons give us the
feeling that there exists a new world that is being transformed, and they
constitute the assurance of our hope, expressed in the words of our Lord:
"Behold I make all things new" (Rev. 21,5).
rendered to the holy icons is placed within the framework established by the Seventh
Ecumenical Council. According to the Holy Fathers of this council, the honor
shown towards the holy icons refers back to the ancient Church and confirms the
belief in the real incarnation of God the Word. This council ordains that along
with the Holy Cross icons be made for the Churches, to be placed on the sacred
vessels and the vestments of the priests, in the homes and in the roads; icons
of Christ, the Theotokos and all the saints. It further underlines:
more frequently they [the sacred icons] are seen, all the more those who see
them are moved to remembrance and desire of those depicted; to them [the icons]
they render greetings and a veneration of honor, but not true worship, which in
accordance with our faith, is due only unto the divine nature...for the honor
rendered to the icon is transferred to the prototype, and he who venerates the
icon venerates the person depicted thereon".
Christians believe that the Holy Cross is their only pride (Gal. 6,14). It is
the instrument through which sin, the source of death, was set at naught (Rom.
5,12. 8,3). The Cross is thus no longer a symbol of death and of shame (Deut.
21,23), but a source of eternal life. Through the Cross the curse is done away
with, conciliation "in Christ" is brought about, and "the new
man" is created (Eph. 2, 15- 16). These truths are expressed in many of
the hymns of the Church:
out Your hands on the Cross, Ο Merciful One, and You gathered together the
Nations that were far from You so that they might glorify Your great
spreading out Your divine hands upon the Cross, Ο Jesus,
You brought unto
Yourself the work of Your hands, and You freed all from the hands of the Evil
One and subjected them [unto You], for which cause let us faithful hymn Your
majesty, for indeed it is glorified".
The Cross of
Christ is thus characterized by the Lord Himself as glory, as the judgment of
this world, as the casting out of the Devil and as exaltation (Jn 12, 24-33).
Our Church characterizes the Cross as "a weapon against the Devil",
because he trembles and shudders at the sight of the Cross, not being able to
bear its power.
have given us Your Cross as a weapon against the Devil; for he shudders and
trembles, not being able to gaze upon its might.
resurrects the dead,
for which cause
and Your Resurrection".
The Holy Cross
of Christ becomes a standard and a measure of either man's triumph or his
condemnation, depending upon the position he takes vis-a-vis it. Whoever
equates Christ's Cross with that of the thieves, is equated with the
unrepentant thief and is condemned. On the contrary, whoever differentiates the
Cross of Christ and considers it to be a royal scepter, and invokes the mercy
of Christ, is likened unto the good thief, and the road leading to Paradise is
opened up before him. In this way the Holy Cross becomes the measure of the
judgment of the world, "the scale of justice" as it is called by the
hymn of the Church:
stood between two thieves
as a scale of
The one is led
down to hell
by the weight of
the other is
lightened from the burden of his sins
knowledge of things divine.
Ο Christ-God, glory to You".
When we speak of
the Holy Cross we do not mean only Christ's crucifixion, but also the wood of
the Cross. For this, too, is sanctified by its contact with the Body of Christ,
and that is why it, too, is venerated: "The wood of Your Cross do we
venerate, Ο Lover of man, for on it was nailed the Life of
all things", states one of the Church's hymns. The sign of the Cross is
also "divine and venerable", says St. Gregory Palamas, for it is
"a venerable seal, sanctifying and perfecting all the marvelous and
ineffable good things that come from God". It is an image of the crucified
Christ and it draws its power and grace from His passion. This is why the
sealing with the sign of the Cross is the external sign of all of the Church's
Mysteries through which man's salvation is wrought.
The Cross of
Christ expresses the ineffable love of God, but at the same time it also
expresses man's infinite value in God's sight. A contemporary theologian says
that Christ put sin to death without slaying the sinner; He did away with guilt
and yet saved the guilty one. This is the great difference between Christ and
human justice which crushes guilt by deriding and disgracing the guilty one.
However, Christ did not simply conquer sin but also the consequence of sin
which is death, and restored man to his pristine purity. Thus He led man to a
surpassing of death, to the life of immortality and incorruption. Thus we do
not have here a lifting of some type of Augustinian inherited guilt, nor room
for any type of "payment" or "ransom" - save only in the
patristic sense - and certainly not an Anselmian satisfaction of Divine
justice. Rather the weight rests on Christ's love, Who achieved the most
extreme limits of sacrifice in behalf of those whom He loves. And it is in
precisely this that we see man's infinite value.
Making the sign
of the Cross is an early Christian Tradition testified to by St. Justin the
Martyr (+ 150) and by Tertullian (+ 200). The latter writes: " We
Christians in all our travels and in all our movements about, at every departure
and upon every arrival, when we put on our clothes and shoes, in the bath and
at the table, when we light our lamp, when we sit or sleep, in all the acts of
our every-day life in general, we make the sign of the Cross".
custom," Tertullian concludes, "has its beginnings in the Church's
Tradition, it is strengthened through habit and should be preserved in
Christians unite the three fingers of their right hand and place them first on
their forehead, then on their stomach and finally bring them to their two
shoulders from right to left. All of the Church's theology is depicted in the
sign of the Cross. By uniting our three fingers we depict and confess our
belief in the One Triune God. From the forehead we bring our fingers to the
stomach, and by so doing "typify the Son" Who was pre-eternally born
of the Father and came down to earth by His birth from the Virgin Mary. When we
place our united fingers on our shoulders we do so to "typify the Holy
Spirit", Who is characterized as being the "arm" and the
"might" of God. By uniting the remaining two fingers we depict
Christ's incarnation and the inseparable union of the two natures, through
which human nature was cured and exalted to the height of theosis.
We must not make
the sign of the Cross in a mechanical way, but conscientiously, with inner
participation. We should make the sign of the Cross upon our bodies distinctly
and not carelessly, but in accordance with the order of the Church: with our
three fingers joined together and as if the Cross itself were touching us. It
is understood that the sign of the Cross must be accompanied by analogous
faith in that which it depicts ; the unwavering decision to crucify and do away
with our sinful selves and our passions; to put on the new man and ever be
orientated towards the Cross and the Resurrection of Christ.
Christians therefore render respect and honorary veneration to the Cross just
as they do to the holy icons, in relation always to the personage of Christ.
This also holds true for the honor rendered to the saints. This honor is not
adoration and worship, but an expression of respect and love towards persons
and things which God Himself honored by abundantly bestowing upon them His
grace. This veneration would be transformed into worship only in such case
where one were to render it by identifying in his conscience that which he
venerated with God. No Orthodox Christian, however, ever identifies the Holy
Cross, the sacred icons or the saints with God, nor does he differentiate the
honor accorded them from their relationship to the person of our Lord.