Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 21 June 2015 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 21 June 2015

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

Readings:  Jeremiah 10.1-16; Romans 11.25-end

Along with the violence perpetrated by the ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, the murder, rape and sexual enslavement, there is the deliberate destruction of Christian churches like those in Mosul and even of archeological remains of ancient civilizations; all of which are seen as ‘un-Islamic.’

The puritanical Wahhabi brand of Islam, which inspires such jihadist movements, is sponsored by the Saudi kingdom. There the destruction has even extended to ancient Muslim buildings, tombs and artefacts.

The roots of Muslim iconoclasm lie in Judaism: in the denunciation of idol worship which we heard from the prophet Jeremiah this evening, his ridiculing of those who take a piece of wood and make it into a god, and in the prohibition of the graven images in the Ten Commandments. 

Iconoclasm, the breaking or abolition of images, has also had a place in Christian history.  The sudden military success of Arab Islam which over-ran much of the Christian East was a factor in prompting its adoption in Byzantium in the 8th century. For us, icons are such a feature of the Orthodox tradition, that it is difficult to image Eastern Christian worship and spirituality without them.  Yet, for a century and more, a theological debate raged over the legitimacy of such images in the life of the Church.  This quickly became a full-blown crisis with political and social dimensions.    The emperor Leo III proscribed their use, even removing a large icon of Christ from above the entrance of the imperial palace, and replacing it with a simple cross.

His son, Constantine V, was an even more passionate iconoclast.  He persecuted the ‘iconodules,‘ the venerators of images, savagely and relentlessly, especially the monks, who were the most zealous and uncompromising champions of icons.

To the iconoclasts, the veneration of sacred images was contrary to the spirit of the second commandment and to the practices and teachings of the ancient church.  The adoration of material objects was a corruption of Christian piety; and the attempt to represent the living God by means so thoroughly unworthy of his divine dignity was blasphemous. They objected to icons on the grounds that images could not properly represent Christ as incarnate God, since they could not depict his ineffable, invisible and infinite divinity.

The most brilliant and effective defender of the icons was John of Damascus.  As he lived under Muslim rule, he was beyond the reach of imperial persecution. He argued that images had long been part of the Christian tradition, and had, if nothing else, served as a means of instruction for the faithful.  More importantly, he contested, the iconclasts’ negative view of the material.  Matter, he reminded them, is the good creation of God, and through it we can worship and adore its creator.  Matter itself becomes worthy of veneration when it is transformed into a vehicle of divine enlightenment, sanctification or salvation. Most adorable of all is the material body of the incarnate Word.  

For John, it is not the matter from which images are made that is the principal reason for our veneration, but their capacity to show us the persons they depict. The prohibition of images in the law of Moses was appropriate then, because God had not yet been fully revealed. So the images of gods were false and misleading portraits of creatures which did not exist. Now, however, God had revealed himself, and given us the perfect icon of himself. In the incarnation, we have seen the very face of God, and so we can imitate that divinely crafted icon in one fashioned by human hands. Icons are an affirmation that in Christ God has truly become human.

For John, It made no more sense, to say that an icon could not depict Christ’s divinity than to say that his human body could not reveal it.  In an icon, it is the subject that is being revealed, and it is that person to whom the veneration is offered. Icons, like other actions and objects which have never been officially defined as sacraments, still have about them a sacramental quality. They communicate something of God and the holy and to draw us into it.

The defeat of Iconoclasm came in stages.  The first phase came to an end with the rise to power of the formidable Empress Irene.  (Women play a significant role in the resolution of this crisis.) The widow of Leo IV, this woman of remarkable intellect and will was appointed guardian of and co-emperor with her son Constantine VI in 780.  She took it upon herself to restore the sacred images.  She called the 7th Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 787 which affirmed the use of icons in prayer and worship. 

The council made things clearer by drawing clear distinctions between:

  •  Veneration – douleia  –  appropriate in regard to sacred things such as icons,
  • Super-veneration – hyperdouleia  – appropriate to offer to, say, the Mother of God,
  • Worship – latreia – offered to God alone.  

The icons were restored and Irene was canonised after her death. But iconclasm was not dead yet.  In 813, a new Emperor Leo V reinstated the iconoclast laws and resumed persecution.  Opposition to imperial policy was led by Theodore the Studite, the abbot of the Studion monastery in Constantinople. He was flogged and exiled for his efforts. 

It was only with the rule of another empress, Theodora, that the laws were finally revoked in 843.

The veneration of icons was solemnly proclaimed in the great church of Hagia Sophia (the Divine Wisdom) in Constantinople. The Empress, her son Michael III, Patriarch Methodius, clergy and monks, came in procession bearing the icons to restore them to their place.   The day was called “The Triumph of Orthodoxy,” and has been celebrated ever since on the First Sunday in Lent – known now as “The Sunday of Orthodoxy.”

An icon called “The Triumph of Orthodoxy” commemorates this restoration.  The focal point of the icon is an icon: that of the Virgin Hodogetria – the Directress – She who points the way to God.  Beside the icon stand Theodora and her son.   

Iconoclasm was to have a new lease of life, this time in the West with the Reformation. It was an age of new scholarship and the new technology of printing. People were in love with words rather than pictures, ideas rather than images.  Although Luther was not an iconoclast; seeing the educational value of images, if not the devotional, other reformers took up the cause with gusto.   The destruction of images was sometimes the result of mob violence stirred up the inflammatory preachers. At others, it was the deliberate policy of the state, as watchers of “Wolf Hall” will know.   In this country, its legacy remains: both in the destruction wreaked upon many of our churches; and in the continuing hostility to images as “idols” among evangelical Christians. 

One of the things which churches like this did in the 19th century was to remind the Church of England of the value on images in communicating the divine. This is a task which is not yet complete.  The negative attitude has taken a new form in recent years with the rise of ‘seeker-friendly’ churches which shun any form of religious symbols in their buildings– deliberately modeled on the auditorium and the shopping mall – with the evangelistic intention of making people feel comfortable with church.

What are we to make of the words of Jeremiah today? Do they refer to anything more than a problem of ancient times?  Because people in our culture do not worship the kind of idols he denounces. We don’t see them as having ultimate power, so these texts seem archaic and irrelevant. What was a problem then is not one now.

But for Christianity, idolatry is not just about graven images, pictures and statues.   It has been defined as: “any non-absolute value that is made absolute and demands to be the centre of dedicated life.”    The problem in not in the making of images of the saints but in the idolization of power, wealth, of political and economic systems, of national and racial identity, of the idea that fulfillment is to be found in consumption. (We have seen the terrible consequences of the idolatry of race in the murders of people taking part in a Bible study at Emmanuel Church in Charleston – simply because they were black.) 

In the history of both communism and fascism in the last century, we see a quite deliberate attempt to exploit quasi-religious imagery and practice to promote absolutist ideologies, and often a determination to stamp out the worship of any other god.    

The idols of today are not of wood, stone and metal. They are formed and propagated by a culture and industry of ‘image-making’; advertising, television, film, websites and social media. These false gods are made attractive by their supposed economic value or power, or their promise to enhance our lives. 

It is in these seductive and enslaving images, not among those who come to light a candle before our statue of Mary and Jesus, that idolatry is to be found today. It is against that enslavement to worldly gods and goods, that the voice of prophecy must be spoken if people are to enjoy that “glorious liberty of the children of God”, which we pray for in today’s collect.