Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Stump the Priest: When is an Icon an Icon?

Question: "When is an icon an icon? Do all depictions of Christ, even heterodox ones, deserve respect by not throwing them in the trash? Do Church bulletins that have crosses or even icons on them need to be put in the parish burn barrel? What about the Holy Scriptures? I would never throw away a Holy Bible, but what about announcements or periodicals that quote the Divine Scriptures?"

Fr. Steven Bigham recently posted an extensive article which argues that the practice of blessing Icons is not ancient, and presents a great deal of evidence that an icon was historically considered to be worthy of veneration simply by virtue of the holy image that is depicted on that icon. However, this same article suggests that the practice of blessing icons is something that is today only questioned by a "very few".

I would say that there is certainly truth to the statement that an icon is an icon by virtue of the image that is depicted. No pious Orthodox Christian would treat an unblessed icon of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or of the Saints with disrespect. And so, I think it is a good and pious practice to burn icons that would otherwise be thrown into the trash. Personally, I also burn non-Orthodox images of Christ or the saints, rather than throw them away, because even though the image is not Orthodox, it still depicts those whom I honor. So in my home, I keep a coffee can that is for holy things that need to be burned, and when the can is full, I burn its contents. You can also bury such things. I would treat a Bible that is no longer usable the same way. However, I think texts that simply have quotes from Scripture are not quite the same thing.

We should also be careful about who we give icons to, even if not blessed. Icon greeting cards have become very popular, but if you send one to someone who is not Orthodox, and not likely to show such images proper respect, and it ends up in the trash, this is disrespectful to persons depicted by these icons.

I don't share Fr. Steven Bigham's objection to blessing icons, however. For one thing, towards the end of his article, he recognizes the utility of doing a service that would put the Church's stamp of approval on an icon, and thus make clear that the image was a proper icon, and he also recognizes the utility of recognizing the beginning of its use and veneration in the Church. Fr. Steven even provides his own rendition of the kind of services he thinks should be used.

First off, in the Russian practice (which I believe is also followed by the OCA), there is an oath of ordination that a priest takes before he is ordained, and in this oath, the candidate promises " perform all liturgical services or prayers according to the rules of the Church...." and to perform the services as "prescribed by the rubrics," and he acknowledges to never "forget that a clergyman may do nothing without the sanction of his bishop." Therefore, a priest is obligated to serve in accordance with the services sanctioned by the bishops of his local Church. And so making up services on our own, or doing or neglecting to do services based on personal opinion is forbidden.

Secondly, there is a need we feel to bless and set apart those things that will be used for our services which we see as far back as the time of the Prophet Moses, who blessed and sanctified all the elements of the Tabernacle, most of which had icons of cherubim on them (Numbers 7:1). Fr. Steven himself acknowledges this to some extent when he proposes having services that recognize the beginning of the use of an icon by the Church.

Thirdly, we bless our churches and homes every year, liberally sprinkling Holy Water on everything, especially the icons. So I don't see any reason why we would not want to sprinkle Holy Water on icons when we first begin to put them into use.

The services for the blessing of icons are beautiful, and lay out why we venerate them, and how we understand them. They are a means of receiving these icons with thanksgiving, and setting them apart for their intended use. The fact that only a few would today object to them is also a good indication that there is nothing wrong with the practice.