Veneration of Icons and Relics

Orthodox Churches have Icons and some have relics.

The orthodox christian can be seen praying in the presence of these objects and venerating them.

This practise has been accused as idolatery by protestants and muslims.
But Orthodox Christians do not worship Icons or Relics. We “Venerate” them.

Veneration and Worship are different. And why do we Venerate them? Where did this practise come from?..etc

Let us deal with this subject in detail to clear the misconceptions.

What is really an Icon?

1. What is an Icon?

An Icon is an image (usually two dimensional) of Christ, the Saints, Angels, important Biblical events, parables, or events in the history of the Church.

2. Do Orthodox Christians pray to Icons?

Christians pray in the presence of Icons (just as Israelites prayed in the presence of Icons in the Temple), but we do not pray to the image.

3. Do Icons work miracles?

To put this question in proper perspective, let’s consider a few other questions:

*Did the Ark of the Covenant work miracles (e.g. Joshua 3:15ff; 1st Samuel 4-6; 2nd Samuel 11-12)?
*Did the Bronze Serpent heal those bitten by snakes (Numbers 21:9)?
*Did the Prophet Elisha’s bones raise a man from the dead (2nd Kings 13:21)? Did St. Peter’s shadow heal the sick (Acts 5:15)?
*Did aprons and handkerchiefs that had touched St. Paul heal the sick and caste out evil spirits (Acts 19:12)?

The answer to these questions are, Yes, in a manner of speaking. Nevertheless, to be precise,it was God who chose to work miracles through these things.

The fact that God can sanctify material things should come as no surprise to those familiar with Scripture. For example, not only was the Altar of the Temple holy, but anything that touched it was holy as well (Exodus 29:37).
But to be precise, it is God who works miracles through Icons, because He honors those who have honored Him.

Doesn’t the 2nd Commandment forbid Icons?

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image (i.e. idol), or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor shalt thou serve (worship) them…” (Exodus 20:4-5a).

The word used is Graven Image. We are asked not even to “Make unto thee”. We are asked to refrain from even making/creating them!.

So what is this “Graven Image” that God asks not even to make???.

If it referred to “images of any kind”, then we cannot make images of Anythin,

Then even the picture on a driver’s license violates it, and is an idol. So either every Protestant with a driver’s license is an idolater, or Icons are not idols.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the meaning of “graven images” lets simply look at what this text actually says about them. You shall not make x, you shall not bow to x, you shall not worship x. If x = image, then the Temple itself violates this Commandment. If x = idol and not all images, then this verse contradicts neither the Icons in the Temple, nor Orthodox Icons.

Also the word used in the Hebrew Bible is “Pesel” which means “PAGAN IDOLS”.

The images inside the Holy Temple of Jerusalem were never described using the word pesel.

Pesel in Hebrew, Eidoloai in Greek and “graven image” in english all refer to pagan idols alone.

Veneration of “ephod” by the Jews.

“A passage in the Book of Exodus describes the Ephod as an elaborate garment worn by the high priest, and upon which the Hoshen (breastplate), containing Urim and Thummim, rested. According to this description, the Ephod was woven out of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet threads, was made of fine linen, and was embroidered with cunning work in gold thread[11]; the Talmud argues that each of the textures was each combined in six threads with a seventh of gold leaf, making twenty-eight threads to the texture in total.”

“Interestingly, according to the Talmud(Jewish Scripture) the wearing of the ephod atoned for the sin of idolatry on the part of the Children of Israel.”[36]

Icons in the Old Testament.

If Icons are so important, why do we not find them in the Scriptures?

Ah, but we do find them in the Scriptures-plenty of them! Consider how prevalent they were in the Tabernacle and then later in the Temple. There were images of cherubim:

* On the Ark-Ex. 25:18
* On the Curtains of the Tabernacle-Ex. 26:1
* On the Veil of the Holy of Holies-Ex. 26:31
* Two huge Cherubim in the Sanctuary-1st Kings 6:23
* On the Walls-1st Kings 6:29
* On the Doors-1st Kings 6:32
* And on the furnishings-1st Kings 7:29,36

In short, there were Icons everywhere you turned!

Matter sanctified by the Incarnation.
It is a sin to try to portray an Image of the Invisible and Omnipresent Almighty Father.
Because it would be a lie and it would be a mockery.

However , the Son- our LORD Jesus Christ was Word Incarnated as Flesh, as Matter.

This passage instructs the Jews not to make a (false) image of God, because they had not seen God, however, as Christians, we believe that God became Incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, and so we may depict that “which we have seen with our eyes” (1st John 1:1).

God has become flesh, has become human, so that the entire man, the entire body, might be filled with God and with His miracle-working forces and powers. In the God-Man, the Lord Christ, and His Body, all matter has been set on a path toward Christ -the path of deification, transfiguration, sanctification, resurrection, and ascent to an eternal glory surpassing that of the Cherubim. And all of this takes place and will continue to take place through the Divine and human Body of the Church, which is truly the God-Man Christ in the total fullness of His Divine and Human Person, the fullness “that fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23)

The Human Body was sanctified by the simple fact GOD came and lived in it.

The Body of a Saint, who transforms into Christlikeness is truly a Holy Temple of GOD.
If we too, lived pure christian lives, our Bodies would become holy..because our Bodies(flesh/matter) are the Temple of God.

Place of relics in Orthodox Church.
The bible describes many events in which the relics of saints perform miracles. It also testifies that even material articles associated with saints have divine powers.

* Before his death, Joseph commanded his descendents that they should take his bones with them when they leave Egypt (Genesis: 50: 25). As per this Moses took them when they left Egypt and the Israelites buried the same in Shechem (Joshua 24: 32).
* When Elisha struck the water of river Jordan with the cloak of Prophet Elijah , the river divided into two parts. (2 Kings 2:14)
* When a man’s corpse fell into Elisha’s tomb and touched his bones that man resurrected to life (2 Kings: 13:21)
* People used to bring the sick into the streets and lay them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. (Act 5:15)
* Acts 19:11-12 reads: “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.”

All these incidences shows that articles associated with saints have divine powers. These powers are bestowed upon them by God because of their good deeds and their life style of high purity.
The orthodox tradition of respecting the relics of saints come from these facts. The Church is not worshiping the relics as idols, but by understanding that these relics have divine presence, the church is paying special respect to them.

The OT jews also many things as holy, for eg: Mount Sinai, the Ark of the Covenant, the ephod.

Reason for Veneration.

10. OK, granted that there are Icons of sorts in Scripture, but where were the Israelites told that they should venerate them?

The Scriptures do command the Israelites to bow before the Ark, which had two prominent images of cherubim on it. In Psalms 99:5, it commands: “bow before the footstool of His feet….” We should note first of all that the word for “bow” here, is the same word used in Exodus 20:5, when we are told to not bow to idols.And what is the “footstool of His feet”?

In 1st Chronicles 28:2, David uses this phrase in reference to the Ark of the Covenant. In Psalm 99 [98 in the Septuagint], it begins by speaking of the Lord who “dwells between the Cherubim” (99:1), and it ends with a call to “bow to His holy hill”-which makes it even clearer that in context, this is speaking of the Ark of the Covenant. This phrase occurs again in Psalm 132:7, where it is preceded by the statement “We will go into His tabernacles…” and is followed by the statement “Arise, O Lord, into Thy rest; Thou and the Ark of Thy strength.”

Interestingly, this phrase is applied to the Cross in the services of the Church, and the connection is not accidental-because on the Ark, between the Cherubim was the Mercy Seat, upon which the sacrificial blood was sprinkled for the sins of the people (Exodus 25:22, Leviticus 16:15).

Origin of Iconography
In Judaism.

he Palestinian Talmud records (in Abodah Zarah 48d) “In the days of Rabbi Jochanan men began to paint pictures on the walls, and he did not hinder them” and “In the days of Rabbi Abbun men began to make designs on mosaics, and he did not hinder them.” Also, the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan repeats the command against idols, but then says “but a stone column carved with images and likenesses you may make upon the premises of your sanctuaries, but not to worship them.”

Also, Jewish holy books have been illustrated as far back as we have them. They contain illustrations of Biblical scenes, much like those found at the Synagogue of Dura Europos (and like the Church found near by) which was buried in the mid 3rd century when the Persians destroyed that city (See “The excavations at Dura-Europos conducted by Yale University and the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters,” Final Report VII, Part I, The Synagogue, by Carl H. Kraeling).
To see the images found in the Synagogue of Dura Europos, click on the following links:

In early Christianity.

It is note worthy that the earliest Icons of the Catacombs were mostly Old Testament scenes, and Icons of Christ. The dominance of Old Testament scenes shows that this was not a Pagan practices Christianized by converts, but a Jewish practice, adopted by the Christians.

The first Christian Icon was of St.Mary, which was painted by the Apostle St.Luke.

Making the Holy Spirit “matter”

The Scriptures speak of Christians being “Temples of the Holy Spirit” and partakers of the Divine Nature of Christ through participation in His Body.

For the Orthodox Church, the Incarnation of God’s Son transfigured our human nature.

We have the opportunity to become “another Christ” through His Spirit of holiness in God the Father. Through Christ, we are saved and deified “in total” that is, our minds, bodies and souls, our entire tripartite being.
This teaching of Scripture and of the Church is illustrated, time and again, in the lives of Saints whose very bodies show the fact of their being true temples of the Spirit through miracles that exude from them.
Amazed at the miracles of the Apostles, people touched their living bodies with handkerchiefs that later proved miraculous when coupled with prayer. They tried to throw themselves in the very shadow of the great fisherman, St Peter as he walked.

Christ mediates salvation through visible symbols, His Body, His Apostles, His Church, and His Saints.

Christ doesn’t simply will miracles.He performs them through touch, prayer and, at one time, through His spittle that He mixed with earth to create healing mud patches on the eyes of a blind man.

All in all, such miracles through relics and the honour paid to them as sacred things in which the Spirit dwells are part and parcel of Incarnational religion which is Christianity where spirit and matter are no longer alienated, but Re-United.

Holy Relics of the Saints.
From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. VII, No. 1, p. 9. Translated from the Serbian by the Reverend Gregory Telepneff.

“….That a pious veneration of the holy relics is a constituent part of the salvation rendered by the God-Man is also evidenced by the following facts: from the depths of sacred antiquity, churches were built on the graves and relics of Saints, and the holy Liturgy is performed only on antimensia, in which are placed parts of the holy relics.

All in all, the mystery of holy relics is at the heart of the universal mystery of the New Testament: the incarnation of God. The full mystery of the human body is explained by the incarnation, the embodiment of God in the God-Man, the Lord Jesus Christ. For this reason, then, the Gospel message concerning the body: “The body for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (I Corinthians 6:13).

And through a human body also the entire creation, all of matter, received its divine significance, the universal meaning of the God-Man
There accrues to this also a joy-the myrrh-streaming property of many relics. This wonder of myrrh has been given to the holy relics in order to indicate that Christians are truly “a sweet-savour of Christ unto God” (II Corinthians 2:15), sweet-smelling to God and to heaven. The truth of the Gospel is that the sin of man is a foul odor before God and every sin pleases the devil.

Through the holy mysteries and holy virtues, Christians become “a sweet-savour of Christ unto God.” For this reason, then, the holy relics of the Saints pour forth myrrh.

‘If anyone destroy the temple of God, him will God destroy-for the temple of God is holy, and ye are that temple’ (I Corinthians 3:17).

For if water burst in the desert from the steep and solid rock according to God’s will (Exodus 17:6), and from the jawbone of an ass to quench Samson’s thirst (Judges 15:14-19), is it then unbelievable that fragrant oil should spring forth from relics of the holy Martyrs??

The Icon FAQ

Orthodox America
Holy Fathers – On Veneration of Icons (Fr. Alexey Young)

Icons and Orthodoxy

Why Icons?
Jane M. deVyver, M.Th., Ph.D

The Veneration of Icons
from “The Orthodox Companion”
by Rev. David F. Abramtsov

Holy Relics

The Place of Holy Relics in the Orthodox Church
by St. Justin Popovich

The Veneration of Relics: Making the Holy Spirit “matter”
Dr. Alexander Roman

Why Relics?
Jane M. deVyver, M.Th., Ph.D.

Veneration of Holy Relics in Orthodox Tradition
Jack Eapen

On the Veneration of the Holy Relics and Remains of the Saints
by Archpriest Vasily Demidov

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