Before we begin what is the question at the end.
It is no secret that icons are an important part of Orthodox faith and worship, covering the walls and ceilings and iconostases of our parishes, and most Orthodox Christians have at least a few icons at home. It also is no secret that the Orthodox Church practices blessings throughout the Church year—we start with the blessing of the waters at Theophany, and then we take that water and bless all sorts of other things, like our homes, each other, fruit, and even our cars.
In the past few centuries, it has become increasingly common to have icons blessed by a priest or bishop, either having them sprinkled with holy water or anointing them with Holy Chrism. Some pious believers will even refuse to display an icon in their homes until it is blessed, and I have even seen Russian icons come in the packaging “pre-blessed”! I’ve been told by a few Greek and Antiochian friends that icons may be taken behind the iconostasis and kept there for 40 days to bless them. For so many people, this is a special event, and a comfort.
It is as if the icon goes from profane to holy through the act of blessing. Last year, Fr. Steven Bigham addressed this issue head-on in the Orthodox Arts Journal, and I’ve seen the article making its rounds the past few weeks. Titled “Does the Blessing of Icons Agree with or Contradict the Tradition of the Orthodox Church?,” Fr. Steven’s article addresses the issue clearly and fully, sweeping history for a clear and definitive answer. The article begins with this paragraph:
Orthodox Christians routinely have their icons blessed by a priest or bishop. Bishops often anoint them with Holy Chrism. There are even special services for blessing different kinds of icons: of Christ, of the Mother of God, of feasts, etc. Most people would never imagine putting an unblessed icon in their houses; it would be a kind of sacrilege, but once the icon is blessed — whatever its subject, taste, canonicity, etc. — many think that what was a simple picture before the blessing becomes an icon after, because of the blessing. It becomes at least a “better” icon. Being only a “profane” image before, it becomes “holy” after, because it has been blessed. Very few Orthodox would question this practice which they feel is legitimate, traditional, and totally in agreement with Church Tradition. I hope to show that despite the widespread habit of blessing icons, this practice is not in agreement with Church Tradition, and that it is in fact contrary to it and based on a theology of the icons that is foreign to Orthodoxy.
The strongest argument seems to be the historical evidence. Put simply, Fr. Steven argues, there is no written evidence of icon blessings in the Orthodox Church until the 17th century. It does not exist.
Bolstering his case, Fr. Steven quotes a long section of the Second Council of Nicea. At one point, Nicea II explicitly argues that blessing icons is unnecessary:
[M]any of the sacred things which we have at our disposal do not need a prayer of sanctification, since their name itself says that they are all-sacred and full of grace…. When we signify an icon with a name, we transfer the honor to the prototype; by embracing it and offering to it the veneration of honor, we share in the sanctification.
He also addresses St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite, who commented, “The holy icons do not need any special prayer or any application of myron (or chrism),” going on to strongly claim that introducing icon blessing into the Orthodox Church was due to Roman Catholic influence. “Do you see that the prayer which is read over holy pictures is a Papal affair, and not Orthodox: and that it is a modern affair, and not an ancient one?”
The skinny: icons are blessed already because of the figures depicted, and confirmed by the name of the saints on the images. Once an image is distorted or abolished, it returns to its former state of being simply wood and paint, and we dispose of them by reverently burning them. At the end of his article, rather than create another issue for people to argue about or fuss with their bishop or priest over, he suggests a workable solution to this innovative practice would be to replace the icon blessing with an icon dedication ceremony.
Read the whole thing here.
This post was originally run at Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy.
Jamey Bennett is curator of A Field Guide to the Orthodox Church and attends St. Mark Greek Orthodox Church in Boca Raton. He lives in South Florida with his wife Alison and three beagles. You can follow him on twitter.
“Oh the happinesses of the man (the one, the person) who never walks in the council of the ungodly, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor remain standing in the dwelling place of the scornful.”
The Book of Psalms contains the poetic description of a life spent in the service of YHWH and obedience to His commandments. The Righteous One is compared to the Fool–who says in his heart there is no God–because the Righteous man seeks to obey the Lord and His commandments. In the Psalms, the Righteous Man becomes a Righteous King and is almost always presented to the people as David (the chosen, anointed Messiah). In the world of the New Testament and the reign of Christ, we see that these Davidic pictures are all foreshadowing the Incarnation and divine reign of THE Messiah who is not just the adopted Son of God that the Israelite kings were but is truly God himself and His divine, pre-eternal Son.
Through a series of longer “study” posts and shorter “discussion” posts, we’ll be engaging the imagery and theology of Psalm 1 and hopefully encourage and instruct one another as we go.
Psalm 1 contains the entirety of the theological instruction of the Psalter. In six short verses we are introduced to the two characters (the righteous one and the fool), the Law of God, the Covenant Blessings, and the two ways: life and death. Each of these themes is repeated throughout the Psalter, and it’s important to recognize that the author of Psalm 1 has created a perfect prologue to the proceeding passages. It’s also important to note, that these images have been adopted and presented to us by the Church in relation to Christ and that He (David’s heir and divine Son of God) is the fulfillment of these Psalmic images.
Psalm 1 begins as above: “Oh the blessedness (literally the happinesses) of the man who NEVER walks, stands, or abides with the ungodly. It’s a fabulous bit of Hebrew poetry built upon the actions of walking, standing, and dwelling–think Exodus imagery here–in relation to the person who is going about life’s way. The righteous man who wants covenant blessing must NEVER (the prohibition in Hebrew has this connotation) walk on the way of death; NEVER stand in the council of the ungodly; and NEVER “abide as though to live” among the unrighteous. His delight (hephetz), rather, is in the Torah of YHWH, and it is on His law that he (the righteous man) chews. In contrast to the one who sits around the table with the ungodly, the man who receives covenant blessing sits and eats at the table of Torah and becomes like a tree planted by living water which grows, flourishes, and produces fruit. The wicked, on the contrary, receive the covenant curses and wither and are lost on the wind like chaff.
For the original audience of the Psalms, this image was a very visceral. They had spent generations dwelling among the ungodly in slavery and their decision to stop walking in God’s way and to stand listening to the ungodly led to their forty year wilderness wandering. Before finally entering the Promised Land they had taken time to rehearse the blessings and curses of the Law as they looked across the flowing Jordan river (next to which they would be planted). Every year they would listen to the words of the Exodus as they celebrated Passover. Every year they would read the Torah in its entirety, starting in Genesis and ending with the words of Promise as they crossed the Jordan into Canaan. Every day they were given the opportunity to examine their lives before Torah and to place themselves on the Path of the Righteous or the Way of the Ungodly.
Before moving forward, consider these two images: the way of life and the way of death. The Righteous one is happy and blessed on the way of God’s commandments and the Ungodly is forgotten as quickly as chaff. How do these two ways present themselves through the Old Testament Scripture and the Gospels/Epistles?