Who Are Our Icons?
Who Are Our Icons?

Who Are Our Icons?

Fifteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Lawrence Lew invites us to see every human being as a work of art.

‘Christ Jesus is the image [eikon] of the unseen God’ (Col 1:15). So in him, as St John of Damascus says, the invisible things of God, his mysteries, have been made visible. Thus ‘when he who is pure spirit … takes on the form of a servant and a body of flesh, then you may draw his likeness, and show it to anyone who is willing to contemplate it.’ With these words, St John Damascene makes his famed apologia for the veneration of icons. However, in his major work, The Fount of Knowledge, St John also advances the argument that since human beings rightly show reverence to each other because we are made in God’s image and likeness, so it is likewise right to venerate painted icons of Christ, Our Lady and the saints. So the reverence that we should show to other human beings, because each person is created as an icon, an image, a sacred likeness of God, is foundational to the veneration of sacred art.

Our attention is similarly drawn by today’s Gospel to the veneration that is due to every human person. For the common ethos of the world is to venerate those who we love, or whose favour we hope to cultivate, or who influence our thought and behaviour. The term ‘icon’ is still used for certain celebrities or famous personalities or representatives of global brands that shape our daily lives.

But Christ leads his disciples beyond the worldly and superficial to a more profound and heavenly view of reality. In his sermon on the mount, Jesus reminds us that as children of our Father who is in heaven, we must see more deeply than the pagans and tax collectors, ie, notoriously public sinners. Why? Because, as he says in St John’s Gospel, he has befriended us and so he has made known to us God’s view, a heavenly perspective of earthly realities. So Christ leads us, as his friends, to see as he sees and to do as he does. Thus he teaches us to venerate and to love each  and every person whom the Father has created for we are all a sacred image made in his divine likeness, all called to become his beloved children not only by nature but also by grace.

The young man’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’, is an attempt to limit this veneration and love. For it seems humanly impossible to venerate each and every person. We usually have the capacity only to love some, and so we must qualify those people who are worthy of my veneration and attention, such as those icons of virtue and holiness who we call saints, or perhaps our friends and family whose company we enjoy. But Jesus affirms that we must love God and our neighbour as ourselves. In the sermon on the mount, the call to love all people is framed as becoming as perfect as God is. God’s perfection, it seems, is manifest in his merciful love for all people shining upon both the just and the unjust. In other words, nobody is unworthy of God’s love, since all who exist are held in being by God’s constant and unwavering love. Therefore, we are called to be like God in his indiscriminate love for other people, whether they are friend or foe.

Hence, in Christ, God has come to save humankind who had been beaten up by the devils, wounded and left for dead by sin, and robbed of his dignity as a child of God. By his incarnation, an act of divine compassion, God has been for ever united to our common humanity. Thus Christ bandages the wound of original sin, and provides the wine and oil of the Sacraments, and places us in the inn of his holy Church where we may be cared for until he returns in glory. The Samaritan also hands over two denarii, two days’ wages. These two coins are imprinted with an image of the emperor, and so they are reminders of the imperial authority and dignity which give them their worth. So, every person, too, whether just or unjust, saint or sinner has been imprinted with the image of God, marked out by his nature as belonging to God, and so endowed with an innate sacred dignity. Hence, we are called to show reverence to one another.

The Christian disciple, however, the friend of God, is called to go beyond this. We are called to love another as Christ has loved us, and lest we think this applies only to our fellow Christians, the Lord makes it clear in parables like today’s and in other parts of the Gospels that our love must be, like our heavenly Father’s, indiscriminate. We must revere and love other people even (and perhaps especially) those whom we find difficult and hateful. Many have baulked under the burden of this Christian calling. Or, having been found wanting, they have relegated this Gospel to a mere invisible ideal, a mystery that is seldom made visible, a thing unseen that remains mere wishful thinking.

But the unseen God was made visible, and God has become enfleshed. If we believe this, then we believe that God also makes real for us the actual living of the Christian life. He comes like the Samaritan to heal our sins, and strengthen us through his Sacraments; Christ Jesus gives us his grace and divine charity to shape us, draw us, transform us into his own image and likeness. For we are God’s work of art, created anew in Christ so that we can do the loving and good things God has called us to, for our works as Christians will beautify our societies and communities just as a light on a lamp stand illumines ‘all in the house’. Then all who see us, the image, shall see the unseen God who is love.

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:10-14 | Colossians 1:15-20 | Luke 10:25-37

Image: detail from a stained glass window at Pusey House, Oxford, photographed by Lawrence Lew OP

Fr Lawrence Lew is Prior and Parish Priest at Our Lady of the Rosary and St Dominic, London; he is the Editor of the Province's magazine 'The Dominicans' and Co-ordinator of the Province's Internet Apostolate. He is also the Dominican Order's Promoter General for the Holy Rosary, and author of ‘Mysteries Made Visible’ (CTS 2021).

Comments (1)

  • Brian Bricker

    Beautiful reflection Brother Lawrence. Thank you for writing with such clarity!


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