The incarnation is the most radical claim of Christian faith, the mystery by which the mystery of the Trinity invades the wayward world. The conviction that the ineffable, invisible, almighty God might deign to take on human flesh—and not just any flesh but the flesh of a particular Jew of dubious parentage born in a Roman backwater—is shocking, scandalous, and also the “distinctive sign of Christian faith,” as the Catechism puts it (CCC, 463).
Indeed, the Incarnation of the Son of God in Our Lord Jesus Christ is the one truly new thing under the sun, the one real change in the given nature of the relation of reality divine and created, visible and invisible, as the Incarnation sets creation in a new relationship to the eternal, changeless Triune God.
And so the Incarnation is the ultimate revelation of God. St. John the Evangelist writes, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father…No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:14, 18). To see the face of Christ is to see God.
And that’s just the half of it: the God who created us intends that we return to Him. The goal of the Incarnation is nothing other than our divinization, that we ourselves might be made “partakers of the divine nature,” as St. Peter put it in his Second Epistle (1:4). In St. Athanasius’ shocking words, “The Son of God became man that we might become God” (De inc. 54).
Denial of the Incarnation is therefore an obvious heresy, heresy being “the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same” (CCC, 2089). Rejection of the Incarnation rejects divine revelation, the divine nature of Christ, and our own divinization (see CCC, 460). It rejects the Christian divine.
Christians east and west have their salvation as divinization expressed and aided through sacred imagery, through icons and statuary, for which the incarnation serves as warrant. In the words of St. Paul, Jesus Christ “is the image (or icon, eikōn) of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), and so the tradition has taught that sacred images of God’s Christ, angels and saints in icons and statuary are in turn warranted for Christians by the Incarnation.
What, then, about Christians who reject iconography? It’s not a new question. Iconoclasm is a heresy, understood as such by the tradition east and west. And like most heresies, iconoclasm rears its head regularly. Suppressed here, it rises there; a problem then, a problem now. The first great iconoclast persecution in the eighth century—enforced by state power and rooted in a resurgent quasi-Gnostic rejection of the body and, perhaps, Muslim rejection of images—precipitated the second council of Nicaea in 787, which, with St. John Damascene’s teaching and aid from Empress Irene, checked the outbreak—for the moment. In spite of the council, a second iconoclast persecution broke out not quite three decades later in 814, checked in turn by the synod of Constantinople in 842 under Empress Theodora.
In the midst of the struggle against iconoclasm, St. John Damascene articulated the iconographic principles adumbrated by St. John the Evangelist and St. Paul. “I am emboldened to depict the invisible God, not as invisible, but as he became visible for our sake, by participation in flesh and blood,” he writes in his On the Divine Images. “I do not depict the invisible divinity, but I depict God made visible in the flesh.” He continues: “When you see the Bodiless become man for your sake, then you may depict the figure of a human form; when the Invisible becomes visible in the flesh, then you may depict the likeness of something seen.”
Drawing on St. John Damascene’s witness, the second council of Nicea, the seventh great and binding ecumenical council, taught definitively:
We declare that we preserve intact all the written and unwritten traditions of the Church which have been entrusted to us. One of these traditions consists in the production of representational artwork, which accords with the history of the preaching of the Gospel. For it confirms that the incarnation of the Word of God was real and not imaginary, and to our benefit as well, for realities that illustrate each other undoubtedly reflect each other’s meaning. (quoted in the Catechism, no. 1160)
Note that there’s little pragmatism here, as if images were merely helpful to the illiterate in their piety by teaching and reminding them of the stories and practices of the Faith, but rather that iconography confirms the reality of the incarnation and draws the faithful into its reality.
This is no mere obscure early medieval controversy, but rather the Tradition, and so the contemporary Catechism of the Catholic Church thus commends and, read closely and carefully, commands the liturgical use of sacred images:
All the signs in the liturgical celebrations are related to Christ: as are sacred images of the holy Mother of God and of the saints as well. They truly signify Christ, who is glorified in them. They make manifest the “cloud of witnesses” who continue to participate in the salvation of the world and to whom we are united, above all in sacramental celebrations. Through their icons, it is man “in the image of God,” finally transfigured “into his likeness,” who is revealed to our faith. So too are the angels, who also are recapitulated in Christ. (no. 1161)
In sum, icons of the Blessed Virgin Mary, angels, and saints signify and glorify Christ, all of whom we encounter in the sacred liturgy, which has Christ as its agent.
The Catechism then immediately quotes again from the second council of Nicaea:
Following the divinely inspired teaching of our holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church (for we know that this tradition comes from the Holy Spirit who dwells in her) we rightly define with full certainty and correctness that, like the figure of the precious and life-giving cross, venerable and holy images of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ, our inviolate Lady, the holy Mother of God, and the venerated angels, all the saints and the just, whether painted or made of mosaic or another suitable material, are to be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on sacred vessels and vestments, walls and panels, in houses and on streets. (quoted no. 1161)
Note well: This great ecumenical council, quoted directly at length by the current Catechism, states that images “are to be exhibited in the Churches of God.”
What valid reason, then, could there be to justify iconoclasm? None, because iconoclasm is irrational. (Some iconoclasts would strike the cherubim from the Ark, given the chance.) Whereas the true God is (as Pope Benedict reminded us) personal, creative reason himself, and can thus be known by reason and revelation, iconoclastic faiths often trade in voluntarist theology where God is mercurial and thus ultimately unknowable, with apophaticism running amok and sacred imagery evaporating. God disappears and we’re left not with mystery but an enigma.
It is appalling, then, that Catholics would extirpate sacred beauty, as happened after the Second Vatican Council in many parishes and seminaries, and as seems to be happening at the Church of Our Saviour in New York City right now. The prior pastor, Fr. George Rutler, worked charitably and steadily to bring his parishioners more deeply into Christlikeness in large part by adding the most striking and beautiful sacred icons. Fr. Rutler having been transferred, Fr. Robert Robbins took over the parish and is now removing the Church’s award-winning, glorious iconography.
Fr. Robbins may have his own private reasons, perhaps good, perhaps not—he claims the idea is to restore the original vision of the parish, without saying why that might be advisable so soon after Fr. Rutler’s splendid major renovation. And as pastor he certainly has the normal authority to renovate his parish, but no authority is absolute. Clergy from parochial vicars to Popes are bound to the Tradition. Even if we lay Catholics submit to and endure bad, unjust, or even illicit decisions at the hands of our clerical betters, they remain bad, unjust, and illicit decisions. We Catholics are people of reason and reality bound to the truths of the Faith, not slaves to voluntarist authority exercised at whim.
The iconography remaining at Our Saviour’s is of the highest standards and certainly violates no sane conception of the much-abused concept of noble simplicity. It’s also not as though the recent push for sacred beauty was a whim of Pope Benedict we can safely shunt aside now that the old man stepped off the stage. It’s the Tradition ancient and modern.
Further, it’s not as if one could call upon Francis’ vaunted aura of simplicity as warrant. He too as Pope is bound to the Tradition, and in any event Francis believes in beauty, a neglected theme of his papacy standing in continuity with Pope Benedict’s concerns in his own papacy. In Evangelii Gaudium Francis calls Catholics to consider the importance of the via pulchritudinis, the “way of beauty”:
Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the “way of beauty” (via pulchritudinis) … Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus. This has nothing to do with fostering an aesthetic relativism which would downplay the inseparable bond between truth, goodness and beauty, but rather a renewed esteem for beauty as a means of touching the human heart and enabling the truth and goodness of the Risen Christ to radiate within it. If, as Saint Augustine says, we love only that which is beautiful, the incarnate Son, as the revelation of infinite beauty, is supremely lovable and draws us to himself with bonds of love. So a formation in the via pulchritudinis ought to be part of our effort to pass on the faith. (no. 167)
Francis here affirms the sacred chain of divine beauty: God is Beauty; the Son thus reveals Beauty in the Incarnation; the Son incarnate is the warrant for sacred beauty in iconography; iconography leads us back to God.
Fortunately, Our Saviour’s is one parish, and this episode is one little spasm of iconoclasm. And perhaps the restoration (if it proceeds to completion, as is likely) will ultimately result in a beautiful Church. While the situation at Our Saviour’s wounds those of us dedicated to sacred beauty near and far, I’d wager the bad old days of (for instance) seminarians smashing statues of the Blessed Virgin as Sedes Sapientiae by chucking them out of their windows are over, and I’d remind my readers that in many places the restoration of sacred beauty rushes onward, and will ever more do so as younger priests become older.
That said, I close with a plea. Pastors, bishops, please: Iconoclasm erases God from our sight, iconography reveals Him. Give us architecture and art that makes saints. Hide not God from us. Let Him, that Beauty ever ancient, ever new, be revealed in sacred beauty through the icons of His Mother, His angels and saints, His Christ.
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