Sunday, July 26, 2015

On being Nice a second time

I must always take note that some of the Christian practices that I find natural, uplifting and of great value are regarded with no little discomfort by my Protestant friends. I am a Catholic after all, and I do not apologise for praying to and with the saints, venerating ikons, or officiating at Benediction. Yet, I want them to be assured that I understand the basis of their concerns.

A good Christian, Protestant and/or Catholic, will always look to the commandments and see, very clearly stated:
Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, and visit the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, and shew mercy unto thousands in them that love me, and keep my commandments.
For this reason, many Protestants will reject the Second Council of Nice (or rather Nicaea) on the grounds that it contravenes this commandment. I notice that many Anglicans will only accept the first four of the Oecumenical Councils, but I believe that the second book of the Homilies actually quotes from the first six.

As an Anglican Catholic, it is important for us to accept the first Seven Oecumenical Councils. This, we believe is not an arbitrary decision, but rather reflects the position of the Church before East and West went their separate ways. The Ninth so-called Oecumenical Council - the first Lateran Council - met in 1123, the Eighth Council - the fourth of Constantinople  met to depose Patriarch Photius I of Constantinople and ran into the controversies of the filioque clause which has not been resolved, and therefore cannot be a binding Oecumenical Council in the pre-Schismatic sense. For us, it is not an arbitrary decision, but based on clear historical facts of the councils.

Actually, I don't want to go into intellectual argument about being an iconodule - there are perfectly decent and valid defences of the nature of the Second Council of Nicaea out there on the internet. I have rightly been criticised that I can allow the intellect to overrun human interaction, and I think I see signs of that in my blogging. I did say that I was going to pull back from blogging, but I find that I've had a more productive year since the blog began. So let me answer the question of why I am an iconodule from a more personal angle.

The time was that I too found the saints, Ikons and the Real Presence a bit uncomfortable. In some sens I still do, especially when I see

This behaviour still does make me uncomfortable. It's an unfortunate accident that destroys a beautiful statue of Our Lady, but it is only that! It's a nuisance when one breaks a mirror, and very sad when one breaks a mirror into heaven as statues and ikons are, but the whole point is that they are only mirrors and if we react in hysterics because a statue falls, then I think one is in danger of idolatry. Our Lady is crowned in Heaven. She will not fall off her throne because her Son has given her Eternity. We will always see ikons disfigured, hosts desecrated, and statues destroyed, such is the nature of this world, and such is the nature of Satan in confusing the mind.

Yet, as I reflect on my discomfort, I notice that I long for the Real Thing, for God, for His Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. I'm sure that this is true ofr every Christian. I long to see the angels and saints and to join their song of praise to the great God in Heaven. Atheists will thus say that I believe in order to give vent to unresolvable longings, yet that doesn't prove that my longings do not have a solution. I believe that God is the fulfillment of all my unrequited longings. Most of all, I believe that God is real, that He wants Himself to be known and loved freely without coercion. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us; our eyes have seen Him, our hands have touched Him. We have heard Him speak, we have seen His miracles. He has allowed His face to be seen for what it really is. We shall be like Him because we shall see Him as He really is.

It's this fact that convinces me that it's wrong not to venerate ikons. My practice is to look at the ikon and to look deeply at the picture and try to use it as a window into the divine. At the end, I thank God for allowing me to use this image to see realities that go beyond this world, and I touch it remembering that it is just a piece of wood used for God's purpose. If my little set of ikons at home were to be burned or broken, I'd be annoyed, but it would affect my faith not one jot. It it not the wood that I'm worshipping, it is God.

Of course, my Protestant brothers will see me bowing before an ikon, and will be led to think that I am worshipping a graven image. I do struggle to see how this can be, but I am intent on doing so accurately so that we can find some common agreement and, at least a bit of perspective on issues on which we differ. If I were at the temple of Zeus worshipping in front of his statue, then I could be correctly convicted of idolatry, because Zeus is not God. Likewise, I could be convicted of idolatry if I worshipped in front of any statue of anything that is not God. If I actually worshipped the statue, then I would not be worshipping God.

I will bow before an ikon of any saint, but I do so in context. I usually bow a little when I meet new people, it's a peculiarity of mine. Yet, for me, the saints are the ones who have run the race before me and whose presence in the heavenly courts are affirmed by the Church. I recognise their efforts and bow gently in response to their lives and the examples they have given me. Since I believe in the reality of Heaven, and of Eternal life and the Communion of Saints, it just makes sense that I must live that reality. These folk are real, they have passed through death to life and they have some communion with us. We have a unity, a conversation, a mutual belonging to the Church. How do I live that belief if I completely disregard their ability to pray for us and with us? Their earthly lives teach me, and their prayers help me and their merits ensure that I have some form of "landing light" for me as I progress in the faith and aspire to be in their glorious company.

I also once struggled with the Real Presence. I know that some atheist polemicists like to desecrate consecrated hosts with the express purpose of upsetting Catholics. To me they fail miserably. What convinced me? For me, it was simply trusting Our Lord at His word. I am convinced that He was not going to try and bring great dialogues of metaphysics to people who may not be capable of metaphysical thought. Being a Christian isn't what you know, it's Who you know. Our Lord seeks to reach the simple farmer, unschooled in Aristotle just as much as any Oxonian Doctor of Divinity (perhaps more). If Our Lord then says, "this is my body" and "for my flesh is meat indeed" then He must mean that at the very basic level, because it is the way that He give us His substance so that we can indeed become more like Him. It has to be simple enough for a child to understand. No, the host does not look like the body of Christ - we have to trust Him in His promise that it is indeed His body.
But the deliberate desecration of a consecrated Host only bothers me in as much as I am concerned for the desecrator. I know full well that the Body of Christ underwent the most awful tortures for mankind, and I know that Our Lord Himself suffers in the bodies of persecuted Christians throughout the world. Persecute a Christian and you persecute Christ Himself. The desecration is then merely the violent act of the world of Darkness against its Creator. He suffers in us just as He suffers in His one sacrifice on the Cross in which we participate today. The desecrator upsets me because he demonstrates how Hell-bound he is and no-one should choose to go to Hell. My faith in Christ will not be destroyed by someone who hates Him, though I must always pray for strength when the Devil seeks to tear me from Christ.

The office of Benediction gives me the opportunity to focus on Christ being really present, though not in any way that I can see. Subjectively, I have actually felt Him with me, a ray of warmth coming down out of the monstrance upon me, and I hope upon my congregation. In seeing Him sacramentally enclosed in the monstrance, I have a greater hope and resolve that He is always with me.

It is Our Lord Jesus Christ Whom I worship, I revere His saints and angels and seek to be part of that company of Heaven. It is possible that I may yet shipwreck my faith and fall from that way, but concentrating on the realities that God has given me will surely help me to steer clear of the stumbling rocks in the way. I firmly believe that ikons, statues, saints and sacraments are gifts of God as objective realities for Christians to use to bring them ever closer to God. If Protestants find that only in the pages of Holy Scripture, then, as long as they are using Holy Scripture wisely, I am convinced that they will get ever closer to God too. I just happen to see the facts of Holy Scripture corroborated in the ornaments and sacraments of the Church.

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