Over one thousand years later, the ugly wolf of iconoclasm is again growling at the gates of the Orthodox Church. The princes of this world, in fear of the loss of their temporary power and misguided by perverse and strange theologies have influenced the shepherds of the flock of Christ to reject the borders of tradition – just as Leo the Isaurian and Constantine the Dung-named pushed the hierarchs of their time to reject the use of sacred images. Now we find ourselves in a similar situation as parishes “reopen” for the faithful after their unnecessary closure. We push beyond the borders of tradition with extreme protective measures, measures which themselves spread the insidious spiritual virus that the Church and Her mysteries are capable of transmitting death. There must be some public stand against this grave error, for “if all those who would make decrees are allowed such license, in a short time the entire structure of the Church would come to an end.”1
Guidelines and official documents published by the Orthodox Churches in the United States enforce separation of people, temperature monitors, masks, and other extreme measures. The veneration of holy images and objects is strictly forbidden. Illogically, against this backdrop of fear, the same persons that publish these “protective” measures tell the faithful that they need not fear illness when they approach the chalice containing the Body and Blood of Christ because this is not corruptible. No sensible person can reconcile these two messages.
Advised by well-intentioned lay leaders, the God-appointed shepherds of Christ’s flock are leading us into a dangerous theological crisis that like the previous two iconoclastic periods could have impacts on the Church for generations. We need not fear this terrible period, because not even the gates of hell will prevail against the true Bride of Christ. However, we must strengthen and educate ourselves and most importantly our children, to persevere in the truth. We should not be afraid our children and families will contract any physical virus but a spiritual one. Do not wait for a vaccine to appear but inoculate them against this heresy slowly seeping into our communities.
The physical temple in which the faithful gather for the divine services is not an ordinary space where corruption reigns but it is “a haven of the tempest tossed, for a healing of passions, for a refuge of the weak, for an expelling of evil spirits,” as the hierarch prays during the rite of Consecration. This space is a multidimensional icon of Christ and it is worthy of honor and recognition as sanctified matter that is a vessel of grace. If the icons on the walls, the objects in the space, and the bread and wine which are offered on the Holy Table within it are holy and worthy of veneration because they bring immortal life, then does it not stand that the building itself is holy and imparts grace? The holy temples of the Orthodox Church are established forever, “as You have shown by the harmony of the heavens above and the beauty of the Holy Tabernacle of your Glory below.” To wear a mask, be afraid when kissing the holy icons, or have anxiety about praying in the church is to deny the reality that this space has been filled with light everlasting, is the dwelling place of God, the abode of His glory, and is adorned with His divine and supernatural gifts.2 Unfortunately, these same prayers that are read by the venerable mouths of our hierarchs are contradicted by their hands issuing strict regulations that turn the Orthodox parish into a modern Stanford prison experiment.3
What then for those who appeal to Christ’s command to “render unto Caesar what his Caesar’s”4? St. John of Damascus, not mincing any words, has this to say:
“What right have emperors to style themselves lawgivers in the Church? Political prosperity is the business of emperors; the condition of the Church is the concern of shepherds and teachers.”5
We respect our federal, state, and local governments and give them their due but not even the Orthodox Christian emperor of Constantinople was allowed to be the lawgiver of the Church. Why then, do we give our elected officials, representing a secular government, this power?
The governance of the Church, St. John goes on to say, is left to “our pastors, and they have preached the word to us; we have those who interpret the ordinances of the Church.” To these God-appointed pastors he reminds, “We will not remove the age-old landmarks which our fathers have set, but we keep the tradition we have received.” Where in our tradition, do we find these landmarks currently being established? Where in our tradition, do we bar the faithful from the sacred temples of God to preserve their physical health? Where in our tradition, do we suffocate children over the age of 2 with masks where they need to breathe freely the sweet fragrance of the holy mysteries? Where in our tradition, do we flee from pandemics like those who have no hope in eternal life?
We cannot accept that the sanctified matter which itself becomes the vessel of sanctifying power is also a co-vector of corruption: neither the sacred images nor the liturgical objects. In the holy temple itself, which is the summative icon of divine-human union, this cannot be a place where masks are required, and veneration of icons is summarily banned. We are witnessing a theological crime in progress and we cannot standby silent. In this time of crisis, we raise up our voices in prayer to glorify God for the faith upon which we have been established. May St. John of Damascus intercede for all of us – especially our God-appointed shepherds and teachers, our holy hierarchs, that we be led upon the narrow path that leads to salvation and that a third wave of iconoclastic controversy does not beset the Orthodox Church.
Now the Church is consecrated by the blood of Christ and His saints, and it is adorned with the images of Christ and the saints. I honor and venerate all God’s holy temples, and everything where God’s name is found, not for their own sake, but because they are vessels of divine power. I salute matter and I approach it with reverence, and I worship that through which my salvation has come. I honor it, not as God, but because it is full of divine grace and strength. I honor and venerate angels, and men, and all matter which partakes of divine power, for these things have assisted in my salvation, and God has worked through them. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation.
Therefore, brethren, let us stand on the rock of faith and on the tradition of the Church, not removing the ancient landmarks which our holy fathers have set, nor allowing any room for those who would decree innovations and destroy the structure of the holy catholic and apostolic Church of God. No, brother, no, Christ-loving children of the Church, do not expose your mother to shame, do not rend her in pieces.6
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1 2nd Apology Against Those Who Attack the Divine Images.
2 Taken from the Prayer of Consecration read upon bended knee prior to the washing of the altar table.
3 These guidelines are expected to be enforced by parishioners upon other parishioners.
4 Matthew 22:21
5 2nd Apology Against Those Who Attack the Divine Images
6 A blended composition of various lines from St. John’s three apologies.