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Seven Functions of Icons: Number Five

The Theotokos, the pattern of every virtue. Icon from St Paul's Cathedral, London.

Introduction: Sunday, October 15 commemorated the Seventh Ecumenical Council at which icons were restored to the Church as a confirmation of the centrality of Christ's Incarnation in Orthodox theology and a necessary aspect of worship. St John of Damascus was a key figure in this restoration and in his Defense of Icons, he lists 7 functions of Iconography. This post is part of a series on these functions we hope will be educational and inspirational, and lead you further towards our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


Function 5 according to St John of Damascus:
They promote virtue and avoidance of vice, by arousing us to imitate the holy personages.

"The expression according to the image indicates rationality and freedom, while the expression according to the likeness indicates assimilation to God through virtue."
John of Damascus

“The life of Mary shines forth as from a mirror, all the beauty and chastity and the pattern of every virtue.”
Saint Ambrose of Milan

A virtue is of course, a good characteristic in a person, but it goes well beyond that. Every good virtue can be found in God Himself, and so when we work to acquire the virtues, we are working to gain back and more of the likeness of God. We work and we cooperate to acquire the virtues, yet it is by God's grace that we attain any at all. Because we were made in His image and according to His likeness, He longs to share these attributes with us. They are gifts that bring joy. When we acquire virtue by the Grace of God, we acquire God Himself in the life of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, who embodied all the virtues without compromise.

Abba Dorotheos said, "Nothing helps men so much as to cut off self will for thereby a man prepares the way for nearly all the virtues." The Church offers us a pathway toward this aim through discipline in prayer and fasting. We have the saints who have gone before and demonstrated this discipline in many ways, each with their own life and struggle. Whether we look at St Mary of Egypt (temperance, faith), St Ephraim the Syrian (humility, knowledge of God), St Nicholas of Myra (generosity, faithfulness), or any of the other saints and their experience of and response to God's Grace, we can take courage, request their guidance and help, and aspire to pursue God as they did. 

St John Chrysostom paints a vivid picture of acquiring Christ through acquiring virtue in one of his sermons:

Paint your house with the colors of modesty and humility. Make it radiant with the light of justice. Decorate it with the finest gold leaf of good deeds. Adorn it with the walls and stones of faith and generosity. Crown it with the pinnacle of prayer. In this way you will make it a perfect dwelling place for the Lord. You will be able to receive him as in a splendid palace, and through his grace you will already possess him, his image enthroned in the temple of your spirit. 

Icons give us images of those who acquired virtue and are examples for us to follow, who acquired Christ Himself and are honored for it. Let us strive to meditate on and imitate their lives at church, at home and wherever we go. 

Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.
St Paul, Phillipians 4:8-9

Feb 12th 2024

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