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Seven Functions of Icons: Number Three

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


The Second and Third Functions of Iconography are very closely related: 

Function Two: They serve as a means of instructing in matters of the Christian Faith, of the teaching of the Church. Function Three: They remind us of this teaching.

"... forgetfulness is a great tyrant; no other human frailty defeats men so often and so easily." 
— Saint Nicholas Cabasilas, 14th century mystic and theological writer 

The Church in her wisdom gives us many ways to grow in the knowledge of the love of God, but we are commonly a forgetful people. To help us, we have cycles of fasts and feasts in the Church calendar, helpful repetition within the liturgical services, and our daily prayers... and we have icons. 

First, Saint Nicholas Cabasilas provides an example from the liturgy: When the priest or deacon says "Let us attend," he "admonishes all present to cast away negligence and inattention, and to listen carefully to what is being said and done..." Then, after the priest wishes peace to all, he or the deacon calls out, "wisdom," by which he is reminding us to recall to mind "the sum of those thoughts which are in accord with the ceremony." (from Commentary on the Divine Liturgy) Attention and remembrance go hand in hand. The services of the church are full of these prompts. Even the scent of the incense and the vision of rising smoke or the light from the candles help us to gather our thoughts toward this end. This is all part of the wisdom of Holy Tradition. 

Vladimir Lossky wrote that Holy Tradition is the "life of the Holy Spirit in the Church." Georges Florovsky wrote "Tradition is the inner, mystical memory of the Church." John 14:26 says "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you." This is the picture of the Holy Spirit, teaching us and reminding us through Tradition.

Icons, being stories for the eyes, give us these teachings in an instant. and when we see them in church they help us remember the teachings. Like a text we read again and again, they help us go deeper and deeper in understanding by way of repeated study. This is especially effective when the icons, hymnography and scripture work in symphony in accordance with the Church seasons and feast days. 

At home in our prayer corners, the icons serve the same purpose. Starting off the day with a habit of prayer in front of our icons, we participate in God's healing of our souls by remembering what he has done and continues to do in the world — in our lives and the lives of others — for the bringing about the fullness of His kingdom. By remembering we do more than taking note of past events; we step into the story of salvation.

Feb 12th 2024

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