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The second of the top ten: “You shall not make for yourself an idol of any kind, or an image of anything in the heavens above, on the earth beneath, or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on their children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me.” (Exodus 20:4-5) For the Jew and the Muslim, there remains a very strict prohibition against images of any kind that would depict God, but within Christianity, the interpretation of this passage has a gray area: the use of icons.
Legend has it that St. Luke the Evangelist ‘wrote’ the first icon, but from there the history of these windows into heaven becomes foggy. Whatever the case, in the 8th century the iconoclast pushed for the removal of all images, but there were some who pushed back. Sounds like a little church fight, but this one issue resulted in over 100,000 individuals being killed or injured in the battles that ensued. Eventually, those in favor of icons would win the day. Pope John Paul II in 1999 wrote his “Letter to Artists,” and stated, “The decisive argument to which the bishops appealed in order to settle the controversy was the mystery of the Incarnation.” The bishop who made the greatest case that John Paul is referring to is our saint for the day: St. John of Damascus or St. John Damascene. He writes, “I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake (speaking of the Incarnation of Jesus) and deigned to inhabit matter (his body), who worked out my salvation through matter (the cross). I will not cease from honoring that matter (icons) which works for my salvation. I venerate it (the icon), though not as God.”
How might we pray with or venerate a window into heaven? Consider our icon of Julian of Norwich here in this chapel named after her. Julian writes: “And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”
Now consider this: in her vision / showing, Julian understood that the what she held, the size of a hazel nut was all of creation: earth, planets, sun, stars, galaxies, universe… everything. And she was also a part of it. And God showed this to her, lying in the palm of her hand. For us, praying with the icon, we can visualize our smallness, but then again… how great is our God that he can hold it all and how comforting to know that he loves it.
Imagine that you were one of the peasants living in the 8th century, with no understanding of theology. In fact, you would never have read or heard the words of the Bible in a language you could understand. But what if someone told you that this little hazelnut is all of creation and this is how God holds and loves you? This is what John of Damascus understood: these windows point us all to a deeper understanding of God and his love for us.