The Veneration of Holy Images

The use of pictures and statues in Christian worship

The one thing most TV filmmakers know about Christianity is that Churches and candles go together. A recent adaptation of Joanna Trollop’s novel “The Choir” showed a cathedral with banks of shimmering candles placed against pillars for no clear reason – except that it looked good on camera.

If you visit York Minster you will find just such a stand of lighted candles. On a table nearby, there will be a notice to say that it was a nice idea to light a candle and pray. These days the use of candles has become very popular, not only as a symbol of prayer, but to mark various kinds of aspirations – for the freedom of hostages, or to emphasize all manner of political and social issues. Lights of various kinds are used in a number of world religions, and we are heirs to a certain extent, of ancient Jewish customs. Is there, then, a specific Christian use of candles and lamps?

Beyond the obvious practical need to give light in dark buildings, there are two uses which have special Christian significance. The first is the symbolic use, representing Christ as the Light of the world. The gift of a lighted candle at Baptism, the blessing of candles at Candlemass and the ceremonies of the New Fire and the Easter Candle are all examples of this use of lights.

The second use is that of candles and lamps in the sanctuaries of churches and those which are placed in front of statues and pictorial images (icons). It is thought that this custom originated in the ancient Roman manner of honoring their chief magistrates, the Consuls, by carrying lighted candles or torches before them in public. This honorific custom was adopted by the Roman emperors, and then passed over into the ceremonies of the Church. The candles which now stand on our altars are permanent versions of the candles carried in procession at the beginning of Mass and in full ceremonial, the solemn reading of the Gospel is still attended by portable lights. This second use is intended to mark out with honour objects and actions of special sacredness - for this reason we keep a light burning permanently before the Blessed Sacrament when it is reserved.

The same idea of paying honour is attached to the lighting of candles or lamps before the images which depict Our Lord and His Holy Mother, and the Saints. Such acts have a special significance and history attached to them.

We are only too familiar with the unhappy fact that most Churches are sliding toward secularism. Faith in the living Christ becomes a mere philosophy. The joy of the Holy Spirit is replaced by the dullness of humanistic moralism. This is not the first time the Gospel has been threatened in this way-although, in our day, it may have been taken to greater lengths than before.

The threat appeared clearly for the first time some twelve hundred years ago and the distance in time makes no difference to the effect. A Byzantine Emperor, Leo III, unleashed an attack on the use of images in the worship of the Church. Leo and his followers accused orthodox Christians of idolatry, and demanded that, in obedience to the Second of the Ten Commandments, the use of the images should cease. Many people agreed with Leo - his message seemed simple, honest, and pious too. It was true that there were people who acted as though the images had some supernatural power of their own. The supporters of Leo's movement became known as "The Destroyers of the images (icons)" or 'Iconoclasts'. Few realised that Iconoclasm was actually an attack on the True Faith. For one thing it put the clock back to the Old Testament - making Christianity a religion of rules and not of salvation through grace. Again it made Christianity out to be either a coldly intellectual thing, or a mere matter of emotional response.

Those who wished to honour the images knew that they had centuries of Christian tradition to support them. They knew also that the honour they paid to the icons was quite different from their worship of the Holy Trinity (they even had distinct words to make sure that there was no confusion). There was, though, need for someone to point out to orthodox believers the deeper significance of honoring the icons. The man who did this was a Christian monk who had at one time been a high government official representing the Christian subjects of the Caliph of Damascus.

St. John of Damascus pointed out that the Incarnation of the Son of God as Jesus of Nazareth changed completely our understanding of God's relationship with His creation and of the Second Commandment against idolatry. "In earlier times,” he wrote, "God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now, when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God I see. I do not worship matter: I worship the Creator of matter Who became matter for my sake. Who willed to take His abode in matter: Who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honouring the matter which wrought my salvation. I honour it, but not as God. Because of this I salute all remaining matter with reverence, because God has filled it with grace and power." St. John could see that the attack on the images concealed a denial of the reality of the Incarnation of Christ and a rejection of the sacramental way in which the new life in Christ is received by us. At the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which restored the place of images in the life of the Church, a senior bishop exclaimed of Iconoclasm, "This is the worst of heresies because it includes them all."

The calling of the Seventh Ecumenical Council proved a turning point in the struggle against Iconoclasm - a battle which, nevertheless, still had many years to run. In the later Middle Ages when the true significance and use of the images tended to be obscured by superstition, there was a revival of Iconoclasm and this attitude became part of the Reformation program. In consequence the older formularies of post-Reformation Anglicanism are definitely Iconoclastic in character and this is why Anglicanism has never accepted officially the decisions of the Seventh Council.

The modern influence of Iconoclasm is not to be seen in church buildings with plain walls and clear glass, but in a reducing of the Faith to ‘rational’ principles, an emphasis on secular issues at the expense of spiritual need. The lighting of a candle in a cathedral becomes an expression of the human need to pray, not an acknowledgement of the Christ to whom we pray. It is refreshing to visit a beautiful Church and see candles being lighted in front of a statue of Our Lady. Here we have prayer properly directed and honour rightly bestowed. Its presence is a practical fulfilment of the decrees of the Seventh Council which the HCC-AR has never hesitated to accept.

An image is never an invitation to idolatry. It may depict Our Lord or His Holy Mother. It may represent Our Lady with the Child Jesus, again it may represent one of the Saints, a scene from the Scriptures, or an incident in the subsequent life of the Church. In all cases the image is a window upon the realities of the Heavenly Kingdom, never an object of adoration in itself. St. Basil the Great said that the honour paid to the image passes to the original. So when we light a candle in front of an image we are honouring Christ Himself, recalling his Incarnation and the way in which, through His Death and Resurrection, He lives, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the lives of His Saints. Our prayers through or to the Saints are prayers to Christ Himself and, in Christ, to the Holy Trinity.

When we honour the images we are honouring the fullness of the Gospel Faith. The proclaiming of this Gospel, in word and deed, is our task as members of the Body of Christ. It is to the fullness of the Gospel that, as members of the HCC-AR in fellowship with all Catholic believers, we have a joyful commitment - a commitment we renew every time we light a candle before the holy images.