Iconoclasm, reprise

Fr. John clarified the teaching of the Seventh Council a bit today. But first: it’s the saints’ day of the Apostle Philip and of Sts. Theophonus and Theodore the Branded. That is, they had a verse branded on their faces by some wicked Byzantine emperor or other for defending icons. After icons were re-instated St. Theophonus became a well loved bishop, and would wrap the strips that hang down the sides of a bishop’s hat around his face to hide the brand. And that brings me to: the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The question is: does God really interpenetrate matter? Can matter really bear His image? Or is He indepictable and inaccessible? Well, by nature (or in His Essence) God is indeed just that – utterly transcendent and unknowable. But in His Energy God can choose to become imminent, and has indeed done so in the person of Jesus Christ.

Essence and energy, eh? So what’s that mean? Fr. John says it’s kinda like with people we cannot know them in their essence – we cannot read souls (even our own, with any completeness), and even after we’ve known a person very well for a long time there is something unknowable about him – and yet he is also certainly knowable in his energies: we can listen to what he says, see how he acts and his expressions, and so on, and know him that way. And if he is honest, those energies will be a true expression of himself – what we see and hear really is him, but not in his essence as a person; not the core of his being. God, the fathers say, is a bit like that – we can know Him in His Energy, but not in His Essence – but that Energy is still God.

So – God’s Essence is inaccessible – nobody can look upon the face of God and live – is His Energy likewise inaccessible? Or can it so interpenetrate matter as to make it God-bearing? An aside: in modernity we tend to talk about the primary distinction as being between matter and spirit, whereas in traditional Christian theology the distinction is between uncreated and created. Thus when I say matter I mean primarily that which is created – thus angels are created, but are not physical; they’re something more like pure energy, and though it would be legitimate to say that they are incorporeal spirits, it’s more significant in this context that they are created, and in the same category as ourselves in that respect. So humans are a kind of hybrid of physical matter and created spirit, and it’s been established that created spirit can interpenetrate physical matter – after all, here we are – but can uncreated energy do likewise with created matter and spirit? Surely, or Christ could not be fully God and fully Man. Fully man meaning that He shares human nature, including a human soul and body, in hypostatic union, whatever that means (it keeps coming up – apparently it was important at some previous Council), and fully God – the second Person of the Trinity, co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

We like to talk about the chasm between our own sinfulness and the holiness of God – which is true enough in its way, though it may be better to say the death that we have chosen and Life, who is God – and perhaps draw little illustrations featuring cliffs and a bridge made by the Cross. People say all the time that we can pray for God to dwell inside us and He will, but, perhaps because we hear it since we were children, we don’t always understand what that means. There is (or rather was) another chasm we sometimes neglect, but is very important to Jews, Muslims, and good theologians: that between the created and the uncreated, which has been bridged by the Incarnation; but I’m not sure that there’s a nice way to illustrate that. And because Christ united the uncreated and created in His person, He can also unite them in the rest of us, and ultimately in all Creation, so that we can become God-bearers. And so can the rest of matter. Like icons. And Sacraments. That’s a brief outline of my current (confused) understanding of the importance of the Seventh Ecumenical Council.


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