Holy Dirt and Holy Images

Twelve hundred and thirty years ago, our fathers gathered in the town of Nicaea for what would become the seventh ecumenical council (Nicaea II), which is especially remembered for its defense of the holy icons against the iconoclasts – or image-breakers.

There are those even today who will not kiss and venerate the holy icons saying, “Well, they’re just wood and paint,” or, even more scandalously, some fail to “distinguish the holy from the profane” and they assert “that the icons of our Lord and of his saints [are] no different from the wooden images of satanic idols,” (Norman P. Tanner, ed., “Nicaea II,” in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (London: Sheed & Ward, 1990), 1:134). To these, I say, remember what the seventh ecumenical council teaches us.

It is amazing to me that, though twelve hundred and thirty years have passed since this council, we still hear iconoclastic statements exactly like this. Iconoclasm is alive and well among us – not only among Protestants and Muslims, but even among some Catholics who refuse to venerate the icons and strip the churches of their holy images. So, let us listen again to the teachings of the fathers of this council.

The more frequently [we see] the images of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy Theotokos, and of the revered angels, and of any of the saintly holy men…, the more [we] are… drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models [that is, the prototypes – the holy ones themselves], and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration… which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but… people are drawn to honor these images with the offering of incense and lights, as was piously established by ancient custom. [Remember, already twelve hundred and thirty years ago, the veneration of icons was ancient in the churches. This goes back to the beginning of Christianity.] Indeed, the honor given to the icon passes to the prototype; and those who venerate the image, venerate the person represented in that image.

(Ibid, 136).

So, rather than being iconoclasts, let us be iconodules. Let us venerate the holy images and let those of us who are able make many more holy images, even as there are some in the world trying to diminish their importance or even destroy them.

Now, I don’t know how many of you have tried to make an icon with the traditional medium of egg tempera. It’s a rewarding experience and can be a prayerful experience and I do recommend it. There’s a kind of intimacy you can gain with the saint that you are painting, which comes simply from spending so much time before the image as you help to deepen and clarify it with layer after layer of the translucent medium.

To work with egg tempera you must mix the pigment with the emulsion – which is egg yolk – while you are painting. This is because the emulsion does not keep and so the paint will spoil if you don’t use it the same day you make it. Anyway, working this way rather than with premixed liquid paints allows you to better see, touch, and smell the material you are working with. And it becomes clear that, for the most part, pigment is dirt. It is various kinds of earth. In fact, some of the pigments even have names like “pale green earth” for example.

So, when we paint an icon, we are making an image of a holy person out of dirt, out of dust, out of the ground, out of earth. How fitting! Remember, it is of this that we are actually made.

The holy images are made from earth – which is also what you and I and our loved ones are made of. The council says that the holy images may be “painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material,” (Ibid, 136) but all of this has the same source: the earth. And that’s what I’d like to focus on.

My name is mud. Or, anyway, that’s what Adam might have said. The name Adam in Hebrew most literally means “dust man.” Or sometimes you see him called clay or earth or mud. Because it is of this that we are made. We will all “return to the ground, for out of it [we] were taken; [we] are dust, and to dust [we] shall return” (Gen 3:19).

In his parable of the sower, our Lord teaches us in his parable about different kinds of ground (Luke 8:5-15). And he’s talking about us – about different kinds of people. We different kinds of people are really different kinds of dirt, see? But you can do a lot with dirt. Remember the holy icons. This dirt that we are, like the holy icons, can become worthy of veneration, because we all receive the seed of the word in us. The spermatikos logos, as St. Justin Martyr puts it.

This is a familiar image. Remember again Adam. Adam – and, in Adam, all humanity – is earth with God breathed in. “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7). The word of God speaks the earth into human life. So: earth + the word of God = human life. We see this in the account of the creation of humans in Genesis. And we see it again today in the parable of the sower as Jesus tells it. Only now the word is depicted as a seed in the earth.

Whether or not this seed takes root in us, gives life to us, depends on our receptiveness to it.  We must be like the good soil and hold the seed of the word of God “in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.” Humility is clearly part of being like good soil.

Humility is honest and good. Humility is truth. And, the truth is, we are dust. Remembering this – being mindful of our earthiness – is humility. The word itself contains this meaning. It come from the Latin humilis, which literally means “on the ground,” from humus, meaning “earth.”  Another word likely comes from the same root as humus: human.  So, again, this is what we really are and humility lies in embracing that truth. To be humble is to be a human aware of your own humanness – which is really your own creatureliness. We, like all the earth, are created by our creator and exist in that relationship to him. We are not the creator. We do not author our own reality, whatever the world may say to the contrary. The humble know this.

The grace of recognizing our lowliness, earthiness, and creatureliness – the grace of humility – lifts us up from earth to heaven and helps us to grow in ever greater union with our creator.

All this talk of humans being made of dirt may have given you the impression that I am down on humans. But nothing could be further from the truth. Remember where we began – with the holy icons, themselves also made of earth. But these we kiss and venerate and love, just as we do the holy relics of our saints. We do not treat them with contempt, but with veneration. This has everything to do with the seed of the word planted in the earth of the human.

It is God that makes us holy and breathes life into us. It is his presence in the earth of our bodies that makes our bodies worthy of veneration. In the icons this is well represented by the halo. The flesh is painted with common earth. But the halo is made of gold and represents the grace surrounding the holy men and women of God. It is grace that makes anyone holy and nothing else. Just to recognize humbly that you are soil will make you better soil to receive the seed of the word of God in you. Be of honest and good heart – be humble – remember who you are and who is God – and that will give life to you and make you whole and holy.

Fr. John R.P. Russell

By

Fr. John R.P. Russell is a husband, a father of four, a priest for the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Eparchy of Parma, and a painter particularly influenced by abstract expressionism and iconography. He has an M.Div. from the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Ss. Cyril and Methodius and a B.A. in art with a minor in religion from Wabash College. He blogs here: http://holydormition.blogspot.com/. Some of his paintings can be seen here: https://paintingprosopa.blogspot.com/

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