The Mystery of Faith – Sacrament and Icon

Recent questions have been raised about the difference between icons and sacraments in the Orthodox Church. It is an easy place for confusion to occur – particularly when seen from the outside.

Iconostasis_in_MoscowThe Church in the West, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, developed a carefully-worded and defined understanding of sacrament during the Middle Ages. This definition depended on matters such as the authority of its institution, the intention of its performance, and the use of proper material (such as bread, wine, oil, etc.). Typical of Western Scholasticism, the definition took on something of a legal cast. During the debates of the Reformation, both the nature of the sacraments as well as their number became a topic for disagreement. Classically, Rome said their were seven sacraments. The majority of reformers argued that only Eucharist and Baptism were sacraments and offered varying accounts as to what actually constituted a sacrament. Underneath this Western understanding of sacrament (and not intentionally related) was a growing world-view which would eventually become secularism. Sacraments increasingly became defined as unique and special moments within the otherwise secular world where the presence and authority of God were made available to mankind.

The various Protestant movements sped quickly towards a secularized world-view such that in most Protestant Churches today, the sacraments have all but disappeared as interventions of God and have become “ordinances” or simple acts of obedience to Christ. Even in those places where some lingering sense of “sacrament” remains – what remains is unclear.

The place of these same sacraments has a very differing history within the Eastern Church. Among the Orthodox, those actions which the West defined as sacraments, were more commonly referred to as mysteries. This name (from the Greek word translated variously as secret or unknowable) seems particularly to have come into usage from the fact that these mysteries were not part of the public life of the Church in its earliest years, but part of its hidden, inner life. Thus to this day in St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy, at the end of the liturgy of the word, the Deacon exclaims, “Let all catechumens depart!” etc. The liturgy of the faithful (the blessing of the bread and wine and the communion of the Church) begins with the exlamation, “Let us the faithful, again and again in peace pray unto the Lord!” Catechumens (unbaptized) were required to leave the service. Only the faithful (the Baptized) were allowed to be present for the Mystery.

In early practice, the mystery of the Holy Eucharist was only observed by those who had been Baptized and Chrismated. Baptism itself was also not observed by non-initiates in the mysteries. But these “mysteries” were not taught as speculations about the nature and character of a sacrament. The clear teaching and consensus of the early fathers was that in the Eucharist, the bread and wine, truly becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. No particular effort was made to ask how such a thing was so (indeed, I have often wondered if it is not somehow “impious” to ask such a question). By the same token Holy Baptism was understood to be a union with the death and resurrection of Christ, a Baptism into the Body of Christ, the remission of sins, the cleansing from all unrighteousness, etc. Its treatment was similar to that of the Holy Eucharist. The reality of Baptism and what it accomplished were simply part of the teaching of the Church: the how was not a particularly interesting question.

One short aside: nowhere do we find in the early fathers a teaching of a merely “symbolic” or “memorial” treatment of the holy mysteries. Indeed, mere symbolism would have to await the development of nominalist philosophy before the idea could have been expressed – the idea had no place within the canon of ancient thought.

The relation between sacrament and icon first arose as a question during the debates of the 8th century in the East that eventually resulted in the 7th Ecumenical Council. Those who opposed the making and veneration of icons (which was already a settled practice of the Church) put forward the argument that the “Holy Eucharist was the only true icon” and only the Eucharist could be venerated (some iconoclasts also held the Holy Cross to be a venerable icon). The response of the Orthodox (those who venerated icons) was that the Holy Eucharist was not an icon (image) but the actual and true Body of Christ. Thus a distinction was articulated. Icons are representations – though they are not themselves that-which-is-represented. And icon of Christ is not Christ-Himself (certainly not in the manner in which the Church holds the Eucharist to be the Body and Blood of Christ).

St. Theodore the Studite is the father most associated with the language that spoke definitively about the representation found in icons. In this case the how of representation seemed important. The Christological and Trinitarian language of Person (or hypostasis) and Essence (ousia) were a commonplace within the Church’s theological language and understanding – having become settled in meaning during the 4th through the 6th centuries. St. Theodore said of icons that they were representations of the person of Christ (or a saint) but not of His essence. Indeed, by definition, an essence cannot have a representation. There is no such thing as the picture of man, only of a man. Thus an icon of Christ affirmed that He had become a man, and not simply man in some generalized form. Christ truly took upon Himself human nature (ousia) – but that nature must be encountered in the person of Christ. St. Theodore’s teaching on the holy icons was thus an affirmation of the earlier councils of the Church and affirmed the veneration of icons as an expression of the fullness of the Orthodox teaching.

An icon “makes present that to which it refers” is also a statement of the 7th Council. But the presence encountered in an icon is a “representation of the person” (hypostatic representation in the language of St. Theodore) and not the same as the reality itself of the Holy Eucharist.

To move away from the language of the councils – it is possible to say that in the Mysteries of the Church – we participate in the Divine Life itself (in Eucharist, Baptism, etc.). In conversations with the West, the Orthodox Church sometimes affirmed seven mysteries as did the Roman Church. Sometimes there were more mysteries affirmed (monastic tonsure was a common addition). The primary affirmation of the Orthodox was that they certainly did not have anything less than Rome. Some have said that there is no limit to the number of Mysteries – this might be so – but is not a matter of dogma. Rather, it is accurate to say that the Church understands that God has united Himself to us and us to Himself and does so particularly in the Holy Mysteries of the Church (not to say that He does not do so in any other manner).

Additionally it is true that the world has an iconic character to its existence. Things not only are what they are – but they also point beyond themselves. The secularized view of the world sees things as simply things – relations existing only as mental constructs. Such a colorless view of the world has become one of the hallmarks of modern thought – and – I believe – a powerful element within the sadness of contemporary man.

The Church taught in the 7th Council that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words,” thus likening Scripture and icon rather than Scripture and sacrament. We encounter Christ iconically in Scripture – His presence is made known to us. Truth is given to us – but as representation and encounter. This is a very different way to think about Scripture – certainly not the same as the propositional truth of many Reform thinkers. Propositional truth works well and instinctively within a secularized world of just things. Truth becomes an idea rather than an encounter.

We can and do know Truth – but propositions are truth in a diminished form. The words about icons, for instance, are true (so I believe). But the words about icons are not the same thing as standing before an icon with wonder and veneration and encountering Christ personally. The Scriptures, read rightly, are an encounter with the living Lord. But frequently that encounter has no words that can express it.

At Vespers, the Church traditionally sings Psalm 104(3): “How manifold are Thy works, O Lord: in wisdom hast Thou made them all!” This veneration of the works of God (for such is the meaning of veneration in its Orthodox sense) is a recognition of what, and Who, we encounter in the works of God. Icons are called “windows to heaven.” One of their chiefest purposes in the modern Church is to teach modern man that windows exist. We do not live as a thing among things – but as fearful and wonderful creations in the midst of a manifold creation itself made in wisdom.

Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory – these are the words of angels who see what we refuse to see and what the icon of creation constantly reveals to us – if we but had eyes to see.

There is a traditional distinction between icon and sacrament (or mystery) – but both hold in common the good news of the Gospel of God’s love. Both open heaven and earth to us as encounter and participation (though in manners that differ). Learning to live in such a world (and with such a God) can be a difficult journey for modern man. We are, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “men without chests,” we have lost the knowledge of the heart. Icon and Sacrament are a restoration of that knowledge – salvation for chestless men.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





33 responses to “The Mystery of Faith – Sacrament and Icon”

  1. Donna Farley Avatar

    one of my husband’s Anglican seminary professors used to say that there is ONE sacrament: The Church. Perhaps he was groping toward Orthodoxy without really knowing it…..

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  3. bethanytwins Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for your explanation.

    If/when you have the time, could you possibly say a little more about Monastic tonsure? I have always wondered why in the West we regard marriage as a Sacrament but not monastic profession.

    I remember reading somewhere that in Orthodoxy, the rites for marriage and monastic profession (not sure of the right phraseology) are somewhat parallel – something to do with headgear I think – so that marriage is seen almost as a type of monasticism. Is that correct?

    BTW, I hope your daughter is feeling settled at College, and that the nest will not feel too empty when you return home!

  4. Christopher Orr Avatar

    nowhere do we find in the early fathers a teaching of a merely “symbolic” or “memorial” treatment of the holy mysteries.

    I just found an example of such a teaching in The Desert Fathers, as a heresy of course:

    “This is what Abba Daniel, the Pharanite, said, ‘Our Father Abba Arsenius told us of an inhabitant of Scetis, of notable life and of simple faith; through his naïveté he was deceived and said, “The bread which we receive is not really the body of Christ, but a symbol. Two old men having learnt that he had uttered this saying, knowing that he was outstanding in his way of life, knew that he had not spoken through malice, but through simplicity. So they came to find him and said, “Father, we have heard a proposition contrary to the faith on the part of someone who says that the bread which we receive is not really the body of Christ, but a symbol.” The old man said, “it is I who have said that.” Then the old men exhorted him saying, “Do not hold this position, Father, but hold one in conformity with that which the catholic Church has given us. We believe, for our part, that the bread itself is the body of Christ as in the beginning, God formed man in his image, taking the dust of the earth, without anyone being able to say that it is not the image of God, even though it is not seen to be so; thus it is with the bread of which he said that it is his body; and so we believe that it is really the body of Christ.” The old man said to them, “As long as I have not been persuaded by the thing itself, I shall not be fully convinced.” So they said, “Let us pray God about this mystery throughout the whole of this week and we believe that God will reveal it to us.” The old man received this saying with joy and he prayed in these words, “Lord, you know that it is not through malice that I do not believe and so that I may not err through ignorance, reveal this mystery to me, Lord Jesus Christ.” The old men returned to their cells and they also prayed God, saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, reveal this mystery to the old man, that he may believe and not lose his reward.” God heard both the prayers. At the end of the week they came to church on Sunday and sat all three on the same mat, the old man in the middle. Then their eyes were opened and when the bread was placed on the holy table, there appeared as it were a little child to these three alone. And when the priest put out his hand to break the bread, behold an angel descended from heaven with a sword and poured the child’s blood into the chalice. When the priest cut the bread into small pieces, the angel also cut the child in pieces. When they drew near to receive the sacred elements the old man alone received a morsel of bloody flesh. Seeing this he was afraid and cried out, “Lord, I believe that this bread is your flesh and this chalice your blood.” Immediately the flesh which he held in his hand became bread, according to the mystery and he took it, giving thanks to God. Then the old men said to him, “God knows human nature and that man cannot eat raw flesh and that is why he has changed his body into bread and his blood into wine, for those who receive it in faith.” Then they gave thanks to God for the old man, because he had allowed him not to lose the reward of his labour. So all three returned with joy to their own cells.’” (Abba Daniel 7, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, tr. Benedicta Ward [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, Revised Edition, 1984], p. 53.)

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    There are such stories – though there are occasionally warnings about errors than can attach themselves to them. But the mercy of God taught an old man to believe the truth. His ways are beyond my understanding.

    I would also be curious to see the story in its original language – I wonder what word is translated “symbol.”

  6. […] Biserica Apuseană şi, în mod special, Biserica Romano Catolică, în perioada Evului Mediu, s-a ocupat, în mod serios, de definirea a ceea ce se înţelege prin Sacrament. Însă definiţia Sacramentelor, în versiunea romano-catolică, se ocupă de cine este autoritatea eclesiastică, de intenţia celui care slujeşte ca membru ierarhic şi de materia, care se foloseşte la slujbe, adică de pâinea, vinul, uleiul, care se vor sfinţite. […]

  7. Sean Avatar


    I am not sure about monastic tonsure, but I am quite sure about the mysteries of matrimony and ordination. During matrimony there is a table on the naive, between the standing couple and the Entrance to the Altar, where things used for the sacrament are placed (the New Testament being in the centre). At a certain point, the priest, holding the Gospel, takes the hand of the groom (who is already holding the hand of the bride) and makes the circle of the table three times to the accompaniment of certain chants and that action symbolizes the bonding of the two in the eyes of God. During ordination the same thing occurs in a different manner: the deacon or priest being ordained is held by the sides by two deacons or priests respectively and walked around the altar three times to the accompaniment of the very same chants as in matrimony, thus symbolizing his matrimony to the Church (an icon of Christ’s matrimony to His Church). There is a small difference in that the ordained bends to kiss the altar in every side and the bishop is sitting in front of the altar facing the faithful so that the ordained kisses his epitrachelion every time he passes in front of him (as a sign of obedience). Yet in any case these two acts have quite a lot in common.

    @ Darlene:

    You wrote: “This is where Protestants would say something to the effect that there is a difference between Scripture and icons – Scripture is God-breathed (theopneustos) and icons are not. Scripture accurately portrays Christ – icons do not since they are not God-breathed. Men were moved by the Holy Spirit in writing Scripture. How can the same be said for icons? Do icons accurately portray what Christ or the Apostles and saints actually looked like? Since there were no cameras back then, we can’t assume how Christ and the saints appeared in the flesh. So why speculate? Besides, we are warned in the Second Commandment not to make idols.”

    First of all, icons portray persons or events that are included in the Scripture (which is theopneustos) or the person or event in the life of a Saint, who has been acknowledged as a man/woman of great faith and grace to say the least. In the first case, icons are just portraying in colours what the Scripture portrays in words, nothing more nothing less. In the second case, icons do not claim to be on the same level as the Scripture but they portray a person or the life of a person, whom we should have as a standard in our own struggle towards Heaven.

    As to whether the portrayal of human characteristics on icons is accurate or not, in my humble opinion, it is a mere sign of of the type of forensic evidence most modern people want in order to believe in something. Does it matter how Christ or the Apostles looked? The purpose of the representation of a person on an icon is not to describe that person’s physical characteristics, as if to show us: “That is Christ, that’s how He looked, that’s how you must think of Him in your prayers”, I think that’s quite beyond the point. An iconic representation is much more about what is going on on the spiritual level as much as the on the actual physical level. Just my opinion.

  8. Darlene Avatar


    This is the clearest writing I have read on icons thus far, very focused and to the point. Thank you.

    As regards the Eucharist being a symbol in most of Protestantism, this view troubled me often. I can recall the pastor saying “This is a symbol of my body, and a symbol of my blood.” I discovered eventually that the word “symbol” was inserted. Each time I participated in taking Communion, I would wonder if there wasn’t so much more than what we were doing. I often felt it to be a mental exercise of remembering Christ’s sacrifice for me, and yet I longed for it to be more than just a memorial.

    When I discovered the teaching of the Fathers on the Eucharist, I was filled with such joy. This is what I have been missing all this time, I thought. And so even now my heart longs for the day when I can partake of His true Body and Blood.

    You said, “The icon makes present that to which it refers.” and “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words,” thus likening Scripture and icon rather than Scripture and sacrament. We encounter Christ iconically in Scripture – His presence is made known to us.”

    This is where Protestants would say something to the effect that there is a difference between Scripture and icons – Scripture is God-breathed (theopneustos) and icons are not. Scripture accurately portrays Christ – icons do not since they are not God-breathed. Men were moved by the Holy Spirit in writing Scripture. How can the same be said for icons? Do icons accurately portray what Christ or the Apostles and saints actually looked like? Since there were no cameras back then, we can’t assume how Christ and the saints appeared in the flesh. So why speculate? Besides, we are warned in the Second Commandment not to make idols.

    What would your response be to such protestations?

    BTW, I have finally made an appointment to meet with Father Nicholas, an Orthodox priest, this Friday to discuss becoming a Catechuman. I am still somewhat afraid, but I must press onward. Pray for me as I take this next step.

  9. Darlene Avatar

    “We encounter Christ iconically in Scripture – His presence is made known to us. Truth is given to us – but as representation and encounter. This is a very different way to think about Scripture – certainly not the same as the propositional truth of many Reform thinkers.”

    Faith often becomes a mental exercise among Protestants where debating the Scriptures takes precedence over encountering and worshipping Christ. I would say this is esp. true among those who call themselves “Reformed Calvinists.” Yet, they would certainly say that our Lord Jesus Christ is not the Bible. However, I was recently listening to a Reformed Christian and was astonished at what I heard him say. I wrote it down because it grabbed my attention so. He was speaking of the martyrs and said, “Christians died protecting this book. Christians gave their blood protecting this book and preaching this book.”

    My husband and I looked at each other and said, “That’s not right. They died for Christ.” It is a nuance that many Christians would not have noticed. Somehow, the wording was off. I think the Reformed teaching on “imputed righteousness” enters in here. Yes, we encounter Christ through the Scriptures. But that encountering entails a REALITY – an inward change by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. A reality of being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another.

    I need to read Scripture to learn of Christ. But then I need to encounter Him through prayer and worship. I need to enconter Him by ministering His love to others. It is His life living within and through me that the encounter of reading Scripture comes ALIVE!

  10. Stephen Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, A few questions….

    Correct me if I’m wrong but is it not in the book by Fr. Schmemann, “For the Life of the World” that he writes about a “Sacremental world view”? What do you beleive that he means by this and would you agree with him or rather say something like “Iconic world view”?

    Also it seems that the many Protestant churches have made the Bible out to be more of a sacrament rather than an Icon?

    and… Would you say that the Church itself is an Icon or something more?

    Thanks, Stephen

  11. Ben Avatar

    On that note, while there are some saints who were unknown to us for many years and thus we do not have a common memory with which to paint an icon, it is a matter of church tradition that the first icon was painted by St. Luke. Since icons are painted based on another icon, we can easily say that, with slight variations, the image of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the apostles have remained intact for us.

    This being said, I entirely agree that it is not necessarily historical reality that matters in an icon as it is the spiritual reality.

    @fr. stephen
    To be fair to the Roman Church, it is important to remember that at the same time that the East was dealing with iconoclasm, the west was struggling against those who denied the real presence in the eucharist. I don’t see it as necessarily a deviation from the tradition to define clearly for the faithful what is going on. There were a lot of heretical views of the eucharist going around in the West at that time and Rome defining it was a matter of asserting orthodoxy. As to defining the number of sacraments, the defining of the number 7 was also, in their eyes, a matter of asserting orthodoxy. It was reactionary against the reformers who claimed that there were only two, thus jetisoning much of the tradition in favor of sola scriptura.

    While monastic tonsuring could easily be considered a sacrament, from what I understand, in the west, monastic tonsuring is considered a part of either ordination or marriage (depending on the sex of the person involved). I could be wrong, but it is striking how much like a marriage ceremony a female tonsuring which I have seen (Franciscan) is in the West. For males, since the Roman Church requires celibacy, it can be considered a lower order to that of a sub-deacon, deacon, priest, bishop, cardinal/archbishop, etc. . . (And following this line of thought I suppose that it could be true of female ordination as well, in line with the ancient practice of ordaining female deaconesses)

  12. anonymousgodblogger Avatar

    “…but propositions are truth in a diminished form.”

    Thank you for writing that!!!!!!!!


  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    You asked, Scripture is God-breathed (theopneustos) and icons are not. Scripture accurately portrays Christ – icons do not since they are not God-breathed. Men were moved by the Holy Spirit in writing Scripture. How can the same be said for icons? Do icons accurately portray what Christ or the Apostles and saints actually looked like? Since there were no cameras back then, we can’t assume how Christ and the saints appeared in the flesh. So why speculate? Besides, we are warned in the Second Commandment not to make idols.

    I would fully agree that Scripture is God-breathed, etc. However, we do not quibble about Scripture being translated. If you will, icons are Scripture translated into Scripture (when the subject is within Scripture). There is a unique artistic grammar in properly painted iconography that very much allows it to accurately translate Scripture. That same grammar is used in the portrayal of a saint of the Church – in which – if you will – their lives are presented to us in the light of the Church’s theology.

    There is a strict Tradition in the Church on how Christ or biblical scenes (and the saints) must be portrayed. An iconographer cannot simply make it up. The photographic accuracy of an icon is not of importance in its artistic grammar – though how Christ, etc., are portrayed is strictly governed. I have never mistaken an icon of Christ for the icon of any other person and I would readily recognize any number of saints no matter where I saw their icon.

    In short, no one should have more problem with an icon (a “translation” in color) than with a translation of Scripture in a different language. Indeed, in my experience, the very character of an icon often translates the Scriptures more accurately than most people read them.

    My thoughts on icons and Scripture (rooted in the 7th Council’s statements) also go to the heart of how we read Scripture. Some who say that Scriptures are “God-breathed” still haven’t got a clue when it comes how to read them. The literalism of many readers fails to understand the “grammar” of Scripture. They could use a good course in iconography. 🙂

  14. fatherstephen Avatar


    Yes. I would agree that I am probably using “iconic” where Fr. Alexander used sacramental. We’re both painting with big brushes.

    The Church is more than icon. The Church is the Body of Christ. The language of Scripture is quite clear on this one. St. Paul never makes his language on the Church as the Body of Christ to be metaphorical.

  15. Stephen Avatar

    What is the difference between the “Church” as the body of Christ and the “bread and wine” as the body of Christ? Is there overlap? Are both to be thought of as sacrements or just the bread and wine?

  16. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    And furthermore, how do both of these relate to the fact that Christ is an actual human being with a real body?

  17. Mule Chewing Briars Avatar

    Maybe we need to change our idea of what bodies are

  18. anonymous Avatar

    Hi Fr – for what it’s worth, the word for “symbol” in the above story is “antitypos.”

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thanks, Jeff. I suspected it was not “symbolos.” It’s hard to translate it antitypos, is it not.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    Stephen and Wonders. Ah, now you are asking me questions for which I have to answer, “It is a mystery.” Yes the Church is the Body of Christ in a sense as real as the Eucharist. What is the difference? One is the Church and the other is the mystery which we eat. In both, Christ dwells in us and we in Him.

    As to how these relate to the fact that Christ is an actual human being with a real body? I’m not Thomas Aquinas. I can’t answer questions like that. It is certainly true that Christ flesh is “Divinized” in the words of the fathers. I suspect that covers all of the above.

    Such questions as these, though interesting, are probably beside the point. It is Christ in us, “the hope of glory,” Whom we must know. In His gracious condescension He has made it possible for us to share in His very life. It is that sharing we should seek and it is that sharing we may have. The youngest child with no understanding may have it. While a mature man, consumed with his own curiosity may fail to have it. Seek God.

  21. Irenaeus of New York Avatar

    I see some icons that are painted, some are mosaics, some are partly metallic, some wood, resin, glass, etc. Does there exist a definition of which medium is suitable for icons to be written with, or is it even relevent? and if the medium is not relevent, what characteristics are?

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    The media vary. For painting, the most traditional materials are egg tempera. There are things you can achieve with egg tempera that cannot be duplicated otherwise. Most important is the artistic grammar of icons – traditionally the “inverse perspective” that is used. This perspective has been given a meaning in the language of icons that allow them to speak in a very profound way. It allows them to express time in an eschatological fashion, to speak of heaven, to speak of divinization and theosis. They are enabled to speak of relationship with the viewer also through this grammar.

    It is a very rich subject. Almost like learning a foreign language – though it communicates, ideally, in a manner that is beyond language or discourse.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It is a common trait of human thought to think in exclusive categories, i.e., if something is this it cannot be that, etc. I think we often face this limited way of thinking as we approach God and the Church. Jesus is either God or man, He cannot be both, can He?

    One thing I was able to appreciate from Lossky’s “Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church” is the idea of antinomy: the whole is comprised of seemingly contradictory parts. Christianity, at least Orthodox Christianity is full of such challenges, starting with Jesus being fully God and fully man or one God in three Persons.

    The Incarnation changed everything, even the nature of time. As Fr. Hopko comments, the Cross became the beginning and end of time even though it appears to us in the middle so to speak. For Star Trek, Deep Space Nine fans: “The Cisco is linear”

    God penetrated His creation simply because of love. Furthermore He penetrated His creation through us, human beings, not as some obviously glorious conquerer, but as a little child. Mary’s womb became more spacious than the heavens and contained the uncontainable God.

    All of these things don’t ‘overlap’ so much as they just are. They are not different states (sometimes this, sometimes that), they just are. Linear thinking has led to quite a few heresies over the years, it seems we humans have difficulty with seeming paradox.

    Our attempts to ‘understand’ and be percise in our definitions of what we see and feel is part of who we are, but it can easily get out of hand and become an attempt to control. Shoot, even matter is not as solid and explainable as we like to think. We can’t even tell exactly where an electron is at any given moment. Matter consists primarily of space. At the right temperature and pressure, water can co-exist as solid, liquid, and gas at the same time.

    It is possible to know without understanding in a logical sense. IMO we can never become a whole human being until the quest to understand with our brain becomes secondary to knowing.

    God forgives.

  24. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! In speaking of the grammar of icons, I had understood that red, gold and white signified deification or divinity, while blue signified humanity. Therefore, Orthodox Icons typically depict the Mother of God with blue under tunic and red overgarment, signifying she is fully human having been deified by grace, whereas Christ’s is the reverse, since He is by nature God become Incarnate in human flesh. I’ve also noticed some icons of the Mother of God and I think an Apostle where this grammar seemed to be reversed also, where white or red was underneath and green or blue on top, as with Christ. Is this error, or is there more to this grammar that I don’t understand?

  25. Katia Avatar

    Fr Stephen Bless,

    We- the faithful orthodox christians create the body of the church by partaking of the ‘bread and wine’= Eucharist and Jesus Christ is the head,this is how i understand the question of Stephen, but i might be wrong.

  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    The use of colors will vary greatly. The “grammar” of color will therefore vary from one “school” or style to another. Cretan icons, for instance, are known for their use of fairly bright colors. I know a great iconographer who was trained in Russia. She can tell where an older icon (Russian) was painted simply based on its choice of pigments (which were usually drawn from local minerals and clays).

    The grammar will have more to do with inverse perspective and the treatment of “light.” There are other structural elements – such as the avoidance of profile (we see face to face). There is much much more. But colors have a great variety – even though the particular icon may be using a color for a particular meaning.

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think it would be more accurate to say that God creates the Church – sustaining it in the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist is also the life of the Church but it is a wrong direction to make too much connection (as in causation, etc.) between the Eucharist as the Body of Christ and the Church as the Body of Christ. Both are true and they are related, but to say more is easily to say too much.

  28. Stephen Avatar

    Can we call the Church a sacrament then? or does it transcend any categories? It seems as if the Church and the Eucharist coexist in a mystery, neither being complete without the other. The Eucharist appears to exist within the Church but maybe the reverse can be said as well?

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    It could be called a sacrament – though it is not commonly done so – and that the Church exists within the Eucharist and the Eucharist within the Church is also a very good observation. I like it.

  30. Moretben Avatar

    I like it too…

    One of the things Roman Catholics struggle with at first (speaking from personal experience) is the “eucharistic”, as opposed to “universalist”, ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, according to which the whole Church of God is fully present and fully operative in the “local” church; hence, just as the whole Christ (not multiple Christs, or parts of the one Christ) is present in every chalice, on every altar, in every church, so the whole Catholic Church is present in every “eucharist over which the bishop presides, or one to whom he commits it. Wherever the bishop apears, there let the people be, just as wheresoever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (St Ignatius of Antioch).

  31. fatherstephen Avatar


    Well done. My schedule this week has been rather minimal for the blog. These questions have been begging for an eucharistic ecclesiology answer – though I had not had time to sit and compose one. And you’ve done so in such a concise way! Thanks ever so much.

  32. George Avatar


    Thank you for this excellent post. Excellent food for thought! I am neither Orthodox or Catholic, but I have been spending almost 3 years reading the Church Fathers. I love these topics, as they expand my understanding of the Christian Faith that I love.

    In Christ our Lord,

  33. Michael Z Avatar
    Michael Z

    In Rabbinical Judaism there is a belief that in every generation throughout human history, the Lord reveals Himself as Person.

    Thus, God’s appearance at Mamre gave Abraham a name by which he could firmly anchor monotheism, in the Divine Person.

    Similarly, Isaiah beheld the Seraphim and the Glory of God in all of creation; but it was the burning coals that took him to the personal understanding of God with us. This was a prefigurement of the Eucharist.

    The seamlessness between Old and New Testament is a defining characteristic of an authentic faith expressed. God did not need to change at Golgotha. He is always good!

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