The Human Icon
Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko
This article originally was published in One World in 1987.
The invisible God has become visible in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the essence of Christian faith; and it was protected and defended at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 AD. Jesus Christ is “the icon of the invisible God” [Colossians 1:15; 2 Corinthians 4:4]. In Him, the God Who cannot be seen is now seen. The Lord Himself declared this when He told Philip that “the one who has seen Me has seen the Father” [John 14:9]. In Jesus Christ, God’s incarnate Son and Word, God has shown Himself in the most perfect, complete, and definitive way possible.
God has become man as Jesus. He has assumed human nature, so that human persons could be what they were made to be from the beginning: creatures made in God’s image and likeness for unending life in communion with God.
God’s plan for us, as the saints have said, is that we become by divine grace everything that God Himself is by nature. Human beings created, redeemed, and sanctified by God through Christ and the Holy Spirit are made “gods by grace,” holy as God is holy, citizens of paradise, co-rulers with Christ in God’s Kingdom. In and through Christ, we not only know God; we also know ourselves in our true being and destiny as children of the Most High, creatures made in God’s image and likeness to live the divine life. Created in God’s image, according to His likeness, we are made to be loved by God, and so ourselves to become lovers, loving with the very love with which God, Who is Love, loves us [1 John 4:8, 16]. This is our calling as creaturely icons of God.
Jesus Christ not only gives the commandment of love. He manifests what love is through the cross. He actualizes it perfectly in His human life. He gives the power of this love to His disciples in the gift of the Spirit. When Christ pours the love of His Father into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to love with God’s very own love [Romans 5:5].
Christ’s “new commandment” is not simply to love. To love is the “old commandment,” the central commandment in the law of Moses, which we have “from the beginning” [1 John 2:7]. To love is the teaching of every religion and philosophy born of purity and light. What is radically new in Christ’s “new commandment” is that we are to love one another as He has loved us [John 13:34; 15:12]. We are to love everyone, including our worst enemies, as God in Christ loves us – completely, wholly, perfectly, absolutely, boundlessly, without reservation or condition.
According to the scriptures, human beings can find and fulfill themselves as icons of God only in loving union with others. We are persons in communion with other persons, just like the persons of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The unique thing about God according to Christian belief is that He is Father by nature. God is not alone in His divinity. Indeed, He cannot be. God is Love, and therefore He has a divine Son according to His very being as God. He also has a personal Holy Spirit Who proceeds from Him as God and rests eternally in His uncreated Son.
The Godhead is a community of persons from all eternity. Divinity is three persons in an identity of being and life. This is what the Nicene Creed means when it says that the Son of God is begotten of the Father before all ages... begotten not created... of one essence with the Father, the divine Son and Word by Whom all things are made; and that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Life-giver, Who is worshiped and glorified with the Father and the Son.
We human beings express in creaturely form the very being of God. We too are persons of the same nature, “of one essence” with each other. We too are to form a perfect community of love. The Church of Christ in its sacramental being is just such a community – a community of truth and love, a plurality of persons in perfect unity: one mind, one heart, one soul, one body with each other and with God through the huanity of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In this light, it is critical to see that the modern “individual” is a total fiction, a product of the fallen mind. There is no such thing as an “individual.” There are only persons in communion with other persons in the likeness of God, for the Blessed Trinity is hardly a trio of “individuals” in “mutually fulfilling relationships.” The Godhead is rather three divine persons in a perfect unity of being and life, the content of which is Love.
Human beings can be “individuals” if they choose, with all kinds of “relationships.” But if they do so choose, to use the language of the Bible, they choose death and not life, curse and not blessing [Deuteronomy 30:20]. In an act of metaphysical suicide, they destroy themselves in their self contained, self-interested isolation, which is the very image of hell. When we live in God’s way, we live in communion with others. We are members of one another [Ephesians 4:15]. We are not our own; we belong to one another [1 Corinthians 6:19]. We love our neighbor as our self because he or she is our very self. We find our self in the other through an act of self-emptying, self-denying love. This is our very nature, made this way by God, Who finds and fulfills His own divine self in this same way. We can doubt or deny this basic truth, but only to our destruction and death.
Human beings are icons of God not only as persons in communion with other persons, but also as persons created to be male and female, men and woman. Gender difference is part of our human nature as made in God’s image and likeness. This does not mean that there is gender in God. God is not male or female. He is not a man or a woman. Indeed, God is not even a “being,” if we think of Him as being the way we are in our created existence. As Saint Gregory Palamas put it, “If God is being, I am not; if I am being, God is not.” By this, he meant that we cannot speak of the uncreated God and the created world in the same way, using the words in the same sense. But the Scriptures do say that God made us male and female in His own image and likeness, thus indicating that our sexuality is at the very heart of our being made for loving communion in imitation of the Godhead [Genesis 1:26-27].
The first “no good” from the mouth of God in the Bible is when He looks at Adam alone. All that God makes is very good. But man alone is no good: “It is not good for man to be alone” [Genesis 2:18]. So God puts Adam into a deep sleep and takes woman from his side as flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones, the completion of humanity and perfection of the icon – the prefiguration of Christ and the Church, the new Adam and Eve who are “one flesh” in the mystery of God’s Kingdom. There is nothing essential to human nature that does not belong equally to men and women. And there is nothing in the redeemed humanity of Christ and the Church that is not equally the possession of women and men. This is the meaning of Saint Paul’s famous statement that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” but that we are “all one in Christ” [Galatians 3:28].
According to the old covenant law, there were radical differences between men and women in their relationship to the Lord, just as there were fundamental differences between Jews and Greeks, slaves and freemen. But as the Orthodox sing during the baptismal service and in the most festive eucharistic liturgies, “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” [Galatians 3:27].
In the new covenant in Christ, the age of the “new creation” in the Messiah, there is the same calling, the same mission, and the same judgment for all – even though there is not the same function and ministry in those aspects of life which are specifically masculine and feminine, such as fatherhood and motherhood in families and Church communities. In Christ and the Church, we know who we are as men and women. We know why we are made, and why we are made as we are in our masculine and feminine creaturely forms of existence. We know our task and our calling. We know our destiny as creatures.
We know these things because in Christ and the Church, by the power of God’s Spirit, we know God Himself: the Source, Ground, and Goal of our being and life – the very Life of our life – in Whose image we are made as icons of God.
This is the message of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. It is the message we receive every time we see and venerate an icon of Christ, his Mother Mary, or any of God’s saints, who love and are loved with divine perfection.