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1st Sunday of the Great Fast - Defense of Icons


Angelus, November 17, 1996

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

1. In recent months my Sunday reflections have frequently focused on our Christian brothers and sisters of the East. Wishing as it were to embrace their rich tradition of faith in a single glance, today I would like to refer once again to the sense of mystery which is apparent in their icons. The East and the West vie with each other to put their art at the service of the faith. But from the East, where icons had to be defended with bloodshed in the iconoclast crisis of the eighth and ninth centuries, comes a particular call jealously to preserve the religious nature of this art. It is based on the mystery of the Incarnation, in which God chose to assume a human face. In the last analysis, sacred art seeks to transmit something of the mystery of that face. This is why the East firmly insists on the spiritual qualities which must characterize the artist, to whom Simeon of Thessalonica, the great defender of Tradition, addresses this important exhortation: "Teach with words, write with letters, paint with colours, in conformity with Tradition; the painting is true, as is the writing of books; and the grace of God is present in them, because what is represented there is holy" (Dialogue against Heresies, 23: PG 155 113). By contemplating icons in the whole context of liturgical and ecclesial life, the Christian community is called to grow in its experience of God, and to become more and more a living icon of the communion of life between the three divine Persons.

The East and West intend to walk towards this goal. Looking to the forthcoming Jubilee, in the Apostolic Letter Orientale lumen I wrote: "We cannot come before Christ, the Lord of history, as divided as we have unfortunately been in the course of the second millennium. These divisions must give way to rapprochement and harmony" (n. 4).

2. It is my task as Bishop of Rome "to search constantly for ways that will help preserve unity" (ibid., n. 20). I would like to express to our Orthodox brothers and sisters—to whom I am joined by special ties of affection—my intense desire to walk together, with renewed trust, on the path of unity. I know that they too are deeply aware of this same need. In the history of the second millennium, there has been no lack of noble efforts in this direction, according to the perceptions of the time. I am thinking of the unity re-established at the Council of Lyons in 1274. It brought good fruits for Christian awareness, even if the effect was not lasting. Another moment of hope was the commitment to reconciliation made during the Council of Florence in 1439. The particular unions achieved later were viewed differently by East and West. But it is time now to listen to the voice of the Spirit, who makes Christ's invocation: "Father, that they may be one in us" (cf. Jn 17:21), re-echo with new force in our hearts. The spiritual riches of the Church, in the East and in the West, cannot shine before the eyes of contemporary man in their full splendour without this witness of full reconciliation.

3. Let us entrust this great cause to the intercession of the Mother of God. Let us ask her to implore, at the throne of mercy of her beloved Son, this grace of graces which is the gift of unity. Christ told us the secret of effective witness when he said: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn 13:35). May this love shine forth, witnessed to by disciples who have returned, like the first Church in Jerusalem, to being fully of "one heart and soul" (Acts 4:32).





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