On Icons and Transfiguration:
Presentations by Bishop Kallistos Ware

[Spring/Summer, 2002]

by Mary Ann Bulko

   His Grace Kallistos (Ware), titular Bishop of Diokleia celebrated Divine Liturgy in Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, Randolph, N.J. on Sunday, October 28th with host pastor Fr. George Hasenecz. The community was doubly blessed to hear a homily and an afternoon talk by the world renown theologian, lecturer/author whose writings include The Orthodox Church, and  most recently, The Inner Kingdom, the first of a six-volume collection of works.

   The homily was based on the scriptural reading (Luke 8:26-33) regarding the Gerasene demoniac and his encounter with Jesus Christ. Bp Kallistos defines the possessed man's pathetic state as one of isolation, lonely, driven into the wilderness by the devil, cut off from friendship and love. The demoniac speaks to Jesus with a denial of relationship, a refusal of communion or personal contact. He wants nothing to do with the Lord or anyone else. "He is no longer a real human being but rather an 'un-person'. He is living in a foretaste of hell," said Bp Kallistos.

   After Christ heals the man, He restores him to human relationship by telling him to go back to his home. Christ creates and restores relationships while the devil destroys relationships. "If we are in the realm of Christ, then we are together with others; we are each a person in relationship. If we are in the realm of Satan, then we are alone and we refuse relationship," continued His Grace. "The gospel reading then draws our attention to an essential element in our human personhood. Loss of relationship means loss of personhood."

   The center or heart of our Christian faith is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

   "God is love," says St. John. True love is not self-love but mutual love, shared love - an "I" and "thou" relationship. God is love - a love of three in one - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - from all eternity there is an unceasing movement of mutual love. The reciprocal love between the Father and the Son, and the Son and the Father, is sealed by the Holy Spirit.

   Quoting contemporary theologian Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, Bp Kallistos said, "The Being of God is a relational Being. Without the concept of communion, it is scarcely possible to think about God." The doctrine of the Trinity teaches that God is relationship, communion, sharing, exchange, self-giving.

   We, as human beings, are made in the image of Christ, but also in the image of the Trinity. We are called to reflect in ourselves the nature of the Trinity. We are to apply to ourselves all that we say about God. We are called to live in a relationship of "I' and "thou." We cannot understand ourselves unless in terms of relationship and communion. "The doctrine of the Trinity is a way of saying there can be no true person unless there are two persons in communication with one another." The doctrine of the Trinity signifies..."I need you in order to be myself."

   The demoniac in isolation was in extreme opposition to the Holy Trinity. Fr. Pavel Florensky, who died in a Russian prison camp under Stalin said, 'Between the Trinity and hell there lies no other choice.' Either we love one another after the image of the Holy Trinity, or we shall be like the man possessed by demons. We shall have lost all joy and all meaning.

   Bp Kallistos concluded the homily with these words - "May Christ heal all of us, heal us into mutual love, heal us into relationship, and make us transcripts of the Trinity."


   His Grace, Bishop Kallistos, keynote speaker at a recent conference at Columbia University regarding "Orthodoxy and Democracy: Challenges After the Cold War," addressed the 'standing-room only' audience at Holy Trinity Church. The afternoon lecture was on "Holy Icons and the Transfiguration of the World.

   With mindful insight, meticulous reflection and delightful candor, His Grace spoke about Holy Icons in a three-fold presentation. What do icons tell us about Christ? About ourselves and human nature? About God's creation and the world around us?

   Utilizing the defining words of St. Stephen the New, an 8th century martyr, Bp Kallistos referred to an icon as a door, a means of entry into the heavenly kingdom, the communion of saints. We come face to face with Christ, with the Mother of God, with the Saints. They are made present to us and us present to them - a two-way door. An icon then is a theology of presence. It transmits a divine grace to us and to those who pray with a sincerity of heart. It helps bring us to theosis, to deification, to life in God.

   In a meticulously delivered narration by His Grace, he referred to John 1:14 - 'The Word became flesh.' Jesus Christ took "human soul, human feelings, human body," he said. Christ was totally involved in our human life, one of us, our brother. If it is possible to depict a human body, it is possible to depict Christ. You deny the fullness of the incarnation by denying icons. "Christ our God, our Creator, is also one of us..." continued Bp Kallistos, "it is this truth that the icons are concerned to defend." Christ is salvation made manifest...visible, audible, palpable. His salvation, by sharing in our human life is in order that we might share in divine life. "If involvement of Christ in our human life is impaired and undermined, that will impair and undermine the integrity of our salvation," said His Grace. And so, Holy Icons are central to Holy Tradition and protect the Christian doctrine of Incarnation and Salvation, the very essence of our Christian Faith.

   Referring to Genesis 1:27 - "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female he created them." Bp Kallistos proceeded to explain what icons reveal about us - 'personhood'. God is Creator and we are a sub-create. "By virtue of the image within each human being, we have creative powers. We have been endowed by God with the power to alter the world, with the power to enrich the creation with new meaning. We have the power to transform and to transfigure." He spoke of St. Theodore the Studite (9th c.) whose teachings illumined the fact that man being made in the image and likeness of God means that there is something divine about the making of icons.

   In discussing the difference between human beings and animals, Bp Kallistos said, "The animals live in the world and they glorify God simply by being themselves." But animals do not create and make things by conscious and deliberate choice, rather by instinct. Humans consciously and by deliberate free choice can alter and fashion the world and offer it back to God. Although the world is in a sinful and fallen condition, "we have the power to endow the world with new joy, and wonder and glory - to transfigure...we also have the power to disfigure the world, to destroy and to pollute. So in both directions, we can do what the animals cannot do," said His Grace. We have made the rivers poisonous and the air foul. Made in the divine image, we can transfigure or as sinful persons, we can disfigure.

   Bp Kallistos continued speaking about icons and man and the capacity for both to convey an element of joy and warmth. Regarding scientific inquiry and technology, if carried out in a Christian spirit, these too express our creative power given by God. The gifts we offer to God for the eucharist are not mere wheat and grapes, but rather these too are transfigured and transformed into bread and wine by man's creative ability. In sharp contrast to Dostoyevsky's characterization of the anti-human, Bp Kallistos proposed that 'the best definition of a human being is a creature with two legs and a sense of gratitude.' "Only human beings can utter blessings. That is their distinctive privilege and marks them out from the other animals. The human animal is not so much a logical animal as a eucharistic animal," said His Grace.

   Regarding Holy Icons and creation, Bp Kallistos referred again to Genesis. All that was made by God was not only good, but beautiful and full of His glory. Citing St. John of Damascus, iconoclasts underestimate the spirit-bearing potentialities of material things. God is not worshipped only through the mind and with words. Matter is used as well to glorify God. St. John's point is that Christians, in a sense, are only true materialists. God uses something material to bring about something spiritual - our salvation. "Nothing is contemptible that God has made." Living as we do in an era of ecological crisis, we need to reaffirm that all God made is good; that the whole world is a sacrament of divine presence. Through material things we can worship God and learn about Him. Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!

   "God is present in the icons and also in the Eucharist, but the manner of His presence is different," said Bp Kallistos. The Eucharist is the reality of Christ, His Body and Blood and can be worshipped. Icons are not to be worshipped but shown honor. They are a means of grace but are matter used to manifest God's glory.

   "And so icons safeguard our faith in the fullness of the Incarnation, our faith in the creativity of the human person made according to God's image, our faith in the intrinsic holiness of all material things. God is good - He is Goodness itself. God is true - He is Truth itself. God is beautiful - He is Beauty itself," concluded His Grace. Holy icons underline divine beauty. Beauty is attractive and draws us to itself. Beauty calls to us and draws us to itself. Icons show the attractiveness of God. They are our door to eternity. Icons help us understand the very Glory of God!

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