Feast of St Longinus the Centurion
IF, IN SPITE of it all, you want to know that making prostration to the icon of Christ, and to the icons of the saints, is a fundamental principle in God’s church, listen to what the well-known St. Athanasius says about it in the Questions which Duke Antiochus asked him about some things in connection with which he thought the church had some inconsistency. St. Athanasius is the first among the teachers, the possessor of five crowns in the fight for orthodoxy [a reference to the five exiles he endured], the strongest pillar of the church.
Antiochus asked, what business is it of ours to make prostration to the icons and to the cross? They are the handiwork of carpenters, like the idols. In the prophets God gave the command that we should not make prostration to the works of human hands.
In answer to him, St. Athanasius said that for us believers, making prostration to God is not the same as making prostration to the icons; it is not like worshipping idols. Rather, with our prostration to icon or to cross, we undertake only to show love and affection for the person whose icon it is. For this reason, whenever the icon is effaced, what was once an image is then most frequently burnt as firewood. Again, just as Jacob when he came near death, bowed down on the top of Joseph’s staff, he did not do so to honor the staff, but the one who was holding the staff in his hand (see Gen. 47.31 LXX; Heb. 11.21). So too we believers, for no other reason do we show honor to images and come to touch them. It is like kissing sons and fathers, to show the love for them we have within us. So too did the Jew in times gone by make prostration to the tablets of the Law and the Cherubim cast in gold; he was not showing honor to the nature of gold or stone, but to the Lord; he ordered it to be made. [. . .]
Would that I knew what to say about those who avoid the practice, and who give us orders not to make prostration to the images, the icons of the saints that are drawn and copied among us only for a memorial and for nothing else. This, in brief, is what to say about icons and images. As for the cross, it is well known that we make prostration to it, and we believers salute it only for the sake of Christ, who was crucified on it. This is the doctrine of St. Athanasius.
As for Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, the one who wrote the history of the church from the birth of our Savior in Bethlehem up to the time of the great king, Constantine; in the seventh book, the seventeenth chapter, he mentions the woman whom our Lord healed of the flow of blood. He maintains that she was from Paneas. About her Eusebius says:
Since we have mentioned this city, we should not pass over a story that deserves to be a keepsake for those who come after us. They claim that the woman whose flow of blood we know about from the Holy Gospel, the one whom our Lord cured of this malady, was from this city, and her house is well known in the city. Moreover, there is a miraculous sign which remains until today of the benefit that came to her from our Lord. Before the door of her house there is a bronze image in the likeness of a woman, and the image is kneeling, on its knees, its hands extended, beseeching in the manner of that woman whose blood flowed, whom our Lord Jesus Christ cured. Opposite there is a bronze image like a man standing upright, wrapped in a cloak, stretching out his hand to this woman. From under the foot of this image there grows up over the stele the strangest of herbs in appearance, reaching up to the top of his cloak, and it is a remedy for every ailment. The likeness is resemblance to our Savior. It has lasted until our own days, and we have seen it with our own eyes when we went to this city. It is not surprising that the artisans were those of the gentiles to have benefitted from our Savior, since we see them already having made color portraits of the apostles, St. Paul and St. Peter. And of Christ Himself there remain icons until this very day.
Does Eusebius not verify for you that these likenesses and icons have continually been in the possession of Christians since the time of the apostles? By my life, the proof of what he says is the fact that the icon that portrays the apostles remains until today, as does the icon of Christ. Indeed, these icons were authenticated by the very countenances of the apostles in person, and by the countenance of Christ. St. Athanasius gave the recommendation to make prostration to them; he reported that they were antiques even before his time. So this is a strict command for every Christian, no doubt about it, because he is the chief of the teachers, , none of whom is more eminent than he.
St. Gregory the Theologian, in the homily he preached on Christ’s birthday, gives you the order to make a prostration to the manger which was a kind of cradle for our Lord. And he also gives you the order to make a prostration to the rock, because of its connection with Christ, to whom every act of prostration is necessarily due—contrary to your foolish statement that one is not permitted to make an act of prostration to anything except to God.
—St Theodore Abu Qurrah, A Treatise on the Veneration of the Holy Icons