Beloved brothers and sisters-in-Christ,
Every so often, science reveals some artifact, some piece of evidence proving the practices and Traditions of the Church as being ancient and universal. In this case, archeology has provided further evidence that iconography existed not only in early Christian churches but also in Synagogues.
In an article posted in 7/5/2012 in the Huffington Post, a mosaic of Samson, the judge of ancient Israel, was discovered in a 4th -5th century synagogue. The article elaborates the colorful mosaic depicting the Biblical figure Samson has been discovered in the Galilee region of Israel, according to the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
The artwork (click for photo) was found in a synagogue in Huqoq and is well preserved even though it dates back to the late Roman period, or around the 4th or 5th century A.D..
What is particularly fascinating is that this was found in a Synagogue. The iconoclasts of the 8th and 9th centuries charged that the sacred images were contrary to the Second Commandment. Surely, if sacred images were an affront as they say, it would be most difficult for the Jews to justify using them in their places of worship.
Saint John of Damascus brings clarity on this point:
Now, our opponents say, “God commanded Moses the law-giver, ‘You will worship the Lord your God, and only him, and not make an image for yourself of anything in heaven above, or on the earth below.’ “ [Ex. 20:3-4] But they are wrong, and do not know the Scriptures. The letter kills while the spirit gives life, [2 Cor. 3:6] and they fail to find the spiritual meaning hidden in the letter. I say to these people, the Lord who taught you this would teach you more. Listen to the law-giver’s interpretation of this law in Deuteronomy: “This is to stop you looking up to the heavens and, seeing the sun, moon and stars, being deceived by error and worshipping and serving them.” [Deut. 4.19] The whole point of this is that we should not adore a created thing more than the Creator, nor give true worship to anything but him. But worship of false gods is not the same as venerating holy images.
And further, the Saint helps us to better understand what is the spirit of the teaching contained in the Second Commandment:
Again, God says, “You shall not have any gods other than me. You shall not make yourself a graven image, or any likeness. You shall not adore them or serve them, for I am the Lord thy God.” [Deut. 5.7-9] You see that he forbids image—making to avoid idolatry, and because it is impossible to make an image of the immeasurable, invisible God. As St Paul said at the Areopagus, “As we are the offspring of God, we must not imagine God to be like gold, silver, stone, or anything created by humans.” [Acts 17.29] But these instructions were given to the Jews because they were prone to idolatry. We, on the other hand, are no longer tied to apron strings. We have outgrown superstitious error, and know God in truth, worshipping him alone, enjoying the fullness of his knowledge. We are no longer children but adults. We receive our habit of mind from God, and know what may be depicted and what may not. The Scripture says, “You have not seen his face.” [Ex. 33.20] How wise the Law is! How could one depict the invisible? How picture the inconceivable? How could one express to the limitless, the immeasurable, the invisible? How give infinity a shape? How paint immortality? How put mystery in one place?
But when you think of God, who is a pure spirit, becoming man for your sake, then you can clothe him in a human form. When the invisible becomes visible to the eye, you may then draw his form.
In the icons, our hearts and minds are lifted to celestial places, filling us with joy that our Lord became incarnate and thus depictable in the icon.
We worship Thine immaculate icon, O Good One, asking the forgiveness of our failings, O Christ our God; for of Thine own will Thou wast well-pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh, that Thou mightest deliver from slavery to the enemy those whom Thou hadst fashioned. Wherefore, we cry to Thee thankfully: Thou didst fill all things with joy, O our Saviour, when Thou camest to save the world.