Understanding Icons

When you walk in this church, what is the first thing you do? Typically, we walk into church, light a candle (remembering that Jesus is the Light of the World), offer a little prayer as we put the candle in the sand, and then we kiss the icons of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child along with the icon of Saints Constantine and Helen which stand in the narthex. Do you ever think about why we kiss the icons? We don’t typically kiss pictures we see in other places we enter. Why do we kiss icons? What is the role of icons in our faith?

When I come into the church on Sundays, I typically get here an hour before the Matins service begins, and the first thing that I do is go around to all the icons on the walls of our church and greet all the saints by kissing them. I think our church is not only beautiful, but it is also so meaningful to me because I have a special relationship with all these holy men and women who adorn our church walls. I know their stories, I’m inspired by their lives, and I love them dearly. They have set examples for us on how to live a holy life following Jesus Christ.

I realize that whenever I walk into this church, I’m not alone. I’m surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” who are waiting for me to join them in the Presence of our Lord as worship Almighty God. These beautiful icons offer a very concrete reminder to me of our Orthodox Christian theology and can act as important aids to help me connect with our Lord. This is why we should put up icons everywhere – in our homes, in our offices, in our cars, or wherever we spend time. Icons can act as a continual reminder of God and our call to “seek first the kingdom of heaven.”

Granted, there are many people, including some Christians, who misunderstand the role of icons in our faith journey and therefore don’t find a need for them. Some people even condemn icons as a form of idolatry. They say that the Christian faith doesn’t allow us to portray God in an image. Such a misunderstanding is not something new in our own time.

Today on the first Sunday of our Great Lenten journey, which we call the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we remember a fierce struggle within the Church which lasted for more than 120 years in the 8th and 9th centuries. There was deep confusion about the validity of icons in the Church. Some thought that the use of icons was idolatry, blasphemy against God because it was contrary to the Mosaic Law which forbids worshipping graven images. Others, however, explained how the theology of icons reflected the truth of God’s incarnation, that because God became a human being, a material being, we could depict Him in an icon. This debate didn’t just have to do with beautiful art but dealt with the deep theological issue of how we understand God and how we understand our humanity. Finally, in 843 St. Theodora the Empress together with Patriarch Methodios helped end the battle about icons. All agreed that Almighty God is beyond any description and can’t be depicted. Yet because He became a man in the person of Jesus Christ, this allowed one to depict Him in an icon. Icons celebrate the fundamental fact of God’s Incarnation, and thus icons can play an important role in our spiritual lives.

I want to highlight the important role of icons further as an important tool in our spiritual journeys by offering four ways we can better understand icons.       

  • 1- icons serve as a window between heaven and earth, between the human and the divine
  • 2- icons help us in our prayer life as they create an atmosphere of reverence for worship, visually reminding us that we are joining the company of saints whenever we pray
  • 3- icons proclaim the Gospel in image, teaching the Good News through beauty
  • 4- icons teach the essential doctrine of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us look at these four points more closely.

Icons as windows into heaven. Some people think that our treatment of icons is a form of idolatry. Of course, any faithful Orthodox knows that when we bow before an icon and kiss it, we do not focus on the wood and picture but we express our love to the one who is represented on the wood.  When we kiss an icon of Christ and the saints, we are showing our love for Christ himself and each of the saints portrayed in the icons.  It is the same when we are away from a loved family member for a long period of time. We miss them and may take a photograph of them and kiss the picture.  Icons are a window which allows us to look into heaven.

Our treatment of icons is not contrary to the Ten Commandments, which says, “Do not make any graven images and bow down to them and worship them” (Ex 20:4). The focus on this commandment is not on the graven images themselves but on the fact that we should never worship such images. Very shortly after God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, He then told Moses to “make two angels out of hammered gold and place them at the ends of the cover of the ark” (Ex 25:18).  Obviously, God emphasized the danger of worshipping any such image, not on the image itself. And that is precisely what we Orthodox emphasize.  We never worship an icon itself but we look through the window of the icon and see the person it represents.

Next, icons create an atmosphere conducive for worship. Prayer is not solely an intellectual activity but a sacred act simultaneously involving mind, body and soul.  We use all our senses in worship with words (through our prayers), with touch (by making the sign of the cross, bowing down to the ground, kissing an icon, and lighting a candle), with smells (through incense), with taste (by receiving Holy Communion), and with sight (by looking at icons). Icons act as tools in worship helping us experience the presence of God in a concrete manner. Icons are not simple decorations. They help put us in the presence of God.

Third, icons are visuals which teach us about God and His saints. They offer a form of beauty that proclaims the Good News. We all know the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.” What is an icon other than a “pictorial gospel?” In some churches where there are icons on every inch of the wall and ceiling, one can see frescos from the Fall of Adam and Eve through the great stories of the Old Testament to the life of Christ on to the acts of the apostles and the lives of the saints over the past 2000 years until the second coming of Christ.  Literally our biblical history and theology stand before our eyes through the frescos.

Finally, icons remind us of the most important doctrine in Christianity.  When someone says that God cannot be portrayed in a picture because he cannot be limited within a picture, we agree. God can never be represented in his eternal nature. The icon, however, offers a testimony to God’s Incarnation.  The most basic fact of Christianity is that God became human. God took a material body despite being the Creator of all creation. Thus, icons remind us of this central fact. As St. John of Damascus said, “Of old, God was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen, clothed in flesh, I can make an image of God, of the God whom I can see.”

So today on the first Sunday of Lent, when we celebrate the restoration of icons in the Church 13 centuries ago, let us also remember the meaning and significance of icons in our own lives.  We use icons as windows into heaven, as aids in our prayer life, as a visual depiction of the Gospel, and as a reminder of the most essential doctrine of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.



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