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Icons

July 11, 2010

Okay, so I can’t think of a clever connection to The Lord Of The Rings with this topic. I’m sure a fan out there will come up with one, once they read this. I have been thinking about what I have learned about the Holy Icons and their role in the life of the Church, as well as how I relate to them as a follower of Christ.

I recently had it put to me by a friend that icons, as well as any kind of holy object, are simply “extras” that distract us from Christ. This friend contended that since the Bible does not forbid the use of music in worship (in reference to Old Testament scenes where Israel celebrates before the LORD with musical instruments, such as at the dedication of the Temple), but it does not tell us that statues, icons and the like are valid. In her reasoning, her church’s use of the visual arts (lights, stages, music, theatre, etc) was edifying and “Spirit led”. When I mentioned that the Church has used art to point people to Christ for centuries, I was promptly corrected for my “error”. Of course, her assumptions fail to recognize what icons really are. Then again, I had no understanding of icons as an Evangelical, myself.

I have to admit that as an Evangelical I was completely ignorant of icons. I was so ignorant, I didn’t even know that the “really bad paintings” that preceded the Renaissance era, were the very icons the Church had used for worship of Christ, instruction, evangelism, etc. When I first heard from my friend Cameron, who was considering the Orthodox Church, about the use and veneration of icons, I had a picture of little statues in my mind. And the other thing that first popped into my mind was idolatry. I assumed that the veneration of icons was directed simply at the icon itself, for its own sake, and was a part of some kind of perversion of Christianity the resulted in superstition. As I have come to find out, my assumption was not the case. And thank God for that.

For my non-orthodox friends, let me explain icons the best I can. They are 2 dimensional images of a person or event, either Biblical or from the life of a Saint of the Church. They are generally unrealistic in appearance, with proportions “wrong”, “bad” angles and the like. Their purpose is not to depict people or events in a realistic manner, because they are trying to share a spiritual message. Take for instance the icon above. The title if this icon is “The Tree Of Jesse”. While Mary never sat in a tree, with Jesus on her lap, their ancestors on the branches, and Jesse in the ground below it, the purpose of this icon is to show the Biblical truth of Christ’s lineage to Jesse, through Mary. As one person puts it, icons do with color, what the Bible does with words. They teach us. In my blogroll is a link to Glory To God For All Things. Here are a few of Father Stephen’s reflections on icons:  http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/the-truth-of-an-icon-2 and http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2010/05/14/within-a-mandorla/ I add these because Father Stephen has a lot more understanding of this subject, and articulates it far better than myself.

One day my oldest daughter, who was 8 at the time, asked me if icons break the 2nd Commandment. I was floored at her ability to make such a connection. I was stuck with two problems: 1) giving a satisfactory answer. 2) giving that answer in a way that an 8 year old can understand. I don’t have that problem here, so here I go… First, the classic Protestant understanding of the command to make not images, is in fact in incorrect one. If it was strictly forbidden to make images, then art is sin. Also, why would God give that commandment, then instruct Moses to build a Tabernacle with images sewn into the very fabric of it, then later images carved into the very vessels of the Temple? The making of forbidden images is connected to the worship of them as God. Icons, like the ancient images in and on the Tabernacle and Temple, point to God, and do not take the place of God.

Second, the icons do not break the 2nd Commandment because of the Incarnation of our Lord God and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Because Jesus took on a body that could be seen, touched, etc, He can be depicted in picture form. Since Jesus could have been photographed (if the technology was available), then he could be painted (the actual technology available). And more than this technicality of His physical nature, icons point to Jesus in our lives. Since Jesus not only took on human flesh, but trampled down death by His death and resurrected, His life is in us by the Holy Spirit. People who put their faith in Him, live by the grace of God at work in us. The Orthodox understand this as Theosis.

This leads to the subject of veneration. If anything may appear to be “idolatry”, it’s the way Orthodox show veneration. We bow, we kiss, we make the sign of the cross. This is foreign to Western Protestants, and since faith is relegated to mental and emotional. As I have learned, this is basically the way Eastern peoples show respect, and have done so for centuries. So when we venerate the image of the icon, we are showing respect for the person who lived their life fully in the grace of God, and in reality, showing honor to the Lord who gives us this grace by the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit, when he touches the material, mystically imparts grace to the material world.

When God spoke to Moses from the Burning Bush, he told him the ground was holy. When Elisha died, the grace of God was still upon his body, to the extent that when a dead man accidentally touches the bones, he comes back to life. The Orthodox don’t try to explain how something like this is possible, but glory in the mystery as it is. That’s what separates a holy icon from any other picture. It’s purpose is to point to God. It’s intent is to show the spiritual reality of an event. It’s ultimate end gives glory to Christ. It is blessed with a mystical grace from the Holy Spirit. It teaches, like the Scripture. It’s not just a strange form of art, it’s holy.

One other thing that I pointed out to my daughter, is that each of us is a kind of icon. The Bible says that we are made in His ikon and likeness. Just as our lives are to be living epistles of God (2 Corinthians 3:2), the icons of the Church tell the story of our salvation, show the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) and help to encourage us in our journey toward salvation. We are the moving counterpart to a stationary icon. As I stated before (stole a quote, really) the Bible itself is an icon of words. I don’t know how I missed it for so many years, but now I’m beginning to understand…

Another thing that I have found to be true about an icon, is it’s ability to aid with with focus. As I pray at my prayer corner before the icons of the Glorified Christ, and the Infant Christ in the arms of the Theotokos, I find it easier to focus on actually praying. Closing my eyes, bowing my head and trying to think of all the things I need to pray for, often times found my mind wandering, or made be sleepy to the extent that I began to daydream. That mystery of grace that is upon the icons through the blessing, makes you aware of the presence of Christ and all His saints. It reminds you that we are not in a two-story universe, but a single-story one (sorry for taking your analogy, Father Stephen). The Kingdom of Heaven is present, and that is a comfort.

I would never have thought a year ago, that today I would have set up a prayer corner in my house (actually, I set up one for my girls in their room too) and be regularly be praying before icons. Obviously prayers are never made to them. I have found them to be very helpful in my developing prayer life. Some would say that those who use such things as icons, have lost the sense of God in their lives. I have come to understand and believe that this is completely false. If anything I can say that I am keenly more aware of God, and on a deeper level that doesn’t come and go with my feelings. It’s not about the object, but the God who has transformed my relationship with Himself, others, and indeed the whole Creation. That the material universe is not a distraction to my salvation, but a cohesive part of it, is a freeing thing to know. Thank God for the icon.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. cindy McCreery permalink
    July 11, 2010 7:35 pm

    Wow, this was really cool and so true. I was just talking about the deeper meaning of icons at my church last week (we are members of an Episcopal church) with a friend. When I had attended an Evangelical church I missed the icons so much because it reminded me of the history and the deeper meanings of my faith. Hard to explain in a response, but I totally understand what you mean about a prayer corner. I’ve been using prayer beads and it’s amazing how touching the beads and the “icons” really helps me focus my prayer life and keep my mind from wandering. Thanks for sharing this.
    Best, Cindy
    BTW – my maiden name is Cindy Brown – just in case you were wondering who the heck I am!

  2. July 12, 2010 12:05 am

    Thanks for commenting Cindy. It is nice to hear from people who read this. Something similar to the beads in Orthodoxy is the use of a prayer rope. They are made by monks and nuns, using a special braiding technique. They use them in conjunction with what is referred to as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I find that prayer very helpful in keeping from wandering in my thoughts, dwelling on something I shouldn’t (whether anger, lust, etc), to keep myself from doing something stupid, or to repent for doing any of the above. The Christian faith is far deeper than my Evangelical background led me to believe.
    Now that you mention your maiden name, now I can place you from Rim. 😉
    Thanks again for the comment.

  3. Sean permalink
    July 12, 2010 9:21 am

    I can confirm the part about kissing being tradition. We do kiss a lot here – most obvious example: When greeting an elder of the family, especially in formal occasions but also when we feel close to them, we bow and kiss their right hand (not the way men use to kiss women’s hands, we don’t bring the hand to the lips but bow down to it). I usually greet my grandparents that way and on some cases my parents and my uncles and aunts. My parents who are on their 50s also kiss my grandparents’ hand. It is a sign of respect and an acknowledgement of superior wisdom and guidance.

    • Seraphima B. permalink
      July 14, 2010 2:25 pm

      Thanks, Sean, for this post. It was very interesting. I am an American Orthodox, converted from the Episcopal church about 19 years ago. I have a question, though. Don’t you actually kiss your priest’s hand when he gives you a blessing?

      • Sean permalink
        July 15, 2010 1:00 pm

        Yes we do. I just wanted to emphasize the fact that we do it also outside any religious aspects. The kissing of a priest’s right hand is much more than a sign of respect to the person of an elder (actually the greek word for priest is presbyteros, ie “elder”). Kissing a priest’s right hand is honouring the Holy Spirit’s physical instrument in Holy Eucharist. That’s why it is not considered improper to not kiss a deacon’s hand (although most people do so out of respect).

  4. July 12, 2010 12:38 pm

    Sean,
    I had no idea that the kissing of the hand was used in the familial setting. We in the West have put a misplaced affection on youth, rather than the wisdom of a long life. I guess that’s why our elderly celebrities try to look and act like the young, foolish counterparts in their 20’s and 30’s.
    What a beautiful tradition, to greet the elder members of the family with such respect.
    Thanks for enlightening my understanding on that.

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