What does the Church believe about icons and their use?

May 22, 2019

Let’s talk about icons again! Have you ever noticed the faithful walking up to icons, kissing them, lighting a candle in front of them, or even the priest censing them? Are we worshiping those man-made images? What does it all mean? Lets take a closer look as to purpose and meaning behind icons.  


In our first video we discussed how icons are not at all graven images but on the contrary, we take the use of imagery within our expressions of worship from the Lord himself who sets the standard in his design of the tabernacle. If you have not yet watched it, we urge you to watch that video as well.  


Now, while we speak of icons and defend the use of imagery in the Church, it is of great importance to know that the Orthodox Church does not use icons simply as a means of decorating the Church walls. Iconography in the Orthodox Church has a very profound theological substance which will surely give us insight as to what the Church truly believes. To further understand this, we should examine a fundamental theological claim that Christian Faith declares: humanity in its fallenness could not ascend unto God, and so it is God who has come down to us!  


St John the Evangelist says in his gospel that “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him. (John 1:18) 

Ultimately what is being said is that we only began to know God as He is when the Word of God, the only-begotten Son, was incarnate and dwelt among us. Again, St John makes this very clear by saying “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (John 1:14). When John says we “beheld” His glory, he literally means we saw him with our own eyes. The invisible God is now visible to us creatures through His incarnate Logos. No other faith makes such a bold declaration – that our God has entered into time as a Man, was incarnate for us and for our salvation, He was seen just as we see all other human beings,  and that He walked and talked on this earth and lived among us humans. It is the mystery of the incarnation in all its beauty that obliges us to celebrate the visible manifestation of God as human being, in the person of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, into artistic expressions of iconography. It is because we believe in a God who made Himself visible and was incarnate that we must bring ourselves to depict Him visibly in iconographic form. And so, the Church celebrates the incarnation through its tradition of iconography.   


Now some would argue that it is when they see us censing the icon, or kissing the icon, or praying in front of the icon that this is evidence for the fact that we are worshiping the graven image. And again, we would strongly disagree. To better explain this, we will use a common day example as well as offer a theological explanation.   


Let us begin with the example that many will be able to relate to. Many of us have pictures of loved ones in picture frames at home, on our desks at work, or even digitally on our devices. We will all agree that it is not uncommon for people to crack a smile and be filled with emotion when they see a picture that was taken at a special time and place – like a wedding or family vacation. Sometimes we see grown men and woman kiss the picture of a child that is saved in their wallet. We sometimes even see people standing and talking to pictures of loved ones that have passed away and reposed in the Lord. Now none of us would dare accuse any of these people of being crazy, would we? We all understand that these actions are not merely the kissing of ink on paper, or the talking to picture frames… No! Rather we can all relate to the fact that these images that they are looking at, while physically there is no denying that they are nothing but ink on paper or even perfectly aligned pixels on a screen, they represent something so much more meaningful than what we see. It is the child, the grandparent, the friend or the wedding day that inspires so much emotion within the human heart and soul. And so, even in our daily lives we can relate to how we sometimes treat images as if they were the person themselves standing before us. Now how much more ought this apply to us as Christians when we greet our mother the Theotokos in her icon. Or when we remember those awesome moments of the crucifixion, the transfiguration, and the entry into Jerusalem as we pass by their icons in Church. Or when we see the priest censing and kissing the icon of Christ our Saviour. None of these gestures are directed to the actual material or physical substance of the icon, but rather to them that are depicted in the icon, those who have truly walked among us and God’s glory shines in and through them.  


St John of Damascus, a Syrian monk of the seventh century that strongly defended iconography, he conveys this theological stance beautifully in his writings:  


“In former times, God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake.” St John of Damascus [First apology against those who would attack the divine images 1.16] 


It is for this very reason that we believe that iconographers are not merely artists, but have the potential to become theologians in their own rite. They are doing a spiritual work and not only an artistic work. And while beauty is always appreciated, the Church places less emphasis on the esthetic beauty of the icon and much more on its proper content and meaning within the liturgical life of the Church. It is for this reason, that every aspect of the icon has a meaning, every color has a significance. And each of these makes a statement about what the Church believes. This again testifies to the fact that we do not merely see icons as decorative ornaments within the Church and our homes, but rather as vessels by which we see the light of God.  


They serve two great purposes; 1) they allow us to surround ourselves with all that is heavenly, reminding us that God has come down among us and His kingdom is truly at hand and is accessible to us, and 2) it allows us to get glimpses into eternity and to embrace a divine light that shines through those who are depicted in the icons who have passed on to be with the Lord in paradise. And in so doing, icons proclaim the faith of the Church! 


Now St John of Damascus believed in the power and the theology of icons so much, that he made an extremely bold statement which is both beautiful and profound. He said:  


“If a pagan asks you to show him your faith, take him into church and place him before the icons.” 


What he is implying here is that when placed in front of the multitude of icons that our Church produces, we will see in them the faith found in Scripture, Holy Tradition, and the lives of the saints. Icons therefore can and ought to be vehicles of theological education. And even more than that, they can lead to a person’s edification. We believe this so much that in the prayer of consecration of Icons, the bishop specifically makes request of this to God:  


“O Master Lord God, the Pantocrator, Father of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ who […] manifested Yourself to your chosen apostles through the incarnation of Your only-begotten Son […] we ask and entreat You O lover of Mankind to send Your Holy Spirit on this icon that it may become an anchored harbor of salvation and steadfastness for all who approach it faithfully to receive though it grace and forgiveness of their sins from God.” [Prayer of the Consecration of Icons – Coptic Orthodox rite]  


The icon therefore, in the eyes of the Church is a sanctified divine image accessible to all believers. All of us who approach it in faith, and worship God through it, can take from it all the God wishes to deliver to us in the from of grace.

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