Dear Friends in Christ,
Oftentimes, one of the first things that our Non-Orthodox friends notice when they enter an Orthodox Church are the icons. Icons are pictures of Christ, His Mother, and the saints, which are hung or painted directly onto the walls of our churches and monasteries. They are often called “windows into Heaven.” How often do we think about them more deeply, though? Icons are one of those things that just make our faith more “real” (by real, of course, I mean tangible), and yet isn’t it remarkable that that which is “down-to-earth” succeeds in becoming a “window into Heaven”? Icons also are essential in our modern times to counteract the culture of over-informality and reintroduce reverence and awe.
On the first Sunday of Lent each year, we celebrate the restoration of the Holy Icons, a day which we call the “Sunday of Orthodoxy.” Why did the icons need restoration, though? Icons had a long place in the history of Christian worship; ancient Churches unearthed by archaeologists have icons, and Holy Tradition tells us that St. Luke the Evangelist was the first icon painter. St. Basil the Great references icons in the fourth century, and we see them growing exponentially until about AD 715. At this time, a Roman (Byzantine) emperor decided that icons were superstitious and were the reason that the Empire was suffering defeat. He based his arguments on Muslim and Jewish arguments, and ignored the previous arguments of the Christians. He ordered them to be destroyed, and a campaign of persecution began.
This persecution ended in 787 when Empress Irene restored icons. However, this did not last long, as she was eventually overthrown and a subsequent emperor tried to go back to the “good old days” by again removing icons. Finally, in AD 842, St. Theodora the Empress restored icons once and for all. The joyous people brought their hidden icons out from their homes, and carried them in processions. From this day forward until even the present day, we celebrate this feast day. Special events like the modern Olympics, the Super Bowl, and the Olympics have been going on for a century or less, but the Orthodox Church has been celebrating this feast day every first Sunday of Lent since AD 842! That’s a comforting thought.
Let’s get back to the purpose of icons. They served an important function when the majority of people were illiterate. These people could look at the icons and learn about the important saints and feasts. Some icons are quite detailed in their depiction of an event. Some have remarked that icons are like painted Gospels, for instance. Icons serve to make the Church beautiful, which is quite important. When we enter the Church and see its beauty, we sense that we are in an important place to do an important thing, and so icons are preparatory for our worship of Jesus Christ. When we honor an icon (not worship), the honor passes to the prototype; in other words, when we kiss an icon of Christ, we are honoring Christ. It’s like when we have a picture of a deceased loved one, and we hold their picture close to our heart, or even kiss it. We are not honoring a piece of paper, but the person depicted.
But what about the Old Testament, and its condemnation of idolatry? Are icons like idols? That is a charge that the Iconoclasts (the people who removed icons) made back in the 700s. But we know that the Old Testament refers to a time when God had not become incarnate; how could one depict God, who was not in any one form? But God took flesh, and was born of the Virgin Mary, and this radically altered the state of reality. Now, God could be seen, touched, perceived, through His human flesh. Now that God had taken a form as Christ (while remaining eternally formless in the Heavens, to be sure, and everywhere present on Earth, as the Holy Spirit), we have a reference point. We also have to remember that the Israelites were often making images of other things to worship, not God. Idols are idols because they replace the true God with an object of our own imagination, and that object is worshipped as if it had powers of its own, as if it was literally a dwelling place of God. This is not how we view or treat icons! Christ then ascended into the Heavens, taking his human flesh with Him. That human flesh is now seated at the right hand of the Father in glory! The fallen material world has been restored in Christ! Icons are a sign of this victory, for what was wood and paint is now transformed into an image of Christ or of one of the many saints in whom Christ’s glory shone forth. Icons are thus a reminder of Christ and those who are with Him, a connection between us.
Finally, I would like to touch upon a practical application of this for our culture today. We have become almost completely informal in our approach to everything. Some things we can surely appreciate about this change in culture; it’s nice to be able to go out to eat without getting dressed up sometimes, just as it is great to be able to make friendships with people and be on a first-name basis with them quickly. It’s a blessing to be able to laugh, cry, and make merry in front of others, just “being ourselves.” But everything has its limits, and this lack of formality can become a problem. Disrespect for parents and authority grows, and informality can often become an excuse for rudeness and a dismissal of others’ feelings and preferences: “What’s the big deal?” we might hear. The ultimate effect of this could be that we take our relationship with Jesus Christ just as one of friendship (I am reminded of one song from the 1980s titled “Jesus Is a Friend of Mine”), and not of one of submission to the Lord of the Universe. What should be a tender and intimate love with someone Who is Our God can be misconstrued by informality into something it is not: a relationship of equals.
This growing acceptance of informality can have its missionary purpose and be redeemed; we can tell non-Orthodox friends to “come as you are” to the Church and not feel they will be chased off. We can minister to the poor and have them not feel that there is an inescapable barrier between them and us, because of our artificial manner of adornment or stilted speech. I am sure that it will not escape some readers that I am writing this message in a colloquial tone! However, the icons can provide a balance to this. There is a place for informality, but there is also a place for worship, for reverence.
When we pray, we stand before the God of the Universe. The icons remind us that there is something more, something other-worldly, something calling us up to greater heights. The time for informality ceases when we stand in the presence of Christ and His saints. The excitement, the joking, the laughing ceases and we take on a feeling of profound awe. Icons help set the stage for proper worship, and help us adjust to the new setting. We come in as we are, and we exit transformed. Yes, we will again laugh, we will again have fun, we will again enjoy the blessings of this life. But we will do so always remembering Christ and His saints, the images of whom are now firmly implanted in our mind. They will help us keep a balance. Not only is worship enhanced, but we are reminded of the proper way to interact with our parents, with our elders, with our superiors. Icons remind us that there still is order in this world, and that this order is helpful to us to lead us up to God. In the moments of stillness, of awe, and of reverence, we experience intimacy with Our God. May this prepare us to enjoy the eternal feast of the Kingdom of Heaven!