Mystery Matters: On Icons and Explanation

In the Orthodox Church, the first Sunday of Lent is referred to as the “Sunday of Orthodoxy”. It is focused on the unity of the Church, but also is a remembrance and celebration of the historical event that occurred in the 8th century. After nearly a century of great conflict surrounding the veneration and use of icons in the Church, a council was convened to find a solution. This council was eventually recognized as the 7th Ecumenical Council. It declared and clearly defined what is meant and acceptable concerning the use and veneration of icons.

For those of us not raised Orthodox, icons can be a significant hurdle to our embrace or understanding of the Church that claims Christ and the Apostles as its foundation. As Americans, we live in a culture that, at least in Christian circles, doesn’t really have icons, in the traditional sense. Its not something you’re going to find in most Christian bookstores.  The idea of having and placing importance – reverent importance – on images of Christ, His mother, and the Saints – not as decoration or art – but rather to venerate, to have “relationship” with – is a pretty foreign concept to our culture. Depending on one’s upbringing, the concept may even be very troubling.

If icons were strange or troubling to those of us who eventually did embrace Orthodoxy, it’s important for us to remember that it can be that way for others around us encountering Orthodoxy for the first time. People will ask questions – and they should. This is why it’s very important for Orthodox Christians (and I’m speaking specifically to those of us in the American context) know why we do what we do. First of all it’s important so that what we do doesn’t become something it isn’t supposed to be. In fact, one impetus for the 7th Ecumenical Council was the fact that there had been practices that crept in, probably out of ignorance that leaned too far towards an idolatrous understanding of icons. But it is also important for us to know so we can explain if asked. It’s not enough to simply say “it’s Tradition” or “it’s what we do”. First and foremost, anything we explain in our Orthodox Faith should always begin and end with Christ. How does this practice or that doctrine proclaim what we believe about Christ.

The Orthodox Church is a Christ centered church. In fact it is the church that proclaims to be the very church founded by Christ. So what we do should always glorify and bring people closer to Him. So why did the church in the 8th century find a proper understanding of the use of icons so important to the witness to Christ that it held a council to say so?

Let’s start with what the Council said:

“We define that the holy icons, whether in color, mosaic, or some other material, should be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and liturgical vestments, on the walls, furnishings, and in houses and along the roads, namely the icons of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, that of our Lady the Theotokos, those of the venerable angels and those of all saintly people. Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to commemorate and love their prototype. We define also that they should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honor (timitiki proskynisis), but not of real worship (latreia), which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the divine nature. The veneration accorded to an icon is in effect transmitted to the prototype; he who venerates the icon, venerated in it the reality for which it stands”.

“Venerated it in the reality for which is stands” At the heart of this statement is an explanation of why the Church does not use icons in an idolatrous sense. Idolatry is the belief that the thing itself receives worship as if it has its own power or is the person or deity represented. But also wrapped up in this statement is an explanation of why the Church does not see or treat icons as mere decorations. Icons are not simply religious art or, in the case of necklaces or other jewelry with holy images, not fashion accessories.

If the icon simply remains on the wall to be looked at, as part of the décor – it has no power, it is no different than any other painting. However, if the icon is seen in a superstitious sense – as having some sort of power in itself, then it is an idol – and therefore also has no power. But the mystery occurs in the correct veneration – the looking, the engagement, the remembrance of the person it depicts, and even the physical act of venerating. In that “space between” – where the icon becomes a vehicle of relationship between us, here on earth now, and the invisible, timeless Kingdom of God, where death does not separate us – that’s where the power is. But it’s not just the wood, the paint, although it does mysteriously becomes a vehicle, a vessel, like the person depicted was a vessel. The only power present is the power of the Grace, the energy, the life of God that can and does work through earthen vessels. The key to the veneration of icons is a proclamation about who we believe Christ is, and what we believe His work accomplished and still accomplishes.

Icons proclaim the true incarnation of Christ. When we see and venerate an icon of our lord, we remember, and make present the reality that He truly was man, and became man for our salvation, and can be depicted as such.

Icons proclaim that human beings can participate in the Grace of God and become vessels of that Grace. When we venerate an icon of a Saint, we remember and proclaim that God transforms lives and makes them “partakers of the divine nature” (I Pet. 1:4) by the Grace of God. We proclaim also that these transformed lives drew others to Christ, fulfilling the Great Commission.

Icons proclaim that God has been present throughout history. On the walls of most Orthodox Churches one will see images of holy men, women, children, from a time spanning over 2000 years (even more if you count the holy persons of the Old Testament!). One will see a visible witness to the work God has done through his faithful servants throughout history. One will see the continuation of that first “Come and see” that we hear about in the Gospel of John, when Philip told Nathaniel to come and see the Lord. In the same way people “Came and saw” real people whose lives reflected Christ so much that many came and believed because of their witness.

Icons are relational. So, just as the icons represent real persons, who lived, just like you and me – we, who are living our lives now are to strive to become icons – not wood and paint, of course but towards the greater truth – living witnesses who bear the very life, the very energy of God within us.

As strange as icons in the church may have been for many of us, and as strange as they may seem to others, the truth is, our world is full of icons. You could say that we are iconographic beings, in that we have many things that represent something else, something greater, that gain their meaning by our engagement with them.

For example, a stop sign is an icon for the law it represents. We all agree that we should stop at an intersection when we see a red octagonal sign with the word “Stop” on it. The metal, the paint, the sign itself, in an abstract sense has no power. But, when engaged with, it carries with it the greater truth it represents – the law that says we stop at intersections.

There are many other examples of secular icons – national flags, brands, logos, all which, when seen and engaged in mean something more than just the physical image. We even sometimes call people “icons” in our culture – “pop icons” or “icons” of a particular movement or philosophy.

Whether we think about it or not, we adopt icons all the time, and venerate them, associate ourselves with them, pledge allegiance to them. But these icons in the world are not Holy icons, as Holy icons point us always to Christ, the greatest Truth.  So we, who claim to be Christians must consider what icons we adopt and present to the world. What are we known for? When someone looks at the icon of our lives, what do they see? Are they pointed towards Christ or something else?

The question to ask is: What kind of icon am I?

To conclude, a quote from another council of sorts, but one that is not from the 8th century, but rather the current Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in North America, who, as part of their address for Sunday of Orthodoxy gave this call to action:

“Beloved brothers and sisters, perhaps now more than ever before, it is important to declare our Orthodox Christian Faith, for the world is suffering and desperately searching for peace and reconciliation. As the world produces distorted images of the truth, we must share the beauty of the Gospel. As the world resorts to violence and hatred, we must respond with love and forgiveness. And as the world falls deeper into despair, let us ask God to grant us courage to endure and to allow us to serve as icons of hope for our neighbor.”

Full text of this address can be found at http://www.assemblyofbishops.org/news/2015/sunday-of-orthodoxy

More info on Sunday of Orthodoxy and the 7th Ecumenical Council http://lent.goarch.org/sunday_of_orthodoxy/learn/

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