Do Orthodox Christians worship icons?

by Tony Holden

People sometimes ask if we worship Icons. The answer is simple, it is an emphatic No!

No Christian worships an image. Christians worship God. We do not worship Icons, but we do venerate them. That means we show special respect for the Icons. We do this because the Icons are a way of joining us to the goodness and holiness of God and His Saints.

When an Orthodox Christian goes into Church he lights a candle, makes the sign of the cross then kisses the Icons of Christ, His Mother the Theotokos, and the Saints.

A screen separates the Altar from the rest of the Church. This screen is known as the "Icon Screen" or "Iconostasis" because it supports a series of Icons. The North and South aspects of the Iconostasis is divided by central double doors known as the "Royal Doors" or "Holy Doors". Characteristically in Orthodox Churches, the first Icon to the right of the Holy Doors is the Icon of Christ, the Creator of All Things. To the left of the Holy Doors is an Icon of the Mother of God with Christ cradled in Her arms. The Icon depicted on the Holy Doors is that of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, where the Archangel Gabriel brings to Her the news of the impending Miraculous Conception. Icons of the four Evangelists are also often found on the Holy Doors.

The Holy Doors show us the way heaven and earth are reunited by Christ. The Icon of the Annunciation reminds us that God came down to us as a person. Mary was a doorway for Christ to enter this world, and for us to enter heaven. The Icons of the Four Evangelists remind us that we come to God through the teachings of the Gospel.

To the right of the Icon of Christ on the Iconostasis is the Icon of the Forerunner St John the Baptist. To the left of the Icon of the Virgin and Christ Child is the Patron Saint of that particular Church Parish

Every orthodox home has its Icon shelf, and family Prayers are said there. 

The meaning of Icons

Images have always played a part in teaching Christians about their faith. Icons are much more than religious pictures. They are a way of telling people about some complicated Christian teaching in a simple form that anyone can see and start to understand -- even a tiny child. Icons in the earliest days of the Church were a means of depicting Gospel events to Christians who may not have been able to read the Gospel themselves.

Christians of the Orthodox Church say that it is both wrong and impossible to make a picture showing what God looks like. We have never seen Him, we hardly know Him, We cannot draw Him. However, God came into this world as a person. He became flesh and blood as Jesus Christ. This is what Christians call the "Incarnation". This belief that God became a man is one of the most fundamental of Christian teachings. We can paint a picture of Christ because He lived here as a person. The word "Icon" means a picture or image. In simple terms an Icon of Christ is a picture of Christ which tells everyone that God became a man.

The meaning of Icons goes even further than this. In Icons of the Saints, the pictures do not look like pictures of ordinary flesh and blood. They look strange. The Church teaches that Christ had a human body in order to save our bodies as well as our souls. At the end of time, when Christ comes again, everyone will rise from the dead. We will not look the same as we do now. We will be utterly changed, and we will shine with the glory of God. Icons show people with that sort of body -- a Resurrection body. The Church also teaches that all people are made in the image and likeness of God. In a way then, the Saints are living 'Icons' of Christ. Because Christ was God and Man at the same time. He was able to show us just what that image and likeness of God can actually look like. The Gospels tell us that once, at a place called Mount Tabor, the Apostles saw that Christ was shining with light. (Matt. 17. 1-13; Mark 9. 2-13; Luke 9. 28-36) The same thing sometimes happens to people who live a very holy life. When they are deep in prayer they shine with a mysterious light. Their bodies have been changed so that they show the image and likeness of God. They are holy flesh. Not all of the Saints show this sort of holiness on the outside in their lives. More often they grow into the likeness of God in a hidden way, but all Icons of the Saints show that they have already changed from ordinary flesh and blood. Saints are depicted with a halo of light around their head.

There are many examples of miraculous Icons throughout time. Some even today. Orthodox Christians believe firmly that God can use thing's of this world [such as wood and paint] to help us to share in the heavenly world. We use water in Baptism or bread and wine in Holy Communion. We ask God to bless these ordinary things so that they can bring us to Him. Similarly, we ask God to bless Icons as well, so that the paint and wood and the artist's skill can be used in His service. Icons are blessed to bring us to God. This is the reason why we call them "Holy Icons". 

Windows into heaven

In an ordinary picture things seem to get narrower as they go into the distance. This gives the picture its feeling of depth. It is called "perspective". Icons are different. On many of them the picture seems to get wider as it goes into the distance -- the perspective is back to front.

In an ordinary painting you can often see the sun, or else you can see light and shadow. You can tell the time of day, or you can see that it is night. You can not see these things in an Icon. There are no shadows, or ways of showing day and night. An Icon shows a view of heaven, so it is lighted by the unchanging light of God.

Icons are painted this way on purpose. An Icon is a window into Heaven. The veneration granted to the Icon is said to pass on to Heaven and the person depicted therein. 

The struggle against iconoclasts

A violent disagreement shook the Christian Church 1200 years ago.

From the time of St Constantine the Great, the Roman emperors accepted Christianity. Most of them encouraged the Christians to build Churches and to use pictures to explain their faith to all the people of the Roman Empire. There were a few Christians who thought you should not use pictures at all, and the Church had to be careful that people did not worship statues or icons in the way that the pagans did. However, in most parts of the Christian world, the people developed their religious art for almost 500 years.

Quite suddenly the Byzantine emperors ordered the Church to stop using pictures or any sort of images. Icons were smashed and mosaics were painted over. For a while there was a fierce struggle between the icon smashers and the icon users.

Quite a few of the Byzantine emperors hated Icons, so did the courtiers and many of the soldiers. These people who hated icons, or smashed them, are often called the 'iconoclasts'. The iconoclasts taught that physical thing's had nothing to do with spiritual thing's. They said you could not use a man made icon to help you with prayer, or to bring you closer to God. They also said that you should not have any pictures of people in Church. The only picture they allowed was a fresco or mosaic picture of the Cross. Some of them even believed that Christ should not be shown in a picture because He was good and had nothing to do with the material of this world which was evil.

All this made the Orthodox Christians think carefully about using icons and mosaics. Christians also had to think about the physical matter of which the world is made. In fact the icon smashers called themselves Christians, but their ideas were not really Christian at all. The Orthodox Church prepared the full Christian answer to their attack.

The Old Testament teaches that God created all the world, and mankind as well. He saw that all the things that He had made were good. It was later that man turned away from God, and the whole world fell under the power of death, evil and sin. In other words, there was nothing wrong with matter in the first place because God made it good.

The New Testament teaches that God loves us so much that He sent Christ to become a human being. Christ came in order to save us, and to give us a chance to come back to God again. He became matter just as we are. Because God became a man in Christ, this physical world has begun to be reunited with the heavenly world again. Matter has started to regain its full glory. Christ has shown us that human flesh can become filled with God. He was physical matter that was God bearing. In the same way all physical matter can become filled with God's presence. This happens to the saints, to the water at a baptism, or to the bread and wine for Holy Communion. It can also happen to the wood and paint of an Icon.

The Church believes that Christ was both God and man. Firstly, He united Divinity with the matter of this world by His Incarnation. Secondly, in Christ, matter was drawn up into Divinity with His Ascension into Heaven. Anyone who said God and matter were opposite like good and evil was attacking this teaching about Christ.

The Church accepts that before Christ came into the world it was impossible to make a picture of God: no one had seen Him or understood Him enough. Once Christ came and dwelt on earth, it was possible to make a picture of God because Christ was God. Anyone Who said you should not make a picture of God as Christ seemed to be saying that Christ was not really God.

Finally, Orthodox Christians believe in the Resurrection of Christ in a physical body. We believe in a physical resurrection for all believers when Christ returns in Glory. We do not believe that our minds will survive alone, or that some ghostly spiritual form will rise from the dead. Both body and soul will be saved, matter and spirit together. So we believe that mind and body should join in worship. Spirit and matter should unite in praising God. In Orthodox services and worship this teaching of the Church is put into practice. Decorations of flowers stand beside icons made from wood and egg and the colours of the earth. Candles of brown beeswax glow beside golden olive oil in glass lamps. Incense made from resin and tree sap sends up its smoke from golden incense burners. Human beings, wearing cotton and linen and wool from sheep, bow or cross themselves, pray silently or raise their voices in praise. Offerings of bread and wine, full of sunshine and the goodness of the earth, are laid on the altar. All of creation dances before the creator. All of God's goodness is offered up to God. In a mystery the Holy Spirit descends to confirm that this is truly heaven on earth, and that God's kingdom is coming now.

It took about a hundred years for all these ideas to be argued out. In the end the iconoclasts were overcome, and in 843AD at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, icons were put back into the Churches.

The effect of the iconoclast controversy can still be seen to have an effect on Orthodox Christians even to this day. Orthodox Christians will kiss the Icons at the front of the Church just before receiving Holy Communion -- before the priest comes out of the altar with the Holy Gifts. This custom began as a way of showing you really were Orthodox. Kissing the Icons showed that you have reverence for them and proved that you werenít an iconoclast. It showed that you believed the things that the Orthodox Church taught.

On the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy (first Sunday of Great Lent) we celebrate the triumph of true Orthodox believers over the Icon smashers. Icons are brought from home, and others are lifted down from the walls of the Church for a procession to show everyone how we feel about them.

St John of Damascus says "The Icon is a song of triumph, and a revelation, and an enduring monument to the victory of the Saints and the disgrace of the demons."

adapted from "Explaining Icons"
Stylite Publishing Ltd.

For a more authoritative approach to the subject of the Holy Icons, see St John of Damascus' "On the Divine Images", St. Vladimirís Seminary Press.
There is also an excellent site by the Orthodox Church in America.
More Icon resources on the Internet

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