Icons

Does the Orthodox Church worship icons?

Orthodox Christians do not offer worship/adoration to icons (only appropriate to God), but rather honor and veneration as depictions of holy people and events. In doing so they show their respect and love to the ones depicted on the icons.

As examples of the real-life difference between adoration and veneration one could point to a military salute shared between soldiers, placing one's hand over the heart in the presence of the nation's flag, standing as a respected dignitary enters the room, a husband kissing the picture of his departed wife, or a former captive kissing the ground after being returned to his country. In each case, one is showing reverence, not offering divine worship.

 

In C.S. Lewis's "The Silver Chair," from his Chronicles of Narnia series, we encounter a beautiful description of a most natural, God-inspired act of icon veneration. Finding his formerly blackened shield now immaculate and revealing the blood-red image of the lion (Aslan, Lewis's Christ figure), Prince Rilian addresses his small band of fellow travelers: "Now by my counsel, we shall all kneel and kiss his likeness, and then all shake hands one with another, as true friends that may shortly be parted." The image of Aslan was not the object of worship, but rather the one depicted, who had delivered them from the delusion of the green witch.

St. Athanasius of Alexandria (AD 296-373), whom even Protestants revere as the great defender of the divinity of Christ, has this to say about icons:

"We the faithful do not worship images as gods, as did the heathen Greeks--God forbid!--but our only purpose and desire is to see in the image a reflection of the facial form of the beloved....Just as when Jacob was about to die, he bowed down before the point of Joseph's staff, not honoring the staff but its owner, we also the faithful do not embrace images for their own sake, but kiss them as we often embrace our children or our parents, to show the affection in our hearts." (Hundred Chapters to Antiochus the Prefect, 38).

"The Jews understand the difference between veneration and worship (adoration).  A pious Jew kisses the Mezuzah on his door post, he kisses his prayer shawl before putting it on, he kisses the tefillin, before he binds them to his forehead, and arm.  His kisses the Torah before he reads it in the Synagogue.  No doubt, Christ did likewise, when reading the Scriptures in the Synagogue."

(From Fr. John Whiteford, http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/icon_faq.aspx.)

© Fr. Michael Shanbour

Doesn’t the Orthodox Church break the second commandment by having icons? 

Indeed the Law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai includes a prohibition against images: "You shall not make for yourself a carved image--any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters under the earth, you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God (Ex. 20:4-5).

But does the commandment actually refer to all images? If so, how do we make sense of the Lord's explicit instructions to make images of cherubim and other creatures--lions, oxen, palm trees, flowers--and adorn His own hallowed place of worship with them?

God ordered Moses to "make two cherubim of gold" and place them at either end of the mercy seat (Ex. 25:18) upon the ark of the covenant, the most holy object in the religious life of Israel. Ironically, this image laden ark would contain the very commandment that is purported to have banned images!

It was precisely above the mercy seat, between the two carved images of cherubim, that, according to God's design, Moses would meet and speak with the Lord in the most intimate way (Ex. 25:22). In fact, according to the record of the Old Testament Scripture, the Lord of Hosts literally "dwells" between the images of these cherubim (1 Sam. 4:4; 2 Sam. 6:2).  If the Lord had indiscriminately prohibited all images, He would be in contradiction to His own word.

It was not only on the ark and other furniture of the tabernacle but also in the sanctuary of the Jerusalem temple that God instructed images to be made.  And these icons were not inconspicuous.  For instance, there were two wooden cherubim, each ten cubits (15 feet) tall with a wingspan of the same length (1 Kin. 6:23-24).  The walls of the temple, as well, both in the inner and outer sanctuaries, were covered with carved images.

Taking all of this into account, the only reasonable conclusion is that the purpose of the second commandment was a proscription against the idolatry that was so prevalent among the peoples that surrounded God's newly formed community of worshippers. For in the ancient Near East, the spiritual battle was not between the true God and no God (atheism), but between the true God and any number of false "gods." These idols, the result of either human imagination or demonic delusion, were represented in physical forms and then worshipped as deities.

The true God, however, had not been seen by anyone. As the Gospel testifies, "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).  Even Moses was not allowed to see His face but only His "back" (Ex. 33:23).  However, holy angels had appeared and been seen by human beings and thus could be represented as heralds of the heavenly realm. And the good things of creation, commanded by God to be represented artistically, are also reflections of God's creative power and divine glory.

It is clear then that a legitimate and divinely approved form of iconography existed in the Old Covenant, although it was by nature greatly limited. For God had not revealed Himself fully and visibly. This He did in the Incarnation of His Son and Word. Indeed, the entire New Covenant hinges on the reality that "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).

While God the Father is unseen, He is made visible through the Incarnation of His Son, who has joined our flesh, our humanity, to the divine nature. Christ has therefore truly become "the image [Greek, icon] of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), and "in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily" (Col. 2:9).

It is precisely the Incarnation that is the basis for the New Testament iconographic tradition that originated and flowered naturally within the bosom of the Church. The iconography of the Christian Church (begun in the catacombs, before the legalization of Christianity) brings into vivid focus the shadowy picture preached by the prophets of the Old Testament. It has come into focus because the face of the eternal Son of God was revealed to the world. Thus Orthodox Christians confess that since Christ has truly come in the flesh, since the Person of the Son and Word of God has become Man with the same humanity as His creatures, He can be depicted visibly.

This is in no way idolatry, for He is the true and perfect revelation of the Father, true God of true God in human form, "the brightest of His glory and express image of His person" (Heb. 1:3).  As the Lord proclaimed to His apostles, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father (John 14:9). The Holy icons of the Church testify to the reality of the Incarnation.

© Fr. Michael Shanbour

Who are those people in the pictures that are on the walls in the Orthodox Church?

Besides depicting Jesus Christ, the Son of God become Man, the icons also depict the most revered members of Christ's Body, who have shown forth Christ, "who have fought the good fight," "finished the race," and "kept the faith" (2 Tim. 4:7).  The icons of the Saints are in a real sense icons of Christ as well, since it is Christ who lives in them--"it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20).

These men and women are revered as Christ's servants and friends; His great cloud of witnesses (literally, "martyrs"):

"Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us..." (Heb. 12:1).  

 

In the Orthodox Church building, through the icons we are surrounded visibly by those whom the Apostle Paul attests are invisible present with us in our heavenly worship:

 

"But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel" (Heb. 12:22-24).

In the Orthodox Church we are not Gnostics, we are not Platonists.  We do not consider the material world evil or unable to communicate the goodness and blessing of God, the Creator. In the Church, the created world participates in the worship of the Lord--oil, light, wood, bread, wine.  In Christ all things have been united, "both which are in heaven and which are on earth--in Him" (Eph. 1:10).  The iconography of the Orthodox depicts this reality in Christ vividly.

© Fr. Michael Shanbour

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