Wednesday, February 27

Do Orthodox Christians Worship Icons?

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."

by Tony Holden

adapted from "Explaining Icons"
Stylite Publishing Ltd.


Amy said...

Thank you for sharing this fascinating post, Emma. I do not know much about the Orthodox Church, but am quite intrigued after learning this bit of information :o)

Tiffany said...

I've been away for a few days, and I just read both posts you have here on icons. Thank you for sharing them. While I don't totally agree with the use of icons, at least I am better informed now and I have enough respect for you not to judge you on the way you choose to decorate your church or by symbols you use to help you feel closer to God. My church has stained glass windows w/ pictures depicting Christ life. I also wear a cross around my neck - do I worship it?- no, but it helps to remind me of the suffering and sacrifice of my Lord- and His love for me. I am sorry that someone took it upon themselves to be so pious and cruel. I am not Orthodox or even Catholic for that matter- but I am a saved by grace Christian. I love the Lord, and it hurts me to see that someone would allow the devil to use them to hurt another brother or sister in Christ- and divide the body of Christ. It breaks my heart. Please know, we are not all like that! In His Love, Tiffany

Everly Pleasant said...

Very interesting!
I don't have any issue with the use of icons in the way which you described it. I love doing communion or holding a cross while I pray because, as humans, we sometimes are helped by tangible things in our spiritual life. I don't agree with the Catholic church on many things (if I did, I wouldn't be Baptist) but I do like that they use ceremonial or tangible things to help understand. We have pictures in our children's Sunday School but usually just a cross in the sanctuary. Another thing is, Catholic churches are always so much prettier than Baptist churches! I didn't think that there was anything wrong with icons but I see where some ignorant people get it confused with idolatry which was my point in my previous comment. I am very glad to learn more about the denomination. Do you not consider prayer a form of worship though? I think there must be a hole in my understanding of your denomination. Thanks for educating me and thanks for the great post, it was very informative. I enjoy your blog very much.

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

I was delighted to see the extract explaining icons; the person who wrote it is my beloved godfather and is now my parish priest too !

Fr Luke will be so pleased to see it being used still !

Anonymous said...

Protestant friends have asked me why we have statues, icons and religious pictures in our home.

One way I have tried to explain it is that when you love someone, you like to have pictures of them - i.e. family, friends, children, grandchildren, etc. When someone dies, their portrait becomes even more precious to you as it helps you remember happy times you shared with them.

As Christians, who better to have pictures of than Jesus, His mother and His friends? Of course they aren't exact representations like photographs, but they serve as holy reminders to us.

Icons are beautiful and have such depth of meaning in every detail - most people just think they are pretty paintings. I am glad you posted this article - it explains the history, meaning and purpose of icons very well.

Everly Pleasant said...

That's very interesting. I hadn't thought of it that way. Something that has always bothered me is that in Sunday School papers or the pictures on the wall, Jesus always looks the same, when in fact we have know idea what he looked at. We only know that he wasn't noticeable and blended in. Funny, he always has medium-long hair, and at that time, it was the custom for the men to have their hair cut short.

Anonymous said...


One interesting fact is that oral and written history teaches that the Apostle Luke (an educated, cultured man) wrote one of the first icons--of Mary, the Mother of God. And, there was a statute erected in the square of Christ healing the woman with the issue of blood, which was said to be a true likeness (this is no longer existing).

While we cannot and do not claim that an icon is a perfect representation, real people did see Christ, the Apostles, Mary, and the saints who came after. They wrote icons that were reasonable likenesses, albeit "perfected" in the icon style, which is used to reveal to us a higher reality, not simply depict a person as they were. And those early icons were copied, maintained, shared, and passed down. Maintaining the standard of iconography is every iconographer's job. The guidelines must be followed. And what results is a continuity that can be followed throughout the centuries. We know that the icon is not an exact depiction of Christ--but it's much closer to what he looked like than a painting that is completely from an artist's imagination, the "blonde-haired blue-eyed Jesus" that we see in so many paintings, picture Bibles, and stained glass.

Everly Pleasant said...

Thank you Choirfiend,
Very interesting. It is fascinating to think that perhaps there really was a statue made in the likeness of God in human form. I think that there are a few conclusions that we can likely draw when painting or drawing Christ. He probably looked middle eastern with dark hair, eyes and skin, probably had short hair and was of medium build. I don't think that he would be exceptionally small or large...or exceptionally anything! But I have a question, does the catholic church only depict people such as the apostles, Christ and Mary that they pray to even though they aren't praying to the picture itself?

Anonymous said...

"But I have a question, does the catholic church only depict people such as the apostles, Christ and Mary that they pray to even though they aren't praying to the picture itself?"

I'm not Catholic, so I won't be able to comment on that directly, but the Orthodox Church writes icons of the holy people of Christendom. Those who have completed the race and received their crown--saints! The word 'saint' means 'set-apart,' or in today's usage, 'holy.' This includes the Mother of God, the Apostles, and many men and women who have lived for God. Icons are written of them for reasons like what Margaret said, and because they serve as inspirations and reminders of what a life lived for Christ should look like!

People do pray to all the saints. But to address an earlier point, prayer does not equal worship! To pray comes from English 'I pray thee,(prithee) do as I ask.' It means to make a request. Do you ask others around you to pray for you? Do you pray for others, typically by name and situation, when you're at church? All Christians should pray for one another. The way we see it, the Christians in heaven don't stop praying for the world just because they are now alive in Christ! Those holy Christians, the saints, pray to God for us. And we, being the Christians in the world, ask for their prayers. "The prayers of a righteous man availeth much," we are taught. And the prayers of the holy righteous people of God, alive with Him in heaven, certainly help us!

This prayer is different than prayer offered to God because we're not worshiping the saints. They're humans, like us, who are alive in Christ and Christ in them. That's what we all strive for. We're just 'talking' to them, but worshiping God.

Worship belongs to God alone. But many people will talk to and honor those who have gone on before. Ever had a conversation with a beloved parent or grandparent who has passed on? Ever kissed a picture of a loved one who has died or was far away? This is the same intent as 'praying' to the holy Christians who have gone on before us. They are our church family! They are that cloud of witnesses that is cheering us on as we have our chance to run the race. They love us and want us to finish the race, and praying to them is asking for more cheers.

We understand that God is Lord, and worshiping Him while speaking to Him (in praise, prayer requests, psalmnody, and thanksgiving) is only for Him, and different than the way we ask for the prayers of Christians around us, both in the world, and passed on.

Everly Pleasant said...

Thank you very much for your explanation. I guess that I find it confusing because Baptists refer to any Christian (you, me, and anyone) as "Saints." I do ask my friends and family for prayer, but they are praying to God. I don't believe in communicating with those who have passed on (e.i. asking my grand father to ask God to heal a friend etc.) We believe that Christ is the only mediator in Heaven-that's why He's special. I can't say that I've had "a conversation with a beloved parent or grandparent who has passed on." Christ is our "High Priest" so we can talk directly to God instead of through an earthly priest or someone who has died. I have Catholic family and friends who do things such as pray to Saint Anthony when their keys are missing (if I have that right) etc. This makes it seem as if that saint can help them, not God himself. So, with that said if you can communicate with any Christian in Heaven, what sets a saint apart?

Anonymous said...

"I do ask my friends and family for prayer, but they are praying to God."

We believe the Saints in heaven are praying to God as well. What is the difference between your friends and family and the Saints? If you say "death," well, then I'd reply that death has no sting, for Christ has defeated it.

"We believe that Christ is the only mediator in Heaven-that's why He's special."

We believe Christ is the only Mediator, period. He is the only way to the Father for us. This doesn't necessarily have to do with asking intercession and/or the topic of Saints.

"I can't say that I've had "a conversation with a beloved parent or grandparent who has passed on.""

Most people can, especially when faced with a pressing issue (like "Mom, I'm having such a rough time with the kids. I wish you were here.")

"Christ is our "High Priest" so we can talk directly to God."

We of course can and do talk directly to God (and this is our worshiping prayer)--except we don't forget what the Scripture teaches us about the prayer of the righteous man.

"So, with that said if you can communicate with any Christian in Heaven, what sets a saint apart?"

That is a discussion that requires that we have the same understanding of the meaning of Christian life, salvation, heaven, and many other essential aspects of Christian belief. While I am sure that we use many of the same terms, I am even more sure that we do not mean the same things by them, and that to begin such a conversation without a solid common understanding will be fruitless. I'd suggest a book such as "Divine Energy: The Orthodox Path to Christian Victory." While it can be polemical, I found it to be a readable way to "go back to the basics" and gain at least a partial understanding of the Orthodox view of creation, the fall, the Incarnation, and salvation.

Everly Pleasant said...

Okay, but still, if you speak to a dead family member, it still isn't a conversation. It is a one-way conversation which isn't conversing at all. Are you saying that you can ask a saint, to ask Jesus to ask God for a request? I would still like to know why some people who have died are "saints" and others aren't. If you can speak to your dead parent, why is she any different than a saint?

Anonymous said...

I was trying to make an analogy to better express the intent, not draw a direct correlation. So, it's not really important to the main idea--but is it time to find out the Orthodox teaching on saints!

Bethany Hudson said...

Very enlightening, Emma. Of course, as a Catholic, I knew some of these things, but I had never heard of the Holy Doors used in Orthodox churches! I love that the central image on the doors is of the Annunciation; what a perfect depiction of Christ's love for us and the obedience we owe to Him, symbolized in the Theotokos.

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