In my protestant turned neo-Calvinist understanding of Christianity, icons never really entered the picture (See what I did there?). Icons from my perspective were strange bits of idolatry that my greatest exposure to was in the Mexican section of the grocery store with those odd Roman Catholic candles that were right next to the corn tortillas. The idolatrous label that I had accepted toward icons pretty much prevented me from exploring the concept any deeper. Why would I entertain this idolatry? I already knew enough to reject it on its face. Besides, as a good little Calvinist I already had my theology all the way figured out and all I needed was Scripture. Icons were minimally a form of Christian art, but the incorporation of them into worship was likely a heresy. This was my take on the issue, although I will admit that in the two or three years prior to my first setting foot into an Orthodox Church I also went through a great doctrinal softening, so to speak, and even an abandoning of many of my hyper Calvinistic tenants.
We arrived at Orthodoxy by means of some friends who's journey intrigued us, but as I've illustrated, I arrived with some reservations. We took the inquirer's class offered by St Elijah's, and taught by Deacon Ezra. Deacon Ezra is a great teacher who isn't afraid to use some really big ideas to get a point across. Being a former Baptist minister, his own history and his excellent teaching helped put me at ease a little as he presented some of these very new (to me) ideas. I quickly was able to grasp the idea that icons were not idols.
My understanding of icons began with them simply being additional tools used to tell the Gospel, and the history of the Church.
"Icons do with color what Scripture does with words."
This quote made sense to me. Orthodoxy had already validated many fundamental shifts in my theological paradigms that I had been entertaining, one being the authoritative nature of the Church and of it's tradition in the keeping of the doctrines and of the pure Gospel, and in this context icons simply do as Scripture does to a similar effect. Now I was beginning to be intrigued, but I had no idea what was in store.
As we continued in some classes on the subject the concept of icon's was explored further. When God says in Genesis 1:26 "Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness," the word in greek for "image" is the same word we get the word "icon" from. An icon differs from a picture, or an idol, or even a painting. An Icon is the likeness of the person in the Icon. It is similar to the person and serves as a physical window to a spiritual reality. The saint in the icon did not cease to exist, we simply cannot see him or her at this time, and the Icon helps to remedy that. The person being depicted in the Icon is real, existing in the invisible reality that we are blinded to by our physical condition.
As soon as this idea hit me I looked around the room, which was a chapel in our church filled with icons, and the room came to LIFE! All of the sudden the presence of those Saints, and of Christ himself, surrounded me like the cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 12. Deacon Ezra says that during worship it isn't uncommon for the veil that separates us from the invisible to be momentarily parted, and I believe that is what I began to experience. As I gazed upon each icon I saw past the wood and the paint to the spiritual reality that was the person who's likeness the icon was communicating. As I looked upon Christ and Mary I was almost overwhelmed, and even as I looked upon the saints that I was unfamiliar with I somehow sensed their presence. Deacon Ezra explained that we are living inside the icon of the Transfiguration of Christ, Christ manifests the invisible reality of His Kingdom right here into our physical world.
|Divine Liturgy at St. Elijah's in OKC|
Then a thought hit me that changed me.
It is amazing and incredible and fulfilling for me to be able to commune with Christ and the departed Saints in the way that the icons facilitate. This experience edifies me. Which is good, I need to be edified, but many may argue that they experience similar things in other methods of worship, through song, speaking in tongues, even through a powerful sermon. And while edification of the self is good, shouldn't we be seeking to edify the whole church? Icons may edify the individual, but how do they edify the Church? I had learned to experience the iconography of the Church to aid in my worship, but it occurred to me that the icons were also teaching me so much more.
If we are made in the likeness of God, as Genesis 1:26 says, more literally we ARE icons of God. Each person is made in the likeness of God, just as each icon is made in the likeness of the person in the icon. When I look upon the wood and paint of the icon, it teaches me to see beyond to the spiritual truth and the person that the icon is communicating. If every individual is an icon of God, what if I began to look at other people in the same way that I looked at icons? What if I saw them as more than what they were presenting to me in the physical, but looked beyond to the spiritual reality that was just as much a part of their being as is their physical appearance? I could now begin to see the whole person.
Icons have not only taught me to commune with Christ and the Saints in a way that I had never before considered, they not only created a fullness of Church that I had never imagined could be possible, but they had now taught me to see other people in a way where the likeness of God in them was plain and apparent, no matter their physical appearance, or even my personal opinion of them. Try hating a person who's mere presence communicates to you the likeness of God, try defrauding them, try hurting them. In a very real way icons are teaching me to love others in a superior way.
Once you see it, you can't un-see it.