Image and Icon
Icons are everywhere – at least the word is. We talk of sports and entertainment “icons.” We talk of “iconic” cars like the ’56 Chevy or the ’50 Hudson Hornet. These are the icons of our culture. We call the little pictures we click on our computer screens “icons.”
Advertising images are often called icons. Unfortunately, the word has been overused to the point of dismissal. We are adrift on a sea of images. Many current icons represent nothing important, so they are negative rather than positive.
Wait a minute. Icons? Isn’t there another use for that word? Yes there is. Icons are the two-dimensional pictures in all Orthodox churches.
Icons do not contradict the commandment against graven images. We Orthodox do not depict God “who dwells in unapproachable Light.” We do not make idols of these images but we honor the reality of the person they depict, which St John of Damascus (675-749) called the “prototype.” The icon is to the person as the written word is to the Gospel, said St John. We do not worship the image but we venerate the saint, whom God glorified. No one in our church confuses the image with the reality.
Since Christ, “the image of the invisible God,” came in the flesh, he may be depicted in an icon. We also depict the saints in whom Christ is manifest, especially Mary the Theotokos or “God-bearer”. Icons light up the Holy; they are buoys and markers on the sea of faith.
The rightful place for icons is in church as an aid to prayer, but if you are not familiar with icons, visit the exhibit of Ethiopian icons now at the Las Cruces Art Museum. Richard and Toby White of Mesilla lovingly collected these icons, which bear the marks of veneration. You can see where the paint has literally been “kissed off” – Christ’s feet and St George’s cape. Of course you can always view icons at St Anthony of the Desert Church as part of our ongoing worship life.
When we stand and pray before icons, we gather with the saints in the whole Body of Christ. Fr Michael Westerberg of New Haven Connecticut says, “In church I am surrounded by my friends.” What a way to see it! Here are St Nina and St Seraphim; there are St Irene and St Athanasius. They lived and died for the faith. They enhance our lives and lead us into the fullness of faith. They are not idols; they are portraits and reminders and signs of what we might become through prayer and faithfulness. They are the saints who remain with us in the total community of the faithful.
The ultimate teaching of the icons is this: they are signs of who we are, because you and I are made “in the image and likeness of God.” Hence icons show us those people just like us who, restored to full humanity by Christ and full of the Spirit, demonstrate that image and likeness in a clear and refreshing and ennobling way. St Irenaeus long ago said that the greatest image of God is a human being, fully revealed. This is the goal the icons express for all of us.
Negative images bombard us through a variety of media; they stand over against genuine icons. Pornography is a whole separate topic, but it is related. True icons show us, silently, that holiness may be found in those who embody God’s Way of peace, justice, and love.
published 19 June 09