… I am teaching ecclesiology as part of my systematic theology class. Part of the requirement is for my students to visit various kinds of churches, including Orthodox churches. Since none of my students has ever been to an Orthodox service, I volunteered to take them. Eight of us went, and evidently most of them had the same sort of experience I had twelve years earlier in London. The first question they asked was, ‘Why do Orthodox Christians worship icons?’
Every single Orthodox person I have heard answer a question like that has said the same thing. ‘We are not worshiping the saint or the picture of the saint. Worship belongs only to God the Holy Trinity. Rather, we are venerating or honoring or respecting the saint. They have gone before us, some were martyred, some were known for great Christ-likeness, others for the great things they did or said. So we honor their memory and we ask that they pray for us.’
Of course, now other Protestant alarm bells are sounding – ‘You talk to them? You pray to them? Aren’t they dead?’
And the answer comes, ‘They are not dead to God and are in fact in his presence participating in the unending worship of the angels and other bodiless powers. And just as you would ask a friend or a pastor to pray for you, so we ask a saint to pray for us.’
‘But why do you kiss icons? Isn’t that a form of worship? Isn’t that what one does to idols?’
‘In your culture, when you greet someone you will often shake his or her hand. In the cultures where we come from, when we greet each other, we kiss, once, twice or three times on the cheeks. When we kiss icons, it is not a kind of worship, it is a kind of greeting. When we venerate an icon, we of course are not venerating or honoring a piece of wood with paint on it, but the icon itself is to us a window into heaven, into the reality of the realm beyond our world where the saints and angels are with God the Holy Trinity. Our honor/respect/veneration goes through the window of what is depicted on wood and paint to the reality.’
There are several interesting things I have learned about Orthodox icons over the years. The first is that God the Father or the Holy Trinity is never depicted. This is because they spiritual and immaterial. But there is an exception to this rule. The Bible describes an event where three men meet and share a meal with Abraham. All three are described as ‘the LORD’. The Orthodox Church has always understood this as a pre-incarnation manifestation of the Holy Trinity. Icons of this event are thus understood to be icons of the Holy Trinity.
Rublev’s The Holy Trinity
Another is that, for the Orthodox, the Virgin Mary is never depicted alone; she is always with Jesus. The only exception is similar to the one mentioned above – the biblical account of the annunciation and conception of the incarnate Word of God.
But theologically speaking, the most compelling and powerful icons are those of Christ, whether of the Pantocrator (the Ruler of all) seen in every Orthodox dome, or the crucifixion icon, or the resurrection icon, or the icon of Christ the teacher, or of washing the disciples feet. These icons, as do all of them, have an obvious didactic function, helping one call to mind aspects of Christ’s character or ministry so as to inform our own. But for the Orthodox, the icon of Christ carries a special significance. While the Orthodox are careful to follow the Old Testament not to make an image of the invisible God, they do make images (the Greek word for image is ‘eikon’) of God the Son…