(An old school assignment of mine... posted to answer some questions for a good friend.)
Icons. Immediately, you think of one of two definitions - either the two dimensional Saints in history textbooks, or simply an image which is familiar to you. Taking the second definition, we can say icons are all around us; the likeness of a celebrity plastered on a wall; the swoosh of the Nike symbol. But, what about the first definition? The gold-inlaid icons of old Christian Saints are unfamiliar to many. For many, especially in America, they rarely appear in daily life. Why should we bother with them, then? They are just pictures, right?
They are not just pictures. Their range of influence goes beyond the age of the Early Church, directly into modern Christianity. The ancient purpose of icons still applies today - to act as windows and reflections of what they depict. As Christians, our stance on icons is important to many aspects of the theology we hold. It is a tell-tale to not only our stance on the material world, but also a direct reflection of our view on the Incarnation. In this case, it is especially beneficial for you to press out and explore the realm of icons and their uses. Whether you choose to support icons or not, understanding the original purpose of them will be helpful in personal clarification.
Icons have caused and still do cause controversy among Christians. The many views on icons can be summarized as simply the iconoclastic position (being against icons) and the pro-icon position (in other words, those who regard icons for spiritual use).
Iconoclasm is usually associated with Reformed and Protestant branches of the church, although it is originally rooted in Nestorianism. However, Calvin is most recognized for his contributions to iconoclasm. In his Institutes he says:
Hence it is perfectly clear that those who try to defend images of God and the saints with the example of those cherubim are raving madmen. What, indeed, I beg you, did those paltry little images mean? Solely that images are not suited to represent God's mysteries (Institutes 1.11.3).
A majority of the modern Protestant church is much less extreme than Calvin. So, much divide exists within Protestant branches on how icons should be used, their purpose, and their biblical standing. Some groups say icons are wonderful pictures to depict bible stories, but their use and value ends there. Others are against having any icons in their church walls, in their worship, or in their bibles period. Also, an enormous amount of Western/Protestant Churches contain stain-glass windows, which are innately icons themselves.
On the contrary, Eastern Orthodox are in support of the use of icons. Although Eastern Orthodox Christianity did experience two iconoclastic movements in both 730 and 814 A.D., it has since never swayed from the traditions of icons and supports them vigorously. Mount Athos, a mountain in Greece, is covered with only monasteries and contains a sum of 20,000 icons in its vaults for liturgical use. This is just one example that icons are a vital and unquestionable part of Orthodox worship. The Second Council of Nicea gives a brief summary of the past, present and future Orthodox views on icons:
For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented.
In addition to what was said there, the Council of Nicea also said that icons themselves represent an Incarnation, they should be given reverence, but not worship, and they honor and represent the image they depict.
Christ’s incarnation and the act of communion (in the sense of both fellowship and the sacraments) are two vital parts of Orthodox theology. In fact, they are also the original basis for the Early Christians and they considered these two sources as things which grew them in faith. So, I propose that the use of icons is nurturing in spiritual growth.
I come from a Calvinist background, and as my family and I began our transition into Orthodoxy, icons were a great confusion to me. They were lovely pictures, but I didn’t understand why they were given such reverence and honor. It made me uncomfortable that a material thing could hold so much spiritual meaning. One day, as I was roaming throughout the church, I stopped in front of an icon of the Mother of Christ. It was a peculiar image - she had her arms outstretched in a position of worship and in the place of her bosom was a ornately decorated circle with an image of the Christ child inside. Around him were stars of different sizes, resembling the night sky on a clear summer’s night. Fr. Barnabas found me staring at this icon. Mary’s position represented her saying, “...be it unto me according to thy word.” The reason the Christ child was depicted in a circle of stars, was to communicate that He is the ruler of the universe - uncontainable. And, the reason this cosmic scene was placed in Mary’s bosom was because she “contained” the “uncontainable.” In that icon, she represented what a true Christian should do - take Christ into their heart. Or, like the icon, “contain” the “uncontainable.” After less than ten minutes of him talking with me, I understood more about Christ’s nature, the role of Christians, and the importance of Mary in the Church - just through an icon.
That is just one thousands of icons which hold the same meaning and importance. Icons properly represent and communicate the Incarnation of Christ and just by their very nature, reveal the incarnation as a truth to us. Icons are physical things, but they communicate things which are transcendent to us - like Christ - He was 100% man, and 100% physical, but at the same time, He was still the uncontainable and 100% God. As St. John of Damascus said, “I do not adore the creation rather than the Creator, but I adore the one who became a creature, who was formed as I was, who clothed Himself in creation . . .”
Also, icons support communion and fellowship. At the very least, icons are are form of epideictic rhetoric - trying to portray and communicate that which cannot fully be communicated. They are messages and windows. Using or showing honor to an icon does not stop at the icon itself - it goes beyond that - it has deeper meaning, a connection to the person/scene being represented. This seems like a complex theological topic, but it is actually something we experience daily.
Do you have a framed picture near you? A photo of your family, or sweetheart in your wallet? Look at it - it represents a reality to you. In and of itself, it is not the real person, but it connects you to someone who is or was very real. One time a priest was speaking to a group of teenagers about icons - in the middle of the conversation, he removed a picture of his little girl from his wallet. He kissed it and whispered, “I love you, sweetie.” The class smiled and awed at the act of fatherly love. Then he ripped the picture up. They stared at him indignantly - full of righteous anger. Then he said to them, “My children, icons are no different than that photo. You were horrified upon seeing that photo ripped up. Like that photo, icons also connect us to something special, something real, and something that we cannot comprehend hurting.”
Icons used in the traditional liturgical services of Eastern Orthodoxy may not be familiar to many, but icons themselves are not unfamiliar to the Christian world - in any branch of the church. Stained glass windows, picture Bible’s, even small films - all those, although not Traditional, are icons. Windows to the past, teachers of theology, and communicators of the Divine.
Icons are a source of nurturing and growth for the spiritual life because they properly represent the vital theology of the Incarnation and support and participate in a fellowship and communion with past and present Christians.
Imagine yourself in the catacombs of Rome. You are a young child, and since you can first remember this has been your home. You quietly walk down a narrow hallway towards the main cave, in which a Liturgy is secretly about to begin. Among many others on the stone walls is a crude icon of Christ. Mother has always taught you that Christ really did become a man and He had a real face and real hands, but at the same time He was God. And, this icon was really the only portrayal of Christ you’d ever seen in your life, the only evidence you had ever been given that He was both man and God. The icon was your teacher, it was precious to you, and through it, you understood Christ and had a connection with Him. That icon was a prayer. You never prayed to it, of course. That’s idolatry. But, you prayed through it.
There will always be conflict, especially in Christianity, about how much is too much in regards to the material world and Divinity. But as C.S. Lewis once said, “God likes matter. He invented it.” And icons represent, and will continue to represent that balance - that incarnation - that reflection of the Creator, through His creation.