The Icon is more even than a means of instruction. It is in effect a sacrament. For, an icon is not fully an icon until it has been blessed. Then it becomes a link between the human and the divine. It provides an existential encounter between men and God. It becomes the place of an appearance of Christ, provided one stands before it with the right disposition of heart and mind. It becomes a place of prayer. An icon participates in the event it depicts and is almost a re-creation of that event existentially for the believer. As S. Bulgakov said: “by the blessing of the icon of Christ, a mystical meeting of the faithful and Christ is made possible”. Many icons are regarded as “wonder-working”. These are considered to be the icons par excellence. Standing in an Orthodox Church whose walls and ceiling are covered with icons of Christ and the saints. The worshipper does not feel alone. He experiences the communion of saints. He experiences a fellowship with Christ and the saints. He is made to feel that he is a member of the family of God.
Practical Use of Icons:
A Japanese girl in an American college was invited to spend the Christmas holidays with a classmate. Afterwards she was asked how she enjoyed the holidays. “Very well’, she replied, “but I missed God in the home. I have seen you worship God in your church. In my country we have a god-shelf so we can worship our gods in our homes. Do not Americans worship their God in their homes”? It has been traditional for Orthodox homes to have such a “God-shelf’ in the form of an icon with a votive light burning before it. This serves as a reminder of God’s presence in the home and as a centre for family prayer.
One, wonder however, what has happened to the “house church” and the “icons” in the modern Orthodox family. How many of our homes have icons today? Among our younger families I have seen pictures of famous movie stars on the walls but very few icons. Are we going to allow one of the most precious traditions of our Orthodox faith – the icons – to disappear from our homes? Then what will symbolize God’s presence in our homes? What will serve as an invitation to prayer? What will serve to appeal to morality and conscience?
The icon was never intended to hang on a wall as an aesthetic object. If it is used as an attractive piece of decoration, it ceases to function as an icon. For an icon can only exist within the particular framework of belief and worship to which it belongs. Divorced from this framework, it loses its function as an icon.
God’s Best Icon:
Since we are talking about icons we would be remiss if we neglected to say that by far the best icon of God is man who was made in God’s own image. This is the reason the Orthodox priest during the liturgy turns and censes the congregation after having censed the3 icons. Each person in the congregation is a living icon of God. Through censing we pay respect to the image of God in man which resides in all regardless of the color of skin or class. To pay respect to the icons in Church and to show disrespect to the living icons of God- our fellow men – is hypocrisy of the worst sort. The Sunday of Orthodoxy should remind us that God made us in His own image. We are His living, walking icons. Yet often we allow the icon of God in us painted by the Holy Spirit to be marred and blurred by sin. By her emphasis on the restoration of icons on the first Sunday of Lent, the Orthodox Church calls on us to restore also the fallen icon of God in our souls through repentance and a return to the renewing power of Christ in the Eucharist.
A Sunday school teacher once said to her first grade class: “you know how you feel when you draw a picture. You want everybody to see it and admire it because you made it. That’s how Jesus feels about you. You’re the picture He draws”.
As soon as one enters an Orthodox Church one is greeted at the door by an icon of Christ whose house we have just entered. He stands at the door to greet us as Host. We, in turn, greet Him by making the sign of the cross and bowing before kissing His icon. Then as we enter the church we see Christ Pantocrator in the dome reminding us of His all pervading presence in the Universe and in our lives. On the walls and on the icon screen He is surrounded by all his followers. Finally on the floor level of the Church are the living saints, all of us, the Church triumphant in heaven and the Church militant on earth, gathered round our Lord and singing praises to His glory.
A little girl once visited our church on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Relating the event to me later, her father told me that they were members of another church that did not use icons. Their church was rather plain on the inside. As soon as the little girl entered the church and saw the huge picture of Jesus and the other religious paintings on the walls and icon screen, she walked up to the altar and instinctively knelt down and began to pray. She had felt God’s presence. We, too, can feel His presence not only at church but also at home every day and every night through the devotional use of this great aid to prayer: the icon, the visual Gospel.
Metropolitan Archbishop Paul
Primate of Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines