Seeing Icons and Being Icons
Someone I know once had to bring an icon across the border from the US to Canada, the declaration of which posed a bit of a problem for the border administration. The customs officer wasn’t sure what category it should be placed in, and after some searching through the database thought perhaps it should be listed under the heading ‘computer parts’.
If you remember The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, you will be familiar with the idea that the devils wage war on God’s people on many fronts, including that of language. The traditional meaning of ‘icon’ is one casualty of such subversion of the meaning of words in today’s world. Even before it came to mean a mere symbol on a computer screen, ‘icon’ was already being used to describe pop stars.
At least the pop stars have human form. In traditional Orthodox understanding and usage, there are no icons without the human form, whether of just the face or the full figure. The iconoclast controversy of the 7th Century was precisely a theological struggle to reaffirm the faith once delivered to the saints, that in Christ Jesus God becomes Man so that He may transfigure us from mortal to immortal beings. An abstract or stylized symbol, such as a red hexagon for a stop sign or a large “W” on a computer screen signifying access to a word processing program, may communicate some limited meaning; but it falls far short of the Orthodox meaning of ‘icon’.
When we enter an Orthodox church building, we see presented before us the forms of Christ and His saints in the work of the iconographer, on painted panels or the surface of the walls. We venerate these icons; that is, we pay attention and respect to the holy images on the stands, iconostas, walls and dome. The details of how we do this may vary slightly from church to church, but the purpose is always to give honour. We focus our attention with the sign of the cross and bow from the waist, or at certain times make a full prostration. We kiss the icons to show our love. We gaze at them and quiet our spirit to listen and learn. We light candles before them as a form of intercessory prayer, a way of asking their help. We decorate them with flowers or greenery or anoint them with fragrant oil on festal occasions. This is how we respond with love and real relationship when we see holy icons.
But the response of hate on seeing icons is different. In the days of the iconoclastic controversy, those who hated icons, rejecting the theology of the Incarnate Lord, would smash and burn and deface the forms of the bodies and especially the faces painted on the walls of churches. They not only wished not to see the icons, they wanted no-one else to be able to see them either. In the time of the Communist persecutions, believers would be ordered to spit and trample on an icon that was cast onto the ground before them. These persecutors not only wished to dishonour the icons, they wanted everyone else to join them in these acts of contempt and rejection. Many suffered and died rather than dishonour the images of Christ and His saints.
Today in our safe, tolerant Western countries, we Orthodox can easily take for granted our freedom to venerate the icons in our churches. And yet, it is so very easy for lay people, priests, monks, and bishops to bow and kiss these painted icons while almost at the same time showing the utmost disrespect to living, breathing icons all around them. You may have seen a cartoon drawing that made the rounds a while ago that shows a homeless person asking for alms while holding an icon of Christ in front of his face; this is a very obvious visual interpretation of the words of Our Lord “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:43 KJV) With this word from the Holy Gospel, we shouldn’t really need this reminder to see the icon of Christ in the needy, especially at this time of year.
But it is not only the poor who are the living icons of Christ. God created all human beings in His own image. We get the chance to venerate these living, breathing icons every day—in our homes, at work or school, as well as at church. We just have to get in the habit of seeing them.
If we were to treat the living icons around us the way we treat the painted icons in our churches, what would that look like?
Of course we are not going to make prostrations every time we come into the presence of another human being, or bring them a candle or deck them out with flowers. But we can show them the same things our liturgical actions towards icons show. We can begin by slowing down our habitual hurry to really look at them, to meet their eyes and listen to what we have to learn from them.
Of course we do not literally spit and trample upon our fellow beings the way the iconoclasts dishonoured the holy icons. But think about some of the things we do to each other that we would never do to the icons in our churches. For instance, would we scold an icon and frown at it? Would we whisper and grumble to others about how we do not like the clothing worn by the forms of the saints in the frescoes, or how we think Saint A does not deserve such a prominent place on the iconostas and Saint B would be better?
Of course it sounds silly when it is put this way.
To be fit company for the holy icons—which is to say, for the saints they depict—we need to strive to be better icons ourselves. Perhaps you have noticed that icons say very little…..
Icons do not use foul language. They do not gossip, bully or manipulate. They listen patiently to others and remain steadfast in prayer. Everyone, from the smallest child to the most exalted hierarch, can learn to be icons, if we choose when we look at our fellow humans to see icons.